Copper Joe, the oldest Aboriginal person in the vicintiy of Burwash Landing, Yukon, Nov 1942

Aboriginal Elder: Definition

By Bob Joseph

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

We have put the questions in italics and then follow-up with the answer.  

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 amongst Aboriginal 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.

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 instil in their community members such as respect for the natural world and that the earth is their mother. Aboriginal Elders are deeply committed to share their knowledge, provide guidance, teach 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 Communications Society (http://www.bcelders.com/ )

What are the duties of elders?  
In my experience, the duties of an Elder today can include: conducting smudges, sweats, prayers, opening prayers, counseling, 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.

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.  

Working Effectively with Aboriginal Peoples™ tips:

How should we address elders?  Should we use just their names or add Elder to the front as in “Elder Alice will now conduct the opening prayer”?
Be prepared to adjust your volume of speech;
Be wary of too much eye contact;
Be sure to address them as Elder Alice instead of Alice to show high respect;
Be sure to ask for consent before photographing or video recording a ceremonial event.

Need help with  additional definitions and terminology?  Fill out our form and we will send you our Aboriginal Peoples – Guide to Terminology that has information on 40+ different terms right away.

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  • Mlsutherland2003

    In customary practices of First Nations, the first reference is given as “communal” elders.  The community has an Elders Council that gives advice to Chief and Councils and the Elders Council is actively involved in every aspect of the community and not only the ceremonial rites.  It is the transmission of the language teachings on language and culture that helps with protocol, customs, leadership, and cultural practices that the elders are looked upon foremost.  The elders advice and teachings are based on the oral histories, oral governments and laws.  I may be very fluent in speaking, reading and writing in my Cree language today but I still ask my elders for advice in everything that I say and do each time.