“If ever there was a time and a need to honour our common humanity, Namawyut [we are all one], this is it. This is the moment.”
This message from Chief Dr Robert Joseph, the hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, a small community in British Columbia, Canada, brought me comfort.
He went to the same residential school as my grandfather. These were schools Indigenous children were forced to attend – away from their families – where they were alienated from their language and culture, and often exposed to abuse, neglect and disease. Like my grandpa, he speaks Kwakwaka’wakw.
In the face of a pandemic, Chief Joseph urged us to unite. He encouraged us to follow instructions and keep ourselves and each other safe. He reminded us we are not alone and that we are all interconnected and interdependent. Considering it was not long ago that people were fighting over toilet paper, we needed to hear this.
I sat at my desk watching the video of him calling us to action, nudging us towards hope, assuring us this too will pass. He said the things my soul needed to hear, as it was already so weary. His is a voice I treasure and he represents the strong, calm, hopeful spirits of many elders I have come to know and love throughout my life.
In times of trouble, I have always had elders to turn to. I rested in their wisdom, soothed with the knowledge that someone wiser than I, who had seen many more things, would know just what to say, what ceremony was needed, where to go from here.
I remember being so scared before a big job interview and being comforted and smudged by my elder. His feather wafted over the medicines that glowed inside a bowl of shell, a cleansing ritual that brings me immense comfort. The smell of the medicines washing over me, releasing tears of tension until I could feel at home in my skin again and brave enough to face something I was afraid of.
Now in a time of COVID-19, there is something new to fear. Elders are at higher risk of infection. This thought is terrifying from an Indigenous perspective. Elders are like living, breathing monuments to our way of life; they are cultural treasures. Elders keep our languages alive. The things they know could fill endless libraries. They hold our history and shape our future with their words and prayers.
It is so hard to think about having to keep your distance from the very people you would normally run towards, having to stay away from the people who are our safe place so we can keep them safe. When we save our elders, we are saving ourselves. We are giving ourselves more chances to learn from people who know so much.
When I hear people like Dan Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, suggest that older people be sacrificed for the sake of the economy, I am horrified. To me, elders are more precious than gold. The elders that I know put people before money and this idea is so inconsistent with the teachings I have received. I have learned that respecting my elders is of utmost importance and that we can learn so much from history that will help us not make the same mistakes. Hearing those stories from people who have been there and being able to ask them questions has been invaluable. Our elders bring that highly relevant history to life. At a time where we will want to remember the lessons we have learned, it will be helpful to have the people who have been documenting our oral history for so long by our sides. I think the whole world could learn from these storytellers.
I cannot imagine giving up cultural riches for monetary gain. They are so much more valuable than the stock market to me. When we talk about essential services, I think of elders. Elders counsel, they comfort, they are our touchstones in uncertain times and in the cruellest twist of fate, we now cannot even touch them.
I think about the things they have endured throughout their lives. This is not the first time Indigenous people have been forbidden from gathering and practising ceremonies. This is not the first time they have seen widespread illness devour communities.
In the late 1700s, Indigenous people were devastated by smallpox. When it struck again in the late 1800s, it killed more than half of the Native population of British Columbia’s coast. During the 1700s and 1800s, the impact of tuberculosis on Indigenous people was exacerbated by the prevalence of poverty, malnutrition and overcrowding on the reserves. Tuberculosis still disproportionately affects Indigenous people to this day.
We need our elders so they can guide us through, bringing things back to life again when this is all over.
On the West Coast of Canada, so much of our ceremony involves gathering and feeding the people. Now we cannot gather and food can be hard to find with grocery stores stretched past capacity by people hoarding. When our ways used to be forbidden by the Canadian government, the practices were driven underground, held in secret to avoid arrests and the confiscation of goods. That was when the law was in the way, between 1885 and 1951, when Potlatch – the gift-giving feast of Indigenous people in this area – was banned. But now when continuing to hold these ceremonies threatens the safety of the community because of disease, the solution is not so simple.
Now we are called to gather in spirit, together but apart, to feed our hearts and souls through this difficult time. We are called to do this so that one day, when the cloud of disease lifts, we can feast together once more, with our elders there to give the teachings we will so desperately need on the other side of all this sadness.
Like Chief Robert Joseph said, “If ever there was a time and a need to honour our common humanity, ‘Namawyut’ [we are all one], this is it. This is the moment.” Our elders are a big part of that web of the Indigenous community, and this is the time for all of us to keep our elders and ourselves safe. We are all in this together.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.