Role of the Elder

It is an essential consideration to involve the Elder of specific communities when developing programming related to First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations. It is also important to work collaboratively with the Elder in understanding the specific teachings and beliefs for that community as it relates to trauma recovery and healing.

There are various definitions of an Elder. Below are some examples:

The Old Ones

“Elders” used to be known as “the Old Ones” – a term of respect and means those people in a community who have lived a long time and as a result have much cultural wisdom, experience and guidance to share. (BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, 2010)


“Elders” are culturally regarded as teachers, mediators, advisors, medicine people, stewards of our lands and the keepers of our culture and way of life.

Cultural Wisdom

“Elders” are defined as those people in a community who have lived a long time, and as a result have much cultural wisdom.


“Elders” are those people who are recognized by their community to be first and foremost “healthy” – spiritually, psychologically and mentally. These are often highly “ethical” people. They may be very “spiritual” people, but this does not seem to be a requirement of recognition. An “Elder” in this sense, can refer to respected people in the community regardless of age.

The role an Elder plays in a community can include:

  • Cultural Advisor
  • Historian
  • Social Activist

As a service provider there may be situations or circumstances that may require you to access the support of an Elder. It is important to consider the community and the cultural beliefs and practices when approaching an Elder for assistance. The following are a list of general protocols to consider when approaching an Elder:

  • Be respectful
  • Ask permission
  • Seek clarification if there is something you don’t understand
  • Display a sense of humility – Many Elders believe humility needs to be reflected through the way individuals present and interact
  • Wear appropriate attire based on community practices and situation
  • Being loud, interrupting and rushing the conversation can be seen as rude

Often an Elder will have a “helper” and it would be appropriate to ask the helper what would be appropriate for the specific Elder. The Elder’s helper will also provide direction with respect to offering the Elder a gift of tobacco (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2009).

Tobacco is considered a sacred plant. The gift of tobacco offered to an Elder recognizes the wisdom the Elder has to offer. Tobacco can be given as “cigarettes, pouch tobacco, or tobacco ties (loose tobacco wrapped in a small square cloth)” (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2009).

In the Inuit culture the Elders do not expect tobacco as it is not used in their ceremonies. A small gift may be given as an offering for the Elder’s time, support and guidance (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2009).

First Nations Elders prefer that photos or recordings not be taken during spiritual ceremonies. It is also inappropriate to touch any of the sacred items an Elder may use during a ceremony; including: pipes or medicine pouches; unless the Elder gives permission. It is also essential that permission be asked of the Elder to photograph any of these items. Elders request that everyone participate in the ceremonies in the same way. Honour songs are performed to honour a person for various reasons. It is expected that during an honour song everyone stand and remove any headwear. Smudging is a prayer ceremony where specific medicines (plants) are burned as an offering to the Creator and the Earth. (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013)
Historically traditional teachings were shared by the Elders to the community for the development of spiritual, social and educational reasons. It is important to know that First Nations teachings provided at a public event such as a conference or workshop are not considered public information. Therefore it is necessary to ask permission of the Elder or the organizers to use this information. (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013) For further information in working with Elders; please see Jonathan H. Ellerby’s work “Working with Indigenous Elders” (2005).
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