The Wisdom of an Elder

By Tina Griego
Rocky Mountain News
Monday, December 24, 2007

Santa Claus dons a pair of sunglasses and a chief's headdress as he gives out gifts during the annual holiday dinner honoring American Indian elders.Santa Claus dons a pair of sunglasses and a chief's headdress as he gives out gifts during the annual holiday dinner honoring American Indian elders.

The elders bundle up in their coats and Christmas sweaters and baseball caps and head over to the church for the Christmas party. The younger fetch the older, unless the older are stubborn and refuse - cataracts be damned - to be ferried. Ida Bear, whom I haven't seen in a while, calls me up and says, you should come, and I say sure because it's a great tradition, this annual honoring of American Indian elders by their own. It speaks to values it wouldn't hurt any of us to practice.

The younger thank their elders for their guidance and inspiration. They bless them and feed them and then Santa Claus shows up, the only Santa in town, I guarantee, who bursts through the door wearing a chief's headdress and sunglasses and a suit that looks like a Pendleton blanket.

"I got stuck up North, coming through Rosebud," Santa says. "I forgot it was hunting season. Lost two reindeer."

Ida, who's Winnebago, is married to Logan, who's Ponca and who is forever ready with his own joke or two, though this evening finds him absorbed in a book about the war in Afghanistan, which he's more attuned to since his grandson is serving there.

"How many Navajos are here?" asks Rick Williams, the president of the American Indian College Fund, which helps put the evening together.

Lots of Navajos.

"How many Apache? One Apache. Kiowas? Oh, there's a Kiowa. Lakota, Dakota, Nakota?"

Wo-o-o, the Sioux cheer.

"Choctaws? Cherokees? Pawnees? Pueblo? Arapaho? Shoshone? Ojibwe? Mojave? Omaha? Winnebago? We got any Wannabes? How about Hasbeens?"

Someone at our table wants to know which tribe is the largest in the U.S.

   Logan looks up from his book. "Kansas City Chiefs," he says.

The party is held at the All Saints Catholic Church parish hall on South Federal Boulevard because Ida is a congregation member and because the Rev. James Purfield, an elder himself of cheery disposition, donates the hall.

The birthplace of the elder's annual Christmas dinner was the Denver Indian Center, where for several decades Margaret Red Shirt Tyon ran a group for the community's older members. Margaret and Ida moved the celebration to the parish hall in 2000, and every year it grows, though some familiar faces are gone. Some passed on. A few went back home. Life generally isn't any easier back on the reservation, but some ties never weaken, and, even here, in this busy city, home is as easy to summon as a Christmas memory.

"We used to get that hard ribbon candy from the church," Thelma Franks tells me, her face lighting. "Oh, I love that candy. Grandma put us in the sled and 'Away to the church we go!' "

Thelma is Cheyenne River Sioux, round- faced with a beautiful wide smile. I ask her how old she is and she gives me one of her grins. "You can say 80-plus. I'm an elder. I can't get out of it now."

I got to thinking on my way to the dinner that to be an elder is not merely a matter of time passing. It's not an appellation conferred along with Social Security. It's possible to be a senior citizen but not an elder in the same way it's possible to be an adult but not a grown-up. However, it's also possible that I am wrong.

I ask Rick and he says: "An elder carries the spirit of a people from one generation to the other."

Ask Della Badwound, Geri Reyna from Taos Pueblo tells me, and Della, Oglala Lakota, says: "To me, an elder is one who reaches an age of wisdom. Someone who knows the cultural values and brings them forward. A teacher." Then she sends me to Dr. Chuck Ross' table.

"Back home in Rosebud," he tells me, "they have a saying, 'We honor that with white tops. The eagles. The mountains. The elders.'

Across the table, his friend John Compton, also from Rosebud, adds: "But you have to earn that respect. A lot of people will give you the benefit of the doubt, but you have to earn it. It's a journey from wise ass to wise man."

Every year, Rick Williams asks Margaret and Ida and others what should be on the menu, and every year, they say: Buffalo, but don't forget the fried chicken.

And so the Intertribal Bison Cooperative in South Dakota donated 150 pounds of meat, and it was divvied up among American Indian College Fund employees and volunteers, who took it home to roast, the end result of which was almost 200 very happy elders.

Before the meal, Sonny White, Lakota and Cheyenne and pastor of Christ the Answer church, gave a blessing and Charles Bearrobe sang a Lakota honor song, a prayer of humility and gratitude.

     It's a happy night. People hug and laugh and catch up on all the news. Thanks to sponsors' generosity, the Santa chief gives every elder a bag with a ham and other goodies.

Ida pulls me aside. You should ask Vera Mitchell about elders. Vera, Mescalero and Lakota, says she doesn't have much to say. Oh, come on, Ida says.

Vera answers with some advice. "It's what you see along the way that makes you an elder. You can live a long time and not see anything, not be any wiser. Pay attention to what you see along the way."

Ida nods, satisfied. "That's a good answer," she says.

   It's a good night.

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