The stories of the elders

Yesterday, in our meeting of the House of Bishops here in Alaska, we were treated to two conversations with elders of the Athabaskan people. One, a 96 year old woman who told us of her life in the seasonal Fish Camps and sang to us songs she had composed to mark important moments in her life. The other was an Episcopal priest and tribal chief who had served a community for years and now in his mid-eighties was an institution in the diocesan and the region.

As we listened the elders tell their stories, we were also taught by younger leaders from the villages how to listen to what they were saying. We were reminded that sometimes the elder will pause before answering a question – often because the elder’s first language is not English and they need to work out an answer and then translate it for us. And we were told to recognize that the elders often answered a question with a story – a story that might not seem to be related to the question that was asked. When that happened, it was important to listen carefully because the story answered the question in a way, and sometime carried with it a gentle critique of the question itself.

I was struck by the deep respect and reverence that native people we met had for the elders in their community. They had learned to depend on the elders to keep the community’s history and traditions, to pass along it common wisdom, and most importantly to allow it to survive in the harsh climate. The elder’s stories and songs teach the people about how to care for the environment that they depend on for their subsistence lifestyle. (A lifestyle that, as the older elder said to us was “hard” but not a “hardship”.) The stories taught the people how to manage the harvest, how to care for the herd, and how to respect the rivers. It is the accumulated wisdom of the nearly ten thousand years of experience. The stories are truly the life and death wisdom and knowledge of the Athabaskan people.

I’m reminded of the Church’s stories too. We have thousands and thousands of years of history and wisdom. We have stories that are told in response to questions asked that don’t seem, at first blush, to answer the question either but upon reflection contain incredible richness of thought. We have stories that contain the experience of God’s people with the God they worship and follow – and these stories are just as critical for our survival as are the stories of the elders to the native people of the Arctic.

And I’m quite taken by the reverence the community has for the elders – and the way the elders live selflessly for the community. We prioritize things differently in most Episcopal congregations these days. I’m not sure we’re doing that right.

Author: Nicholas Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...