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Elders Voices
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Painted drumThe contributions of Elders have been vital to the survival of Aboriginal Peoples in Alberta and nationwide. Over the years, Elders have offered their guidance to those who asked it of them. They have contributed on a national scale in a number of areas, including politics, science, education, and health.

The most important work done by Elders, however, goes largely unnoticed by the public. It occurs constantly in tiny Aboriginal communities across the province. It occurs with every beat of a sacred drum, with a small prayer sent upwards to the Creator, or with a sentence spoken in a traditional tongue. When wrinkled hands weave sweetgrass into a thick braid for burning, or when wise and gentle words of healing are spoken to a wounded young soul, it is present. It is the passing down of traditional Aboriginal culture to the younger generations.

The work of Elders is crucial to the preservation and continuation of Aboriginal traditional culture. It is because of Elders that the traditions practiced by Aboriginal Peoples today continue to take place. Elders learned these rituals from their grandparents and parents, and kept them locked in their memories and hearts even during times of trial, when their culture was threatened under the policy of assimilation. In the late 1970s, the teachings of the Elders were rediscovered and there was a return of many Aboriginal Peoples to the traditions of their past. In return, the Elders recognized the importance of passing down the sacred rituals and beliefs that they had held in their hearts for so long. This healing movement continues today, especially in the passing down of spiritual rituals and beliefs.

Tipi campElders’ involvement in spiritual rituals and ceremonies takes place on many levels, and their roles vary depending on the occasion. In ceremonies such as the Sweat Lodge, the Powwow, or the Sun Dance, Elders play central roles. As ceremonial leaders, they conduct the celebrations to ensure that the authenticity and integrity of the spiritual practices is observed. In the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, for example, an Elder will lead the prayers and receive guidance from the Spirits, which may then be translated for the others. Elders lead sacred drumming and singing, and light the sacred pipe.

Elders also take part in traditional recreational activities or in arts and crafts, sharing their knowledge in these areas with their communities. They lead workshops and give talks on Aboriginal culture in the hopes of making the spiritual and cultural traditions of their ancestors more accessible to more people. Elders do all these things because they hold deep reverence for the sacred customs passed on to them by their Elders, and recognize the importance of sharing with the younger generations in the same way.

Elders also contribute on a more public level by working with governments and institutions such as museums or universities. They offer traditional insight on a number of pressing issues, and have been instrumental to the development of new programs that aid other Aboriginal Peoples. Recently, the federal government instituted a number of programs, including the Spiritual Services for Federal Inmates program, Native Liason Services, and Aboriginal Addictions Treatment program, in which Aboriginal prison inmates undergo rehabilitation with the help of Elders. The Elders offer guidance to the inmates, helping them heal by showing a patience and understanding that many of the inmates have never experienced. They serve as a living link to the customs and beliefs of their ancestors, who lived at peace with the land and with each other. At the same time, they offer cross-cultural education to prison administrators and guards to aid in the rehabilitation process. They help instil hope in the inmates, many of whom have felt only pain and negativity in life.

The contributions of Elders span across many disciplines, and their knowledge and insights can be instrumental to the well-being of others. Some Elders devote their time to children, visiting schools and burning sweetgrass, or sharing traditional stories with curious Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children alike. Others are present at official celebrations to offer traditional blessings or opening prayers. Some of the most important contributions take place at archaeological digs, where Elders help in the identification of traditional Aboriginal sites, artifacts and remains. They have also helped anthropologists develop ethical guidelines for collecting, displaying, and interpreting them in a respectful way. In this way, they help us learn about the First Peoples while ensuring that the honour of the sacred artifacts is observed.

At the University of Saskatchewan, Elders and healers are helping in the medical field by sharing their immense knowledge of traditional healing techniques with researchers who are studying the ability of herbs and plants to aid in cardiovascular health. The knowledge of how to use materials from nature to treat different ailments has been part of the Elders’ world for many generations. This talent is one that takes many years of practice and that requires an incredibly rich and precise knowledge of the land to master. Their involvement in modern research will ensure that their traditions are properly recorded and preserved while strengthening community health care at the same time.1

What scale does one use to measure the contributions of Aboriginal Elders? Just a small look into one of Alberta’s many Aboriginal communities is enough to show that the contributions of Elders go beyond what can be tangibly measured. Their work is dedicated and ongoing. They have guided their communities through times of joy and celebration, and during times of distress, when healing was needed. As the Elders of today pass on, they leave with their children the sacred traditions and beliefs that will carry Aboriginal communities into the future and create the next generation of Elders.



Canada. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa, The Commission, 1996.


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