Gyasi Ross: What's the proper role of tribal elders?

"She was born 65 years ago today, in a cold, long winter in the year 1928. She didn’t feel “old,” yet she was now considered by everyone around to be an “elder.” She was expected to be wise and sage now – a resource, and even someone to be revered.

Her people gave her special status – a cool jacket that said “elder,” a parking space and special seating at the bingo hall. She even gets special accommodation, away from the rest of her people, in elder’s housing. She gets all of this because she saw, in first person, some of the “old days” and the “old ways.” Her dad taught her many of the old ways, as did her auntie, who she went to live with when her dad died.

And today was her birthday. Aug. 16, 1993.

Her dad died when she was 10 years old as a much respected old man. He was a stalwart in the community and survived the Marias Massacre when he was 3 years old. He was living history. On that fateful morning of the massacre in the winter of 1870, her dad – small and naked – ran through the pile of dead women and children and dove into the icy waters of the Marias River, dodging bullets from the U.S. Calvary. Her dad stayed in the river for several hours until the winter’s early nightfall and somehow crawled back to the camp purple-colored and hungry, with frostbitten feet. When the men of the camp came back from hunting, they saw this little boy freezing to death amidst the many frozen stiff women and children and – in their mourning – were thankful that this little boy survived. They had to rescue him – he was a gift.

Wilma’s dad was a sign of hope to those heartbroken men. He symbolized “life” in the midst of senseless death.

Wilma is the daughter of that strong man. Her father outlived Wilma’s mother and her two younger brothers. They passed from a variety of maladies – his mom and a child brother from tuberculosis, and the other brother from cirrhosis. She remembers watching her dad later on as an old man, and the way people responded to him when he waved at them with his walking stick. He would limp into the mercantile store, his foot never quite-recovered from frostbite (he lost two toes on his right foot), flashing his toothless grin. He greeted everybody, not just those who greeted him first.

He was still the sign of hope to a lot of people – but now, he also represented elderly wisdom and strength."

Get the Story:
Gyasi Ross 21.0: Storytime: Wilma (Indian Country Today 10/26)

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