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Tribal colleges employ elders to impart a higher level of learning that cannot be found in traditional classrooms and textbooks.

Sustaining and strengthening tribal cultures, languages and traditions is at the core of every tribal college’s mission statement. To help attain these goals, many colleges use one of Indian Country’s greatest assets – its elders.

Traditionally, elders hold a place of honor in American Indian society. In describing the American Indian College Fund’s “Honoring our Elders” feast, President Richard Williams (Oglala Lakota) says, “Our elders teach us who our ancestors were. Our elders are our connection to everything in our past. It is with their knowledge that we understand how we fit into the world.”

Without cultural input from elders, particularly with spoken languages, tribal colleges would just be another option in the list of academic choices for American Indians, says Carrie Billy, executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and a member of the Navajo tribe.

“Although we may have tape recordings of indigenous languages, we need elders to interpret the meaning of the songs and stories,” she says.

Elders must pass along the true meaning of culture, tradition and language in real time. “Without our elders, the languages alone lose their meanings,” Billy says.

Giving Life to Language

Commonly, tribal colleges employ elders who are native speakers of indigenous languages to help with language instruction. In the trend to revitalize these languages, native speakers hold an obvious value.

The experience of learning the language with the assistance of an elder, however, offers a deeper, less obvious benefit, according to Dr. Diana Morris, dean of instruction at the College of the Menominee Nation, located in Keshena, Wis., on the Menominee Reservation. “Elders imbue the language with life,” she says.

She recalls her experience with learning the Menominee language from an elder. “I learned so much more than grammar. I gained an understanding of the Indian experience in the world and an understanding of Menominee culture.”

When there is no equivalent direct translation of words, elders often explain words and concepts through the use of stories, Morris says. There is no way this kind of enriched experience can be delivered by anyone other than an elder, she says.

Elders also help provide students with a reconnection to their culture, Morris adds.

Wind River Tribal College President Marlin Spoonhunter agrees, saying, “Our elders bring Hinono’ai-hiine-etiit, the Arapaho way of life to the college.”

Wind River College, located in Ethete, Wyo., on the Wind River Reservation, has two elders on its full-time staff, including Zona Moss, 67, who serves as the college’s archivist and resource person for its language teacher. Moss (N. Arapaho) is also a ceremonial person who helps with important issues of tribal protocol, says Spoonhunter.

“This experience also helps students’ development, self-respect and respect for others,” Spoonhunter says.

Family, love and respect are the central virtues of Hinono’aihiine-etiit, says Spoonhunter, who notes that the knowledge and wisdom of the Arapaho way of life provide lifelong resources for students.

Advice given in English is too long and convoluted, Moss says. “A few words of Arapaho, not harsh words, but just simple words told in an appropriate manner, carry a strong message for our young people.”

Looking back, Moss might not have predicted that her knowledge of language and culture would be as highly valued as they are today. As a first-grader, she recalls her White teacher hitting her with a ruler when she spoke the Arapaho language.

“We spoke only Arapaho at home and I just accidently let it slip out while at the reservation mission school,” she says.

Returning home, she asked her mother why the teacher had struck her. “My mother told me that our language is sacred, a gift from the creator. Those White teachers think they are going to beat it out of us but they will never be successful as long as we believe.”

Determined to keep her language and culture alive, Moss held onto the Arapaho ways. “I guess I was a little bit defiant in my attitude,” she says with a laugh.

Moss is convinced elders are important assets to tribal colleges. In teaching the language, elders can help young people know Hinono’ai-hiine-etiit. This will help them know where they are going in their lives, says Moss.

“Our language is our way of life. We knew it would be here forever. Now it is all coming back.”

Put to Good Use

Tribal colleges make use of elders in varied ways. Some colleges employ a structured approach with elders in residence programs or use them as resources for curriculum development or as board members. Other colleges have more casual approaches, inviting elders into classrooms and inclusion in activities on a case-by-case basis.

Lac Courte Oreilles Community College on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Wisconsin found an unexpected positive collegewide outcome by including elders in its Webs of Learning project. Funded through a National Science Foundation Tribal Colleges and Universities Program grant, Webs of Learning included an elder in residence component. Originally intended as a teacher resource for integrating OWOK (Ojibwe Ways of Knowing) into all curriculums, the elders in residence quickly became popular with students and teachers alike.

According to Jason Sanders of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe and an NSF project manager, the presence of elders helped give non- Indian faculty a better understanding of the Ojibwe culture. Many instructors at the college are non-Indian.

“Having elders give them cultural information gives them more confidence in teaching Ojibwe students,” he says.

The program is so popular that teachers often come in on their days off to speak with the elders, says Dr. Laura Urban, the academic dean at LCO College.
The participation of elders helps the college serve its mission to achieve a modern curriculum while maintaining relevance to the students’ cultural identity, says Urban.

Students have taken to the elders, says Sanders. They regularly book individual time with the elders, seeking personal counseling as well as advice about culture and academics.

Personal Context

At the College of the Menominee Nation, elders sit on curriculum committees and provide their perspective about topics such as history and science, Morris says.

In addition to learning about the treaty history of the Menominee Nation from a Western perspective, students also hear from elders about laws and treaties from a personal, cultural perspective.

“Students can read the treaties between the tribe and the U.S. government, but hearing an elder speak about this issue in the context of personal experience really drives the lesson home,” says Morris.

The benefits of elders in the classrooms are far-reaching, according to Morris and others at tribal colleges. Non-Indian students attending tribal colleges gain knowledge from tribal elders that they might not have expected.

The issue of accreditation for elders for purposes of grants and college credits for students going on to mainstream institutions can be a challenge, according to leaders in the tribal college movement.

The Menominee tribe has a language and culture commission that provides credentials for those who teach Menominee language and culture. The college has used this process to establish an agreement with the University of Wisconsin to accept student credits in the Menominee language in fulfillment of the university’s foreign-language requirement.

AIHEC is working on creating a framework to help tribal colleges accredit and assess elders so more cultural programming will be eligible for funding from U.S. agencies, though Billy wonders why tribal colleges have to continue to justify the worth of elders’ contributions.

“Tribal communities should be allowed to determine who is eligible to teach their languages and cultures,” she says.

In summing up why elders play such an integral role in education at tribal colleges, Morris says Indian people have never lost the crucial understanding that making it through life requires wisdom. Wisdom is only achieved through time and experience and the contemplation of that experience. She says that is the core cultural difference between tribal and mainstream colleges.

“Tribal colleges don’t forgo that last step in educating people. The goal of a truly educated person is to attain a higher level of wisdom,” Morris says. “Elders help us attain that goal.”

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