Last updated on June 30, 2020
Elders are seated first at community gatherings in Indian Country. It’s a graceful social interaction; when an elder enters a room or approaches a group of people who are seated, someone younger will offer up their seat. A quiet thank you, “Hey-eh-heh,” and nods are exchanged. Meals start with a prayer offered by an elder, and then this revered group is served plates delivered by others. “Go take Grandma a plate,” is a gentle refrain, reminding the youth of the importance of honoring their older ones.
At community dinners I attended, there was traditionally a stew of dry meat and potatoes, berry pudding, frybread, and fruit along with modern fare, like lasagna. Dry meat is dried buffalo meat.
In early July, I visited a friend for the Northern Cheyenne Fourth of July Powwow, a social event that is both a celebration and a ceremony with give-aways over four days. Their annual gathering draws people from the region, some returning home from afar, and visitors–always a few non-Indians, like me. I remember pondering, especially given the post-Dances With Wolves-inspired popularity of Native American culture–to the point of cultural appropriation by the New Age, “Why are there so few white people attending real pow wows?” Especially in Indian Country, on reservations. Early Summer is visiting season, when doors are open in anticipation. “If you show up, you are meant to be here. Ma’heo brought you here for a reason.”
I participated in food preparations for a Sundance a week after the pow wow. Buffalo from Bozeman were gifted from “that big TV guy, from his ranch out there.” Ted Turner donated a few head of buffalo to the tribe. I was impressed; the mogul has established friendly terms with all 7 tribes in Montana. After slaughtering, the buffalo were distributed to tribal members through the five Cheyenne warrior societies, each family belongs to one: Chiefs, Elk Horn Scrapers, Crazy Dog/Dog Soldier, Bowstring, and Kit Fox; my friend’s family belonged to the Kit Fox society.
The Kit Fox women taught me to cut dry meat. Most impressive was the skill of the elder women. It’s like butterflying a roast but more complex, a process using a knife to turn a 3-D hunk of meat into a linear form; it becomes like red lace. After cutting, the thin meat was dipped into a large enamel pot filled with cool salted water, then draped over pine poles. “The salt keeps the flies away,” the women tell me, “in the sun, it dries faster than hanging inside by the stove in wintertime.” The dried meat is stored in brown paper bags that are hung indoors.
The Cheyenne women were patient, kind, and humorous, sharing stories as we sat around a picnic table heaped with meat. I appreciated how the processing and storing of meat is a skill honed over a lifetime. Reflecting, I re-experience their acceptance of me as a non-native person who was there to listen and learn and understand who they are. I wasn’t there to judge, convert, teach, fix, sell, or convince then to change their ways. I had nothing for them but photos–in the days of opting for double prints when developing a roll of film. Every picture I made, a copy went to the person who was its subject. I was there to learn, more so than I realized at the time.
The Cheyenne consider having elders in one’s life as imperative. After the death of one’s grandparents, a tribal member adopts an elder, it’s common for someone to introduce or refer to an elder as “My adopted grandma,” or “My adopted grandfather.” It’s a society wherein everyone is needed, everyone has a role, and roles evolve as one travels the arc of life.
The recognition of the changing roles and responsibilities as one ages is is a cultural universal of Native American society. This is in stark contrast to the dominant Anglo Saxon ethnicity, where I come from; aging is fought like a disease and is to be avoided and denied. Imagining life in a society where aging is revered not feared, I found myself looking forward to elder-hood. Trusting reciprocity, I would know that what I have given and done on my journey through life will come back to me; I would know that I’d still be included in my community. I would not be forgotten, left behind, or considered a burden because I am post-child bearing and raising, retired, slowing down, no longer drive, have gray hair… There exists a commonly held reverence for elders in Native American society. They are respected for life experience, honored for sharing history and wisdom through story, and sought out as instructors of sacred knowledge. Native elders have confidence and character from a long life as a participating member of a tribe. Reverence for elders creates a place in their community as perpetually important members of the tribe. Living long and enduring much, they now gratefully accept the seat and the plate that is offered to them. To be Cheyenne means you have elders in your life until you become one.