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Masked dancers in canoes - Qagyuhl 1916 by Edward Curtis - Click to see Large View


The Importance of Elders in Education

A culture centred on Relationship or All My Relations is the foundation of all First Nations teaching and learning. The inclusion of Elders in the process can be described as the 'heart' of First Nations Pedagogy. Since Pre-Colonial times, Elders have been the Gatekeepers of First Nations wisdom, knowledge, and history. Elders traditionally hold crucial roles in supporting both formal and informal education in First Nations communities. They impart tradition, knowledge, culture, values, and lessons using orality and role modeling traditional practices.

Elders are the carriers and emblems of communally generated and mediated knowledge. In the western paradigm, such relations and processes of knowledge transmission are considered "informal". Yet, these same processes are at the heart and soul of what is 'formal" to Indigenous knowledge. Elders are first and foremost teachers and role models. They are vital in the teaching process, from infanthood to adulthood and beyond.

Socially Situated

Learning is always socially situated, socially constructed, socially produced and socially validated within social settings which exist as contextual settings. Elders teach others about culture, tradition and about the vision of life that is contained in First Nations philosophies and handed down in ceremonies and traditional teachings.

First Nations thinking processes, bodies of knowledge and structures of knowledge transmission are uniquely different from those underpinning mainstream institutions. Non-formal education, informal learning and formal learning are socially organized and socially situated practices. Obstacles to Elders' participation in formal education must be identified and overcome. Elders are keepers of tradition, guardians of culture, the wise people, the teachers - and are central to any genuine aboriginal learning space.

Elders in Action

The resurgence toward First Nations Self Governance and a vibrant reawakened culture has been skillfully guided by Elders and those who listen to them, across the planet. Many elders are raising their voices and sharing their wisdom to help their people grow strong, proud, and open to developing the skills that will enable them to partake in the Self Governance initiatives. There are dozens of elders who could be profiled. One particular elder comes to mind - one who passed away recently, while in the 'line of duty' - raising her voice to save Mother Earth and stop reckless and unnecessary destruction to sacred land. Harriet Nanahee (1935 - 2007) was an Elder who shone in her example, her courage, her love, her wisdom, and her tenacity.

Like many elders, Harriet Nanahee, a Pacheedaht of the Nuu-chah-nulth nations, attended two residential schools - both Ahousaht Residential School and Alberni Residential School, and was outspoken and forthcoming in her recall of the atrocities she witnessed there. She was a vocal activist, dedicated to preserving the Earth and the ways of her people. She was also a teacher of First Nations ways. The following video showcases Harriet describing how certain practices were brought to Canada during the initial colonization period in the USA and Canada, as well as the effects of colonization on the Elders' ability to pass on knowledge to their peoples.

Elders Online

Mainstream educational institutions struggle with the notion of including First Nations Elders in their programs. Involving Elders in online learning presents even more challenge. The most common ways that Elders are included in most schools are a) Elder in Residence and b) Visiting Elder programs. Both methods could be applied to online learning planning and implementation. As well, with the ease of video and audio production, and access to video online, it is fairly easy to provide students with recorded Elder teachings to help them explore their wisdom, using an online learning environment.


The following learning activity focuses on videos that present teachings of 13 Elders and Medicine Women who call themselves the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, have banded together to pray and teach the entire world's population about the critical need for an awakening of our consciousness to the Earth and the way we interact with one another.


1. Choose your dialogue medium, one where students can interact with their instructor and fellow learners, e.g. a blog, forum, journal, or web page. Set up the medium with the dialogue directives, and links to the video clips.

2. Embed the two video clips (copy embed code on YouTube original page and paste into your showcase page).

3. If you do not have an online environment, but still want to engage in this learning activity, you can create a worksheet with the dialogue topics, then direct the students to this page or the original Youtube video pages to watch the video clips.


1. INTRODUCTION This learning activity is based on the learner's participation in online dialogue, after they have watched the two video clips below (produced to introduce the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers and their global messages).

2. WATCH VIDEOS Learners should watch the two videos below.

3. DIALOGUE Consider the global scope and messages of this International Council of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, all Elders and Spiritual Leaders of their people.

The women include:

1. Margaret Behan - Cheyenne Arapaho Elder, Keeper of Medicine Ways
2. Rita Pitka Blumenstein - Traditional tribal Yup’ik doctor at Alaska Medical Center
3. Aama Bombo - Shaman, Healer, Tamang/Nepal
4. Julieta Casimiro - -Mazatec Elder, Sacred Plants Healer, Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico
5. Flordemayo - Mayan Elder and Shaman - Highlands of Central America/ New Mexico
6. Maria Alice Campos Freire - Elder, Founder of Centro Medicina de Floresta, Amazonian Rainforest, Brazil
7. Tsering Dolma Gyaltong - renewed Tibetan Women's Association, Tibetan
8. Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Dance - Oglala Lakota Elder, and Sun Dancer, Black Hills, South Dakota
9. Rita Long Visitor Holy Dance -Oglala Lakota Elder and Sun Dancer - Black Hills, South Dakota
10. Agnes Baker Pilgrim - Takelma Siletz Elder - Grants Pass, Oregon, Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony
11. Mona Polacca - Hopi/Havasupai/Tewa Elder - Arizona, PhD in Hopi Prophesy
12. Bernadette Rebienot - Master of Iboga, Women's Initiations and Forest Spirits, Omyene, Gabon, Africa
13. Clara Shinobu Iura - Born in Japan, Shaman, Amazonian Rainforest, Brazil

3. ADD TO DIALOGUE: Learners should go to the designated blog, forum, journal or worksheet to participate in the dialogue topics below.


1. In your opinion, what is the strongest message conveyed in the first video?


2. Discuss the importance of prayer and women, as discussed by the 13 Grandmothers.


3. In the second video, what characteristics do the Grandmothers encouraged in all peoples to deal with our social and planetary crises?


4. What effects does the international collective spirit and expertise of this group have on the impact of their messages?


Developed by June Kaminski, 2011.

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