Learning from Indigenous Elders

Written by on July 27, 2020

I have three go-to indigenous elders that I rely on when I need assistance. One is much older. The other is about my age. The third is actually younger than I am, but I still refer to him as an Elder because of his wisdom.

Through the years I have noticed patterns between these three people from different cultures that show how the aboriginal mind works. If you can think like they think, you can learn animism without an accent. So here is what I have observed.

They Only Answer What You Ask

This is an incredibly frustrating practice for outsiders because it can feel like they aren’t paying attention to you or are trying to be difficult. There is actually a reason for this though.

Your questions determine the readiness to hear the answer. Why bother saying anything if it won’t be received? Why bother going into to a lecture if all you wanted to know was one sentence? Would you be able to use or understand the book?

The habit of giving only what is asked for is also a kindness. It’s a way of respecting your time and the speaker’s time. Sometimes answer require thought. The waiting allows the right answer to come and for the two people to develop a relationship. So it’s not google.

It’s almost as if you have to earn the next answer by asking a great question. Engagement and understanding are the fee to a longer, meaningful conversation.

They Have to Trust You

Elders won’t talk to you if they don’t trust you with the information you are seeking. Or if they just don’t trust you in general. “I don’t remember” and “I am not sure what you are talking about” can be standard replies because they don’t tend to refuse outright. Or they may give you vague, meaningless answers – especially if you are asking about something that requires context that they don’t think you have to understand it. Most spiritual questions are in this realm.

They Don’t Have an Agenda

Sometimes people give you information because they want you to love or worship them for it. Or maybe they want to sell you something. My go-to Elders share because we have a relationship. It’s a way of expressing care. They don’t care if you agree, disagree, like what they have to say, or not. There is no ego or agenda in it.

They Respect Truth

It’s as if indigenous elders feel that in giving you information, you are now the carrier of that truth. If it’s a story about a family member, historical event, or just how they feel, telling you the story now makes you the story carrier. They want what they speak to be true and for you to receive a true understanding. That way, if you share it, you speak true.

They May Use Stories to Steer You Away From Folly

If an indigenous elder thinks you are going to be careless, foolish or use the information in a disrespectful way, they may withhold it. If they care about you, they may use your relationship to steer you away from that course of action. For example, if it seems clear that you want to do plant medicine (for example), they may ask you questions to help you get clear on whether that’s the best course of action.

They won’t ever tell you what to do, but when that conversation ends, you will be clearer about who you are, what you want, and what’s the healthiest course of action. If you were not wise before, you will know that and will be able to proceed with the knowledge that you were not wise and why.

Learning from indigenous elders is a really different process than looking things up, watching a video, or taking a class. It’s much more relational, contextual, and holistic. You don’t get the feeling that the learning is ever “done.” If you ever get a chance to speak with one, I hope you take the opportunity.

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