Elders, they say, are holders of wisdom. What they generally mean by that is that the people we bestow that title on are recognized for the wealth of knowledge they hold about life, the world, and the spiritual life of our people. They are also role models and fit examples of lives lived according to principle. It confuses me a great deal when people grant themselves the title of elder. There’s a world of difference between being a senior and being an elder.
Wisdom isn’t necessarily gained just by the passing of years. I’ve met a lot of immature, rigid and unhealed people well over the fifty-five years I’ve been around. In our way of seeing things wisdom is gained from the experience of humility; the knowledge that what you know and what you don’t know are equal and being willing to continue to try to learn no matter the years you’ve accrued. Elders, those who understand and live by that credo are few and far between. Older people, on the other hand, are plenty.
There’s a terrific need for wisdom these days. With the world in the state of flux that it’s in and the planet in such turmoil, people everywhere ache and yearn for sage advice, a direction and rituals to make sense of the topsy-turvy nature of things. I was much the same way for a long time. But I’ve been fortunate to learn that genuine elders are way-finders and the wisdom they carry is meant to help guide us to a position of balance and harmony with ourselves and everything in Creation. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate that.
But I had the great good fortune of meeting a man named Jack Kakakaway when I was in my mid-30s. Jack was a Plains Ojibway from Manitoba, a veteran, a recovering alcoholic, a father, powwow dancer and traditional teacher. He was possessed of a marvelous rolling laugh, loved to hear a good story, tell a joke and played a great mandolin. He was quiet, solemn but open and engaging as well. He was an elder in the truest sense.
When I met him I was living in Calgary and had been on the ceremonial road for a few years. I knew something about Native spirituality, something about our traditions, and culture and I’d been around enough and had read enough to consider myself worldly about a lot of things. But Jack showed me how little I actually did know – and he did it gently and kindly.
Back then I believed that the things that mattered, the things that were important, needed elaborate and complicated answers. I’d grown used to reading huge tomes on philosophy, faith and the job of being fully human. When it came to native spirituality and the way we were directed to live our lives, I believed that there needed to be deep, philosophical content to the answers.
Well, Jack saw things differently. To him simple, unadorned answers were always the best and when he spoke of vital things he always made sure to use language and images that were easily digested and understood. He was a great teacher because of that. His ceremonies were always filled with good humor and gentle teaching and I never met anyone who went away from any of those gatherings without feeling uplifted and empowered.
What Jack liked more than anything was to go walking on the land. We’d drive out of Calgary into Kananaskis Country and we’d park wherever he felt like walking and head up into the foothills. We’d spend entire afternoons and evenings out there.
One time when I was feeling lost and out of sorts with my newspaper job and life in the city, Jack got out of the car without speaking and started walking. I fell in behind him and waited for the wise words to come. Instead, he kept silent and walked and walked. He’d pause now and then to put his hand on a rock, a tree, some moss or the water in a stream. He never said a word about my problems or the answers in all that time.
When we got back to the car he stood there with his hands raised to the sky and his head bowed, breathing deeply. When he opened them he looked at me and I remember how clear his eyes were and how they glimmered with kindness. He asked me very quietly – “Did you hear all that?” I thought about his question and realized that I did.
Wisdom doesn’t live in words. It lives in feeling. That’s what he taught me that day. What I needed to hear was within me all the time. I just needed to pay attention to it. Wisdom taught me that.