There are many types of traditional Indigenous knowledge keepers, ranging from first language speakers to elders. Elders have become the most recognized type of knowledge keeper, and there are specific protocols surrounding an individual being gifted with that title. Not all older Indigenous people are elders, although they may be well-respected and knowledgeable people.
The term “elder” refers to a very specific title and role that carries a great deal of honour and responsibility. Elders are people who have chosen to walk in the path of spirituality; they may carry sacred objects, smudge or work with medicines.
Elders are individuals who are deeply respected individuals within their communities They are the keepers of traditional teachings, cultural knowledge, spiritual connection and honoured wisdom They possess the qualities of respect, gratitude, humility, honesty, wisdom, love, kindness and patience. People are only considered elders if their community has publicly acknowledged them as such. There are no self-appointed elders, nor can elders be appointed by non-Indigenous communities. Elders are generally quite modest, and eschew titles of high status, preferring to live in the path of spiritual and cultural balance. The term “elder” is an English word that does not directly translate to the Indigenous words for these positions of respect within communities. Elders are not always elderly people, but instead, can be of many ages, as it is the community that appoints them as guides for their people.
Elders are first and foremost teachers and role models. They are vital in the teaching process, from infanthood to adulthood and beyond. 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.