Elders & Supports

Elders and Traditional Knowledge Keepers have always been part of the support systems in our communities. They still are. They just need to be asked.

Every Indigenous language describes the role of an old person recognized as having been earned, and some of these “old ones” are sought after for their wisdom, philosophy on life, cultural knowledge, ceremonies, and gifts that have been nurtured over time. There are many roles our “old ones” play: most have specialties, and some are generalists. There is an understanding in Indigenous communities that one needs to be a certain age in order to be identified as an Elder, and usually that person will have lived long enough to acquire knowledge from the “old ones” and gain life experiences.

An Elder is any person recognized by a community as having knowledge and understanding of the traditional culture of the community, including the physical manifestation of the culture of the people, and their spiritual and social traditions. Knowledge and wisdom, coupled with the recognition and respect of the people of the community, are the essential defining characteristics of an Elder. Some Elders have additional attributes, such as those of traditional healer.


Extending the Invitation

Most Elders accept tobacco when you ask them to share their knowledge—however, this is not true for everyone. Elders have diverse teachings, so please ask first! Please also note that it is very important to be specific in making your request. If the Elder accepts the tobacco, s/he is accepting the request and will do her/his best to help you. If they cannot do what you are asking, they will say so and not accept the tobacco.

Gift of appreciation

If the Elder agrees to become involved and accepts the tobacco, it is customary to provide a gift of appreciation afterwards to show your thanks. This gift can be monetary and can also be known as a honorarium. . The reciprocity principle—Aboriginal people taking care of each other—is what is important here. Historically, Elders were given food, clothing and other necessities in exchange for their help, and therefore monetary gifts are now acceptable. Although it is a traditional practice amongst our

people to compensate the “old one” for his or her services, the one making the request is the one who determines the monetary value and the gifts presented. The amount given and the kinds of gifts given are indicators of how much value or gratitude is felt by the person making the request for help received, but a person who is not able to give an offering is not judged or thought of any less

Why is tobacco important to First Nations people?

Tobacco is one of the sacred gifts the Creator gave to the Indigenous people of this Land. Tobacco has been used traditionally in ceremonies, rituals and prayer for thousands of years for its powerful spiritual meaning. Tobacco has a variety of medicinal purposes. Tobacco establishes a direct communication link between a person and the spiritual world. The most powerful way of communicating with the spirits is to smoke tobacco in a Sacred Pipe. Even before the tobacco is put into the pipe the prayers have already begun. When used in a Sacred Pipe ceremony, the smoke from the tobacco carries the prayers to the Creator and it is offered to the Creator and the four directions. This creates an avenue of dialogue between the human world and the spirit world. In contemporary times, tobacco abuse is common amongst all people, this includes snuff that is ingested. Prior to the European tobacco distribution, First Nations people had their own tobacco that was used in ceremony. This tobacco was a mixture of Red Willow Bark and other plants that are referred to as Kinnikinnick. Tobacco is also an important part of medicine bundles that are used for protection, in keeping one safe.

What is a tobacco offering?

A tobacco offering is a universal protocol among First Nations people. Other gifts may accompany the tobacco including blankets, cloth (print), guns or horses. Many knowledge keepers or Elders teach that the gifts given are at the discretion of the person. The more contemporary gift is monetary, especially for meetings or other such events when prayer is needed from Elders. Most First Nations Elders will accept tobacco signifying their willingness to offer assistance. Tobacco offerings are given when we gather medicines, roots and berries, when we take anything from Mother Earth including the animals, it is used in hunting practices as well. Always put tobacco down first. Elders today wait patiently for young people to offer tobacco so that they may share stories and knowledge.

What is the proper etiquette for Sweat Lodge ceremonies? 

First Nations Elders recommend that each person enters the Sweat Lodge with appropriateness, kindness, and with prayers. Participants have their own reasons for participating in a Sweat Lodge ceremony and participants should undertake the Sweat Lodge ceremony with postiive energies, feelings and emotions. First Nations Elders are role models that exemplify this behaviour and mindset. As in any ceremony, appropriate dress and attire is needed. It is suggested that women wear a long dress, covering the upper body and the lower body and carry a towel to cover one's self. It is suggested that men wear shorts with a towel wrapped around their waist. Most Elders suggest that women sit to one side (usually the left of the lodge and up to the middle) and the men sit to the other side. During their menstrual cycle, women do not participate in Sweat Lodges. Speaking is not recommended unless the participant has a reason such as asking for prayers, healing or other such matters. It is suggested that those seeking prayers or healing bring tobacco and cloth (print) to the Sweat Lodge. Whatever else the person brings as a gift is up to the individual. It is widely considered inappropriate to walk between the Sweat Lodge and the fire used to heat the stones. Glasses, jewelry, earrings and cellphones should be removed. There will be berries, fish or other food offered during or after the Sweat Lodge. A participant should not refuse the food offered unless there are health reasons such as allergies. Sweat Lodge protocols and methodologies vary among First Nations. In the past, among the Nehiyaw and Nahkawe, men and women normally had separate Sweat Lodges. Among First Nations today, it is more common for men and women to share Sweat Lodges. The individual leading the Sweat Lodge will give guidance on this matter, including for transgender individuals and Two Spirit. The First Nations Elder or Knowledge Keeper conducting a Sweat Lodge will bear in mind the health and well-being of the participants. All First Nations Sweat Lodge ceremonies are intended for prayer and healing. Participating in a Sweat Lodge ceremony can be difficult. In general, each person may leave the Sweat Lodge if they are feeling unwell of feel that they are not able to finish.

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