Why this N.WT. woman sees being an elder as the 'highest honour'

Margaret Leishman is an elder living in Kakisa, N.W.T. She describes in her own words what being an elder means to her.

Margaret Leishman encourages people, especially youth, to reach out to elders to help them and themselves

Elder Margaret Leishman on the shore of the Mackenzie River in Kakisa, N.W.T. Leishman says being an elder is 'honour.' (Mark Hadlari/CBC)

CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba and CBC North embarked on a months-long project to speak with elders, elders-in-training and youth from across their vast territories to learn how these knowledge keepers view their role today — and why they're more critical than ever before.

Read other stories from the Walking With Elders series.

Margaret Leishman is an elder living in Kakisa, N.W.T. She speaks Dene Zhatié, one of five Dene languages in the N.W.T., and is well-respected across the territory. This is a transcript of an interview she did with CBC North. It has been edited for length and clarity.

To be an elder is to be a role model.

I think that I've done that all my life — you know, to have lived your life and that you have to follow the protocols of your people right throughout.

You become a teacher and a professor, so that you give back to your people. 

For me, I never had grandparents because they died in the big flu up north here. So any elder that I saw in my life, I went to them, and that's why I gained my knowledge.

An elder is a holder of all the traditional knowledge and wisdom, and they have so much information. That's what I see in the elder — also to be a well-balanced individual, meaning to live a good life, healthy life. That way, a lot of your teachings will apply.

To be an elder is a privilege and an honour — the highest honour. 

I was given crow boot moccasins for my birthday this year from a friend in Inuvik and the embroidery was done by a woman from Fort McPherson. Beautiful, you know, and that's honouring me as an elder.

My mom used to say, to be an elder, to live a full cycle, means that you are only given a one-time privilege on this Earth — to live it.

But she said if your life is taken ahead of time, you will come back to finish it, because you're placed on this Earth for a special reason.

She lived to be 105, my mom. So for me, she has done her job well on this Earth and is only given one time to come. So those kind of teachings we have as elders.

A message for youth

Today we live in a really complicated world. Youth need more contact with elders.

A long time ago, visiting was one of the things that we did. We always serviced our elders in the community and looked after them. And the reward is that, in exchange, they told us stories. I would like that to happen again today.

Just go visit an elder, see if there's anything you could do to help. Elders, they don't know about technology. And I think it's really good for youth to help them learn how to even use a cellphone or even making a call for them.

I would like the youth to attend meetings — as many as possible — so that they know about the language.

You know it's not just the language. It's our way of life. There's so much that goes into a language when you speak. 

I just don't speak for the sake of speaking Dene Zhatié. Everything is, 'I'm giving it to you, to give you a better understanding and awareness.' And people don't know that. They just speak without thinking. 

I would like to go back to the old way of communication. And it's really good for the youth to know that now, too, because you know that would make their lives a lot easier too.

And especially being who they are. The identities are important. It's very important.

With files from Mark Hadlari