The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian: Revered and respected elder, or dusty old codger?

December 02, 2009

The Part-Time Blog of a Full-Time Indian: Revered and respected elder, or dusty old codger?
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.

I feel very fortunate to be a 30-something who still has a living grandparent; very lucky.

Since my father passed at a pretty young age, I tend to think of "aging" and "mortality" a bit more than the average bear. For example, I look at my 87-year-old grandmother and wonder, "When, exactly, did she become an old lady?"

Of course I've always thought of my grandma as "old" - even when she was in her 50s and 60s. She is my grandma, after all and all grandmas are "old," right? Plus, for Skins 50s and 60s is "old!" For Skins who are members of larger/poorer tribes, 50s and 60s are ancient.

'Bro, I just missed my mid-life crisis!'

A sad/real/funny story: One of my good friends - from Pine Ridge, where the life expectancy of a Lakota man is 48 years - called me up a few days after his 25th birthday and told me, "Bro, I just missed my mid-life crisis!"

Me: "Sucks for you!! Guess I won't be sending you a Corvette and gift certificate for the, er, massage parlor!"

Sixty years old, however, is really not that old to the rest of world. Perhaps we Skins have a slightly skewed perception of age and health?

Anyway, that's not the point ("I digress"). See, I always thought of my grandmother as "old" even though she never really acted "old." Sure, she was a scary driver and ate dinner at two in the afternoon, but she rarely complained about arthritis, wore dentures or took Metamucil.

Nope, she was vital and strong! In fact, up until I was 13 years old, she could beat me in a footrace - honestly. Granted, I was a chubby, pigeon-toed 13-year-old whose idea of exercise was playing lawn darts and Tecmo Bowl, but still, you would have thought that I was faster than an almost 70-year-old!

An embarrassing, but true fact.

When do I officially become an old man?

Now, when I think of my grandmother's transformation to old lady-hood I also start to wonder when I will begin that transformation. When do I officially become an old man? When do my good friends - whose current priorities are women, fantasy sports and South Park - technically become "old?"

Further, when that magical day happens when all of us become "old," is there a miracle pill that we newly old folks take (no, not that pill! Dirty birds!) that will make us all wiser?? I mean, my friends and I will HAVE to be wise when we get old - we're gonna be "elders," right?


To tell you the truth, I am literally terrified of the day when my friends and I become the wise and sage "elders." Unless there really IS a miracle "wisdom" pill, most of us just aren't ready! I mean, I'm sure some of my friends will suffice as "elders". � but the rest of us will just be "old."

We'll be ancient and wrinkly little kids with very little wisdom - geriatric juveniles! My friends and I simply are not planning/training/preparing for the day when we are called upon to be elders in our communities. In fact, we've spent a good portion of our lives pretending that we will never get old.

Which makes me wonder if this current generation of elders - the elders that we admire, respect, and revere now - were goofballs like my friends and I? And if so, how did they become "elders?" Did they prepare or train to be elders? Or did they merely get older and confuse being "elderly" with being an "elder?"

Or maybe this whole elder thing is - in large part - a ruse. Can it really be that mere chronological age does not equate to wisdom, intelligence or good judgment? I mean, obviously there are some very wise and thoughtful elders - just like there are some wise and thoughtful younger folks.

But for the most part, it seems like one could argue that most of us just get older without ever getting wiser. And now, it's crazy because many tribes have gotten into the business of "officially" determining when someone is an "elder." And you have to wonder: Is "wisdom" or "knowledge" really something you can legislate?

Let's examine.

My sister reeks of authority

My family has always had certain men and women who have a certain amount of pull in the family. The thing is, it's not always the oldest or an elder who has the most pull in my family. To wit, my beautiful oldest sister has always been a boss in my family. She simply reeks of authority, and my siblings and I - even my mom and my aunties and uncles - kinda just do what she says.

The interesting part is that she's been in that "matriarch" position since she was in her 20s. In fact, even before she was in her 20s - since her teens probably - my aunties and uncles gave her the nickname "Old Folks." It wasn't just because she drove slowly either; it was more because she always had a more serious and thoughtful demeanor to her.

In fact, I've seen her go to a casino to eat - lots of excitement, lights and glamour around her - and she sinks her nose into a book and isn't at all impressed by the shiny things.

She's an old soul, despite her young age. She has a presence that seems like she's seen everything before, and will generally not be overwhelmed by any situation. She has been trained to have this sort of authority and wisdom from a very early age.

Is 'old' synonymous with 'elder?'

On the other hand, there are people like me. I follow a long line of folks in my family who have the erratic decision making of a teenager. My aunties and uncles knew better than to let their kids hang out with me - there was a strong possibility that we would all return in a police car.

They also probably wouldn't want me to go grocery shopping for them; I'm very likely to buy hot dogs, white bread, cheese and Shasta. Not that hot dogs, white bread, cheese and Shasta are "bad" things, mind you. I love the stuff; especially the strawberry Shasta. But God knows my family has too many problems with diabetes and high blood pressure - they don't need to add me to the roster.

But the point - I am a 30-plus-year-old man with the decision-making of Zack Morris. As the baby of the family for many years, it is safe to say that I never received any training on how to be an elder and/or make elders' decisions.

Which raises the question: Should there be a formal educational process to teach tribal members the attributes and characteristics that will ultimately be expected of a tribal elder? That is, put a mentorship program in place - like any other vocation - that requires aging Skins to learn how to be an elder instead of rewarding and recognizing Skins for merely growing old.


Is "old" synonymous with "elder?" Or is an elder something more than merely an old person - maybe someone that the local people can rely on to give wisdom in tough situations? Should "elder" be a title that one has to achieve through hard work and diligence instead of one an older person is simply handed?

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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