The wisdom of the ages was harnessed and fashioned into a "Message for America" this week in Duluth. Over 2,000 Native Americans, about half of them elders, gathered at a national conference of the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) in Duluth.

In Native American cultures, elders are held in the highest esteem and recognized for their wisdom, some of which is very old, taught to them by their grandparents. During the four-day conference elders gathered in groups to discuss their concerns. The final product of their discussions was presented on Tuesday, the last day of the gathering, as "A Spiritual Message to America," sage advice for all peoples, no matter the ethnic origin.

While the message dealt with many areas including family, peace, health and the environment, the common thread that tied all the subjects together was respect. Respect was mentioned 12 times during the five-minute message.

The elders emphasized respect for diversity while maintaining a sense of unity among all people. "Respecting everyone and everything in the universe starts with self-respect," the message said. "We pray that we can respect the diversity of America. All life is sacred. Every child born is a precious gift of our Creator. It is our sacred trust to embrace children from all walks of life because we are part of the same family."

Throughout the message the elders spoke of the importance of health, both physical and spiritual, saying that spiritual health is the key to holistic health. And they added that "the survival of our people lies in spirituality."

The Spiritual Message to America was presented with much fanfare Tuesday morning. It was rolled in a birch bark scroll and brought forth from the people to the stage area in a long procession replete with flags, eagle feathers, dancing and drums. William Burke, elder from the Umatilla Tribe in Oregon, as treasurer of NICOA board, received the message and delivered it to the people, and especially to the young people present at the gathering.

"Children," the message says, "You are our future and our hope for the people. Stand and be courageous." After reading it, Burke passed it on to 11-year-old Ashley Diver of Fond du Lac reservation. Diver accepted it and promised to pass it along to the next generation.

"I think the heart of the message was that the future is our youth in some very profound ways," Dave Baldridge, NICOA executive director said. "They need to hear us. We need to be delivering a message that's meaningful to them because truly they are our hope and our future."

While Diver held high the "Message to America," Regis Pecos, an elder from the Pueblo of Cochiti Tribe in New Mexico, addressed the cheering crowd.

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"All of you, as Ashley holds up this spiritual message, give it your breath so that this becomes a living document that can give them guidance in their lives to follow in your footsteps and in the footsteps of our forefathers," Pecos said. "So, as Ashley holds up this spiritual message that has been put together from your words from your minds and from your hearts, give it your breath so that the young people can carry this living spirit to follow in your footsteps."

And to the many young people assembled nearby, Frank Chee Willetto, NICOA board chairman said, "Read it. Read it until you understand what we elders want you to carry forward -- what we have carried for many years."

"Keep hopes and dreams," the message says. "Take care of yourself. Remember your spirit. Be there for each other. Respect courage. Share knowledge. Always keep learning. Remember your true values."

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