The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian: Privileges for elders a form of glorified banishment?

January 06, 2010

The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian: Privileges for elders a form of glorified banishment?
Gyasi logoPublished widely in Native American newspapers and websites, Gyasi Ross has kindly volunteered to share his blogs here on Look for his writings, The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian, the first Wednesday of every month.


She was born 65 years ago today, in a cold, long winter in the year 1928. She didn't feel "old," yet she was now considered by everyone around to be an "elder." She was expected to be wise and sage now - a resource, and even someone to be revered.

Her people gave her special status - a cool jacket that said "elder," a parking space and special seating at the bingo hall. She even gets special accommodation, away from the rest of her people, in elder's housing. She gets all of this because she saw, in first person, some of the "old days" and the "old ways." Her dad taught her many of the old ways, as did her auntie, who she went to live with when her dad died.

And today was her birthday. Aug. 16, 1993.

Her dad died when she was 10 years old as a much respected old man. He was a stalwart in the community and survived the Marias Massacre when he was 3 years old. He was living history. On that fateful morning of the massacre in the winter of 1870, her dad - small and naked - ran through the pile of dead women and children and dove into the icy waters of the Marias River, dodging bullets from the U.S. Calvary. Her dad stayed in the river for several hours until the winter's early nightfall and somehow crawled back to the camp purple-colored and hungry, with frostbitten feet. When the men of the camp came back from hunting, they saw this little boy freezing to death amidst the many frozen stiff women and children and - in their mourning - were thankful that this little boy survived. They had to rescue him - he was a gift.

A symbol of life and hope

Wilma's dad was a sign of hope to those heartbroken men. He symbolized "life" in the midst of senseless death.

Wilma is the daughter of that strong man. Her father outlived Wilma's mother and her two younger brothers. They passed from a variety of maladies - his mom and a child brother from tuberculosis, and the other brother from cirrhosis. She remembers watching her dad later on as an old man, and the way people responded to him when he waved at them with his walking stick. He would limp into the mercantile store, his foot never quite-recovered from frostbite (he lost two toes on his right foot), flashing his toothless grin. He greeted everybody, not just those who greeted him first.

He was still the sign of hope to a lot of people - but now, he also represented elderly wisdom and strength.

Wilma's dad had a way of getting involved in everyone's life; he never waited for an invitation. One time, three years before he died in 1935, there was a group of teenage boys in the mercantile story looking hungrily at bins of candy. It was summertime, and the boys had just returned from a year away at school, their last haircuts of the year still very new. The white storekeeper looked at the four boys suspiciously, but kept dusting off the soda fountain. Wilma's father paid for a handful of licorice for Wilma (and kept one for himself to gum on), and limped out the door.

He stopped outside the store and stood there in the hot June sun, waving to one of the few automobiles that rumbled down the street in front of the mercantile store.

Those four teenagers came outside laughing and grinning - they brushed briskly by Wilma and her dad who stood on the side of the road. The boys made their way to the corner of the building, anxious to do something mischievous. When the boys got to the corner, they leaned against the store's outside wall and Wilma and her dad could see them dividing the candy, laughing and saying, "that stupid white storeowner will never learn!"

Wilma's dad grabbed Wilma by the hand firmly and limped over toward the little boys. He got to the corner and spoke eloquent-yet-broken English in his loudest voice, "You smarty kids are gonna listen!" He pointed his walking stick in the area of the biggest kid's nose, "You are going to return that candy to that white man right now! He may be plum stupid, and look rank, but no one deserves to be stoled from!" The old, fragile man leaned toward the other kids - strong teenagers who could have easily torn him into pieces - and they looked back absolutely terrified, eyes open wide.

They were shocked he was willing to put his life on the line to say what needed to be said.

And the boys did exactly what Wilma's dad told them to. When they came back outside from returning the candy, Wilma's dad rewarded the boys with some of the licorice he bought for Wilma. The boys loved him for it. Those boys were "somebody else's problem" - her dad didn't make them steal. Her dad didn't raise them to think that stealing from others was OK. Somebody else did that -- the correction should have been given by the boys' parents. But it wasn't, so her dad got involved.

Wilma then thinks about how her dad must have been terrified by those "iron horses" - cars - the first time he saw one. She thinks about how startled he must have been when he started seeing these young boys and girls come back from being gone all year with short hair and speaking English. Yet, he knew his role. He was supposed to be that voice of wisdom, that connection to those stronger people who made due with very little.

Now Wilma thinks about herself

She thinks about how, at 65 years old, she has very little contact with this community. She never talks with kids. In fact, she only speaks to other elders. Like her dad, she doesn't recognize the vehicles. She doesn't recognize the music the kids listen to in their cars - it sounds like people barking. She doesn't recognize the way they dress - why are their clothes so big? Don't they have someone to dress them?

She sees many things she doesn't like, but sees even more things she doesn't understand. She sees her grandchildren wasting away on drugs they call "meth." She goes to the store and sees young kids drop beer cans outside on the curb. She hears too much cussing. She thinks the kids are inconsiderate, rude and obnoxious.

Still, unlike her dad, she does not take the time to get involved in these kids' affairs. She complains about the kids to the other elders at the bingo hall. But she would not think about ever getting into the faces of the kids who drop those beer cans; they are "somebody else's problem." She didn't make them rude or inconsiderate. Yet, she knows that if her dad was around, he surely would correct these kids - be their instructor. He would get involved in their lives. He would not wait for an invitation.


Wilma is evaluating her role as an elder within her community and wants input. Is her role to give instruction to the younger people and to allow those younger than her to learn from her successes and struggles? If so, does she have an obligation to actively get involved in the lives of the younger people?

Or is her job to enjoy her golden years in peace - enjoy the "tribal elders" jacket, separate housing, parking space and special seating at bingo?

Finally, she wonders if her tribe helped to create the separation between younger skins and elders. She wonders if making the elders separate from everybody else in the community - different accommodations for everything, from parking spaces to separate elders' housing - is a form of glorified banishment?

What is the proper role of an elder?

What do you Skins think?

Gyasi "Fancy Skin" Ross is a member of the Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet Nation) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. His Pikuni (Blackfoot) name is "Oonikoomsika." He is co-founder of Native Speaks LLC, a progressive company owned by young Native professionals which provides consultation and instruction for professionals and companies. Gyasi is currently booking dates for his newest presentation, "Mother Lovers: Poetic (and Musical) Justice." E-mail him at

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