A new generation of Indigenous elders is taking on the responsibility of learning traditions and ceremony and taking leadership roles in their communities as elders pass away. They’re also bringing their own take on what it means to be an elder.
CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba and CBC North embarked on a months-long project to speak with elders, elders-in-training and youth from across their vast territories to learn how these knowledge keepers view their role today — and why they’re more critical than ever before.
Andre Bear remembers sitting by his father’s bedside as the old man lay dying, telling his son about a dream he’d had involving the Sun Dance.
“He told me that things are changing and that our ceremonies are going to change,” said Bear.
“What our elders often say is that it’s easier to live a life of drugs and alcohol, and to live on the street, than it is to live. To walk on the red road and to live a spiritual way of life — they say that’s harder.”
Bear has chosen the more difficult road, although that path only became clear in the 24-year-old’s adulthood.
At 18, Bear had been kicked out of what seemed like every high school in Saskatoon. Then he decided to go to Oskayak High School and joined the Circle of Voices program at the Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre. That’s where he met his late adopted father, John Sugar.
Until then, Bear had been disconnected from his culture. The Nehiyaw (Cree) man from both the Little Pine First Nation and the Canoe Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan was homeless and didn’t have opportunities to learn ceremony.
“I grew up in the city, and whenever I was on the reserve, I didn’t have grandparents to teach me those things,” said Bear. “I felt embarrassed to be around on powwows because I felt so like an outcast. I felt like I just didn’t belong.”
No matter how many mistakes I make, I still feel like I’m obligated to learn, because if I don’t, I feel like nobody else will.– Andre Bear
He credits Sugar, a medicine man, with teaching him “everything he knew” before he died in 2017.
Bear went on to law school at the University of Saskatchewan. He holds an education degree from the same school. He has sat on national and provincial youth panels, has travelled to New York City for Indigenous-led events at the United Nations, and been a youth representative for the Assembly of First Nations and the Federation of Sovereign Nations.
On top of that, Bear dedicated four years of his life to the Sun Dance, an important ceremony that Cree people practise during the summertime.
“I’m thinking: When I’m old, I don’t know very many people who are going to hold Sun Dance. Who’s [going] to do these things like that?
“That part scares me. So no matter how many mistakes I make, I still feel like I’m obligated to learn, because if I don’t, I feel like nobody else will.”
Now, he’s one of several people — very young people — who are considered the next generation of elders. They are taking on the responsibility of learning traditions and ceremony, and taking on leadership roles in their communities as elders pass away or the older generation finds itself overloaded. They also want to bring their own take on what it means to be an elder.
“There’s a way of learning about ceremonies and traditional teachings and oral history in your language and there’s something else, where you’re actually learning medicine, you’re learning spirituality,” said Bear.
“There’s very, very few young people that are on that spiritual road.”
That said, Bear thinks he’s at the point now where he needs needs to take a step back from ceremony and “not become a fanatic.
“When I’m older, I’m told when I grow white hair, is when I’ll continue my … spiritual kind of journey, because I’m too young.
“In the future like I’ll have to pick up where I left off — when I’m older and have life experience.”
‘You will be an ancestor’
Bear isn’t alone in Saskatchewan. Tala Tootoosis is also joining the next generation of elders.
And like Bear, her path to this role wasn’t always clear. Tootoosis was once addicted to crystal meth, living on the streets, and never thought she would have a stable home for her children. Then she was told by an elder that even though she was “making mistakes,” she was still making an impact on the world.
“What I got told from an elder was, ‘But you are an elder-in-training. One day you will be an ancestor,'” Tootoosis said.
The 36-year-old mother of three from Sturgeon Lake First Nation and raised on the Mokawk Nation at Akwesasne refers to herself on social media as a “kokum-in-training.” (Kokum is the Cree word for grandmother.)
Today, Tootoosis spends her time between Saskatoon and Montana. She is a speaker on sexual assault, rape culture, and an expert on ribbon skirt making, among other topics. She holds a degree in Indigenous social work and practises her culture through ceremony and dance when she can. She also wrote a book titled The Awakening of a Kokum Spirit in a Young Woman.
Tootoosis said that people her age said they were not encouraged enough to pick up the role of carrying themselves as future elders.
That’s something we have to remember … our trauma is a part of us and that it’s OK.– Tala Tootoosis
“I’ve been talking to elders, and what I’ve been told is that I am part of the generation of elders who were learning to speak up for themselves, who will tell their stories, who will break that residential school hush-hush code where we don’t talk about our stories.”
She said that because certain elders have not healed from their trauma, it trickles down through the families.
“New generation elders, up-and-coming elders, we have to really think about that, because it’s affected us. Our elders — what they haven’t done, what they haven’t dealt with — has affected us.”
Tootoosis said elders need to heal their inner traumas so that cycles of abuse or lateral violence can be broken. To do this, she said, elders need to be open to having tough conversations.
Tootoosis said she brings a new perspective on what an elder looks like. She said that she will be a safe haven for young people when they feel like they have no one else to speak to.
“A lot of us are actually coming out of the dream of colonization, and that’s a whole different kind of elder, not the ones that they wanted us to be — the quiet ones, the ones who don’t talk about our successes, the ones who are scared and who are nervous.
“I think that’s something we have to remember and always to be proud of, is our trauma is a part of us and that it’s OK.”
Both Tootoosis and Bear experience a sense of loneliness at times, in that not a lot of young people are seeking to become elders or understand that path.
“I had to give up a lot of things. I had to sacrifice a lot of things in my life, and anything that I thought was going to be my life was thrown out the window, and you pretty much have to live for the Creator,” said Bear.
“It’s not something you can just do on the side. I had to commit my life, for the rest of my life, to the Creator.”
He still goes to ceremony and said that each time he goes, he brings someone new.
Bear rejects the notion that since he was raised — at least in his late teens — by a medicine man, that he somehow had privileged access to ceremony.
“I tell them, ‘No, I earned my right in ceremony.’ That’s not handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work just as hard to learn ceremonies as much as you do to learn in school, and fight to stay and to get into post-secondary.”
He said that because he did not come from a background of ceremony, he believes that other youth can follow their own paths back to their culture, whether that means becoming an oskapios (the Cree word for “elder’s helper”) or other means. However, Bear said you must earn the title of being both an oskapios and an elder.
“Oskapios is actually something that needs to be earned. It can’t be just a [word] you throw around…. You’re a helper right up until you run your own lodges,” Bear said.
“For me, an authentic elder … wouldn’t be solely being old and having lots of life experience, but they would actually be gifted and having different gifts and connections with the spirit world and being able to guide young people and children to living a traditional life.”