Indigenous Elder Definition

December 07, 2019

Elder in regalia
Photo: Shutterstock

In this article, we provide the definition of Indigenous Elder and answer some specific questions people ask us in our Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples® training. Questions such as: what makes someone an Elder, is being an Elder age-specific, how should you address Indigenous Elders and more.

What makes an Elder?

The big challenge in answering this question is that not all communities are the same and it really depends on the culture or community to define what makes an Elder.
One common trait among Indigenous Elders is a deep spirituality that influences every aspect of their lives and teachings. They strive to show by example - by living their lives according to deeply ingrained principles, values and teachings.

Do you have to be a certain age to be an elder?

Being an Elder is not defined by age, but rather Elders are recognized because they have earned the respect of their community through wisdom, harmony and balance of their actions in their teachings. In First Nation Elder vs Senior, we take a closer look at the importance of effective communication.

Can both men and women be Elders?

Being an Elder is not gender-specific as in my own experience I know both male and female Elders. 

Is the role of an Elder the same everywhere you go across the country?

While the exact role of Elders may change from community to community, there are common principles that Elders try to instill in their community members such as respect for the natural world and that the earth is their mother. Indigenous Elders are deeply committed to sharing their knowledge, providing guidance, teaching others to respect the natural world, to learn to listen and feel the rhythms of the elements and seasons.

Has the role of Elders changed over time?

In some communities, when families move apart, Elders will travel to visit the family members in order to keep in touch and to prevent them from forgetting their connections. In some jurisdictions, Elders have a real presence in the schools. Some Elders have also formed organizations, with regular meetings and websites such as the BC Elders Gathering.

What are the duties of elders?

In my experience, the duties of an Elder today can include: conducting smudges, sweats, prayers, opening prayers, participating in protocol at meetings and events, counselling, sweetgrass ceremonies and negotiations to name but a few.

When an Elder is invited to conduct an opening prayer or smudge, what is the customary honorarium and how does one find that out?

Honorarium amounts vary but Elders do get compensated for travel and time. You have to determine which Nation’s traditional lands you are in, and then contact the office of that Nation and ask if they can suggest an Elder and the amount of the customary honorarium. Please read First Nation Elder Protocol for more complete information.

Are other gifts welcome or expected?

There are four sacred plants: tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. A gift of one of the four sacred plants is seen as recognition of the wisdom an Elder can share. In Inuit culture, tobacco is not used ceremonially. 

Indigenous relations tips:

  • Be prepared to adjust your volume of speech
  • Be cognizant of whether or not you speak rapidly. If you do, and your voice is low-pitched, Elders may not pick up on everything you are saying in your introduction and thank you speeches
  • Be wary of too much eye contact
  • Be wary of shaking hands as outlined in the article Handshakes and Indigenous Peoples
  • Be sure to address them as Elder Alice instead of Alice to show high respect. We cover the usage of first names in First Nation Elder Protocol
  • Be sure to ask for consent before photographing or video recording a ceremonial event. 

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Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., provides information on this blog for free as a resource for those seeking information about Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Readers looking for more detailed information, or who have questions, can sign up for our fee-for-service training. Also, ICT encourages everyone who reads this information to use their best judgment given their own circumstances, vulnerabilities, and needs, and to contact a consulting or legal professional if you have more specific questions. Join the conversation over on our Linkedin page.