From Within Anishinaabeg Thought: What Is An Elder?

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

Note: This was submitted to a municipal court on the matter of environmental protection (see Friends of The Fraser Wetlands). As it was told to me, when reviewing the list of expert witnesses and the title of Elder was read, the Judge asked “What Is An Elder?”. I was asked to prepare a one page description answering this question for submission to the court.


From Within Anishinaabeg Thought: What Is An Elder? ( February 8, 2016)

Like all Nations, Indigenous Nations[1] have systems of organizing themselves socially, politically, and economically. The organization of, and changes occurring within, these spheres are grounded in Indigenous laws.[2] Indigenous laws are informed by an on-going exchange between relationship with the natural world and acknowledgement of spirit, where spirit is recognized as existing in all beings in the natural and supernatural world. Within a system of organization that is grounded in relationship with the natural world, infused with an acknowledgement of spirit, individuals within communities are recognized in a number of ways.

With reference to the Anishinaabeg Nation[3], there are various ways that individuals are recognized.[4] These ways of recognition occur vis-à-vis the particular Nation within the Anishinaabeg Nation a person belongs to (e.g. Mississsauga, Ojibway); the physical places a person belongs to within the geographical terrain that is home to Anishinaabeg (i.e. place of birth, place of living within the Great Lakes region); ododem (clan); Anishinaabe name; and, any particular gifts a person has, or skills or competencies they have developed throughout their life, that contribute to the furtherance of Anishinaabeg minobimaadizwin (good life). Ododemwiwin (the clan system), is a system of organizing the Anishinaabeg Nation in its entirety. A person’s ododem (clan) is a way of identifying personhood, responsibilities, and kinship ties and influences relationships between Anishinaabeg.[5] Anishinaabeg are also recognized for the particular spirit or reflection of the natural world that they represent.[6] This is signified through the names bestowed upon them by family or recognized and trusted Elders. The particular gifts, skills, or competencies one has is typically recognized according to life stages which is inextricably tied to the spiritual life-line, the carrying out of spiritual responsibilities related to those gifts, skills or competencies, and denoted through events at time of birth, ododem lineages, and name.[7] One recognized life stage, in English, is that of Elder.

In the Anishinaabe language, the word for Elder is Gichi Piitzijid (one Elder) or Gichi Piitzijig (more than one Elder).[8] Elders, relative to Indigenous Nations, are people who have amassed a body of knowledge and insights over their lives (i.e. expertise) where their knowledge and insights are rendered through the reflection upon, and disciplined practice of, a number of Anishinaabeg values and spiritual endeavours, yielding wisdom. While Gichi Piitzijig may be sought out for the general insights and wisdom they embody about life in both the physical and spiritual, they may also be sought out for knowledge and expertise they have in a specific area; this knowledge will be reflected through Anishinaabe worldview. The vital and unique aspect to Elder guidance is the wisdom engendered through knowledge, values, and discipline oriented to promoting Anishinaabeg good life. Individual and groups of Anishinaabeg seek out the expertise and wisdom of Gichi Piitzijig when faced with a problem or when decisions that will have significant impacts on any aspects of Anishinaabeg life need to be made. Elders have been sought out by non-Anishinaabeg, too, for as long as they have been striving to live a good life in the Great Lakes Region in tandem with Anishinaabeg.

Historically, within Anishinaabeg networks of relationships within their own family system, community, or Nation, Gichi Piitzijig had the final say around community decisions that would impact the whole. While there are many who continue the thousand years old practices of seeking out and recognizing the authority of Gichi Piitzijig in making decisions, Canadian imposed systems of government have disrupted this form of governance, law, and organization amongst Anishinaabeg.[9] In doing so, authority has become unmoored from spiritual and ecological relationships nurtured by Gichi Piitzijig and institutionalized through human-centric Canadian institutions. Many Anishinaabeg working within their own communities, as well as with and within Canadian institutions advocate and advance, through research, the restoration of Anishinaabeg social, political, and organization based on Anishinaabeg values, law, remembrance of ancestors, recognition of the natural and spiritual world, and visions of the future—which means a re-institution of Elders as authority.[10] Canadians also advocate that Canadian legal processes adjust to incorporate Anishinaabeg legal practices and Elders as experts and institutions of authority.[11]

   [1] Examples of Indigenous Nations are Anishinaabe, Mushkego, Inuit, Nehiyawaw, Mi’kmaw, We’tsu’wetsen, and Métis.

   [2] For an example of Indigenous law and how it shapes Indigenous Nations, see Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum) Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 2015).

   [3] The Anishinaabeg Nation is comprised of sub-groups including Saulteaux, Ojibway, Odawa, Pottawatomi, and Mississauga.

   [4] For an introduction and interpretation into anishinaabewiziwin (all the elements that make up Anishinaabeg life, qtd. in Agger, Following Mishomis, see note 5) see Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976); Basil Johnston, Ojibway Ceremonies (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987); and, Basil Johnston, The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society, 1995).

   [5] On odedemwiwin, the foundational structure and system of Anishinaabeg organization, see Johnston, Ojibway Heritage; Edward Benton-Benai, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway (Hayward, Wisconsin: Indian Country Communications Inc., 1988); Heidi Bohacker, “Nindoodemag: Anishinaabe Identities in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, 1600-1900.” PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2006; and, Helen Agger, Following Nimishoomis: The Trout Lake History of Dedibaayaanimanook Sarah Keesick Olsen (Penticton: Theytus Books, 2008).

   [6] Johnston, Ojibway Ceremonies; and, James Dumont, personal communication, September 20, 1995, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. For a biography on Dumont, see, Retrieved February 8, 2016.

   [7] Kim Anderson, Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings, and Story Medicine (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2011); and, Theresa S. Smith, “’Yes, I’m Brave’: Extraordinary Women in the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) Tradition,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 15 (1), 1999: 40-56.

   [8] Alan Corbiere (ed.), Kate Roy and Evelyn Roy (trans.), and Evelyn Roy (transc.), Gechi-Piitzijig Dbaajmowag: The Stories of Our Elders, A Compilation of Ojibwe Stories, with English Translations (M’Chigeeng, Manitoulin Island: Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, 2011).

   [9] As an example of how Canada has interfered with or re-shaped Indigenous meanings and practices of leadership and authority, see Taiaike Alfred, Peace, Power and Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1999).

   [10] Kim Anderson, Life Stages; Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtles Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgnece and a New Emergence (Winnipeg: Abeiter Ring Publishing, 2011); John Borrows (Kegedonce), Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); and, Shelley Johnson, “Developing First Nations Courts in Canada: Elders as Foundational to Indigenous Therapeautic Jurisprudence,” Journal of Indigenous Social Development 3(2), 2014: 1-14.

   [11] Rupert Ross, Return to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1996); and, Bruce Granville Miller, Oral History on Trial: Recognizing Aboriginal Narratives in Courts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).