'Be proud of who you are': Indigenous elders offer advice to the young about self-respect and reconciliation

Canada’s first national gathering of elders brought together more than 5,000 leaders and teachers from Inuit, Métis and First Nations communities. The objective was to honour those whose wisdom and insight are helping shape a new generation of Indigenous people.

National gathering of elders assembled more than 5,000 leaders and elders of Indigenous communities

Inuvik elder Lillian Elias takes part in a ceremony at the National Gathering of Elders, held in Edmonton, Sept. 11-14. (Laurie Buffalo)

Canada's first National Gathering of Elders earlier this month in Edmonton brought together more than 5,000 leaders and teachers from Inuit, Métis and First Nations communities.

The event was initiated by Tallcree First Nation and Grand Chief Rupert Meneen and organized by various First Nations from across Canada.

The objective was to honour those whose wisdom and insight are helping shape a new generation of Indigenous people. The cultural gathering was rich in ceremony and ideas.

We asked five of the elders who attended to share their thoughts on culture and reconciliation and offer some advice for the next generation.

Doreen Bergum

Olds, Alta.

Doreen Bergum is a Métis elder from Olds, Alta. (Terry Reith/CBC)

As an elder, Doreen Bergum spends many hours each week on the road, bringing prayers on behalf of the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3 to gatherings big and small. Born in rural Alberta, Bergum grew up in a large family filled with culture.

Home wasn't much. The family lived on a road allowance — "the land between the ditch and the river," as Bergum described it — in two buildings smushed together.

"From there, our parents taught us our culture."

Music and dancing were rewards at the end of the week, as her family would break out fiddles and guitars and play and dance the night away. "That was our time to relax and enjoy our life together as Métis families."

Bergum feels it is important for First Nations, Mé​tis and Inuit people to share their culture in the broader community. She says family is important, and urges young people to embrace their culture.

"Respecting the elders and listening to the elders and just enjoying your family. Be proud of who you are."

Elder Doreen Bergum discusses the importance of sharing her Mếtis culture. 2:01

Ronnie Alec

Burns Lake, B.C.

Ronnie Alec is an elder and hereditary chief from Lake Babine, B.C. (Terry Reith/CBC)

A drummer and hereditary chief from Lake Babine First Nation, Ronnie Alec travels with young people and community members throughout B.C., bringing drumming, singing and a message of reconciliation.

"When they get together, 24 drums, the same beat, is powerful," he says.

He calls the drums unique, "our medicine."

Alec says issues such as the fallout from the residential school experience, the cases of missing or murdered women and a lack of cohesion among Indigenous communities are standing in the way of reconciliation and must be resolved in order to move forward. 

"We need more of the First Nations to get together. Everybody has a different language. Everybody has a different culture, but we're all in one, spiritwise.

He says he feels the influence of his ancestors wherever he goes. "They come behind me, when I speak, when I drum,"

And elders must do the same for the youth in their communities and urge them to make the best out of their lives.

"All of us have to think about the young generation that's coming from behind us."

The federal government must also be better at listening to First Nations, he says.

Ronnie Alec of Babine Lake, B.C., explains the power of traditional drumming. 2:03

Jean Gruben

Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

Jean Gruben is an elder from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Before she was taken to residential school as a child, Jean Gruben had already learned how to hunt, fish and take care of a dog sled team.

"My parents, my dad especially, taught us how to live off the land — hunting, fishing" she says. "One of my sisters — the youngest one — she was a polar bear hunter. She goes hunt bear. Not like me. I'm so scared of bears."

Today, she remains active in the community, helping pass down many of her skills to a new generation.

"We all try to work together to keep our culture."

Among the traditions she is helping preserve is the sewing of traditional sunburst coats — the typical Arctic parkas whose hoods are ringed with a thick band of fur. She also helps organize caribou hunting expeditions for elders and single mothers.

"We also have a lot of dances," she says, "to make our people try to forget their problems."

Gruben has raised 10 children and worked with the Roman Catholic Church and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

Jean Gruben from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., reflects on the value of preserving Inuit culture. 2:23

Katsi Cook

Akwesasne (Ont., Que., N.Y.)

Katsi Cook is a Mohawk elder from Akwesasne. (Terry Reith/CBC)

A midwife, activist and leader, Katsi Cook has been at the forefront of an Indigenous midwifery revival in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, which spans parts of southeastern Ontario, southwestern Quebec and northern New York state. 

She sees the change in how Indigenous communities approach labour and birth as a model for truth and reconciliation and says the goal of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives is to eventually have an aboriginal midwife in every aboriginal community.

"I've seen in my short life how — a birth at a time — in the hands of the women themselves, with respect, with knowledge, with sincere hearts, that now we have babies coming into the world in the ways they were meant to be born."

One of the aims of the midwifery program, Cook says, is to provide care for women that is "based in respect, equity and empowerment so that the burdens of shame and grief can be lessened."

She believes that reconstruction of communities devastated by colonization begins with the restoration of tradition, rituals and language. Cook urges young people to find a way out of blaming and shaming, and to take a deeper dive into their own beings — connecting with the power of their Indigenous identity.

Midwife and elder Katsi Cook explains how traditional approaches to labour are changing her Mohawk community. 3:29

Lillian Elias

Inuvik, N.W.T.

Lillian Elias is an elder and language specialist from Inuvik, N.W.T. (Terry Reith/CBC)

When Lillian Elias was sent to residential school, she was was told to give up her native language of Inuvialuktun and was punished if she was heard using as much as one word. But during the summer, when school was on a break, she would return home and not only speak her native language but translate for others who did not speak English.

"The two different worlds sometimes are very hard to take," she says contrasting Inuit language with the English she was forced to speak, "because a lot of times, the communications don't fit at all."

Today, she, says the greatest block to reconciliation is the loss of that traditional language and culture.

Even though Elias found it hard to change and adapt to the rules of residential school, she says the changes facing her community will need to be accepted.

"They have to adapt to it, and it's a very hard thing for a person like myself to adapt to."

The path to a better life, Elias says, begins with self-respect.

Lillian Elias, an elder from Inuvik, N.W.T., talks about why the teaching of traditional Inuit languages is an important part of reconciliation. 2:42