Column: Honored to be an elderThe first time a young woman acknowledged me as an elder by bringing me a plate of food was some years ago at a feast up north.
The first time a young woman acknowledged me as an elder by bringing me a plate of food was some years ago at a feast up north. It is the custom at many Native feasts for the elders to eat first, and for younger people to make sure that older people are ahead of them in the food line. We are often gently reminded of this, right after the prayer of thanks. “We invite the elders to come up first,” someone will announce, “... or if any elders would rather, please go ahead and sit down, and someone will bring you a plate of food.”
At this particular feast my husband and I, being fairly new to the age of elderhood, thought that out of respect for those older and wiser than ourselves we would just sit at a table at the back of the room and wait for the crowd to thin out.
Suddenly, a teenaged girl politely tapped my shoulder, straightened out my silverware and set a plateful of food on the table in front of me. She asked if I would like coffee or some punch, if I might like a piece of pie. Then she paused, flustered and uncertain.
My hair silvered many years ago; my husband’s did not. The young lady, who had been given the responsibility and honor of feeding the elders, had been instructed to fill plates with the nicest of the food and present them to the elders she saw sitting at the tables. My husband’s black hair and youthful looks confused her, but then her good Ojibwe manners kicked in, and she courteously directed the question to me: Pointing her chin delicately towards my husband (or whoever my non-elder-looking escort might be; I wonder what was going through her mind) she asked in a lowered voice, “Does he want a plate, too?”
We still laugh about that, and we still remember the young lady’s lovely manners.
Since then, we have been to many feasts and have been presented with plates of food by many young Native people, who consider it a privilege to serve the elders. We always make sure to thank them, and to tell them how good the food looks.
This, the ceremonial aspect of the presentation and acceptance of the gift of food, is an important part of passing Native traditions and values to the younger generation.
What do the young people learn as they serve the elders? They learn the power of intergenerational exchange. They learn to think of and serve others before themselves, and to have patience (Will there be enough left of the cherry pie when it is their turn to eat? Perhaps not; in that case, they experience the rewards of selflessness). They experience the joy of being thanked and praised by the elders, who are the teachers and leaders of the people.
And we elders are gifted with much more than the food on the plate, lovingly arranged and generous in portions though it might be. We feel the honor of our years, and gratitude for all the time that we have been given. Speaking with and accepting food prepared for us by the young people who will be elders themselves one day, we are energized and replenished. In the young people who carry plates, serve food, sweep floors and clean up after the feast we see our own parents and grandparents, and we are reminded that life continues.
I close here with a message to the young man who at last year’s spring feast at Nettleton School piled an extra spoon of whipped cream onto Tim’s apple crisp: You smiled, loped over to the coffee urn to refill our cups, told us not to bother with our dirty dishes, that you and the other kids would take care of them. Migwech. Onishishin.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.