Jun. 27, 2012 - Issue #871: Edmonton 2012
Those Who Know
Author finds hope in revisiting her book on Alberta's elders
Elders play an important role in Aboriginal communities. The role, which can be one of a teacher and spiritual guide, often includes an element of keeping the culture of a community. Twenty years after first writing her book Those Who Know, author Dianne Meili has taken the opportunity to revisit the lives of elders in Alberta communities and in doing so reveals a sense of hope in some difficult histories.
"I don't think we've ever been this powerful as a people," says Meili. "I don't want to sugar coat it because we do have so many problems."
In Meili's journey to capture the stories of elders across the province she listened to personal stories of poverty, experiences in residential schools, and the struggle for rights and recognition. In visiting each elder in their home Meili reveals the intricate, difficult pasts of elders who once struggled the challenges the world presents.
"An elder is someone who is in full control of their emotions," says Meili. In her book Meili describes an elder as someone who has "transcended jealousy, sadness, anger and hate, and they live fully in the present."
In its first printing 20 years ago, Meili made the attempt to capture not just the role of the elder, but also the personality and the history of the person who has managed this transcendence to become a community leader.
The personal connection she developed with people across the province made Meili initially reluctant to revisit the stories of the communities and elders she had profiled in the original book 20 years ago. "When we started to talk about a reprint, first I thought, well, most of those people have passed away now and that really is an end of an era," says Meili. It wasn't something she looked at as an opportunity until she spoke with the son of Tibeyimisuw, one of the oldest elders she had spoken with 20 years ago. "He was carrying on in the old man's footprints. We had a great conversation," says Meili. "It became an awesome undertaking to talk to the nieces and granddaughters of these elders."
The new edition contains updates from the families of elders she spoke with across Alberta, and talks to those who have taken on the role in the intervening years. And in many ways revisiting these stories and families highlights the role of the elder in Aboriginal communities. "I look at these people as bridges. Not everyone is a spiritual elder," says Meili. "A lot of them are natural elders in a community so they are looked to when decisions when fishing or hunting regulations come out."
Revisiting the Fort McKay First Nation, Meili spoke with the community about how industrial activity has impacted hunting and fishing in an area where elder James Grandjambe has taught his family and community to hunt moose and gather medicinal plants.
"You have to make an offering to the spirit of that plant in a place that hasn't been disturbed. Now, everything is so contaminated up here the plants aren't the same," Theresa Grandjambe, James' daughter describes in Meili's book.
But overall Meili was left with a feeling of hope after visiting Albert and Alma Desjarlais in the East Prairie Métis Settlement where they hold a culture camp every year in their home. "I was expecting to sit on readings but they had a sweat lodge and their grand children were splashing around," says Meili. "They were excited to be there."
Meili's day job is as a cultural reporter for CFEW. "I hear about more initiatives to teach Cree or to be an elder's helper," says Meili. Partially Meili suggests, this reinvigorated effort to keep cultures alive comes from a realization of being on the brink of losing it all.
"But I'm thinking more than ever that we're not going to lose things," says Meili. "Nothing's ever lost. In our dreams we get a lot of information. A ceremony might look different but the meaning of it from creation will still be there."
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