An Elder's Gift to his People - an Ojibwa Tradition

This is a story about an elder's gift - his final contribution to his people.  This was the way of death in the traditional Ojibwa culture. 

I'm an Ojibwa elder myself, closing in on eighty years, so I'll tell the story in the Ojibwa way . . . from the beginning.

I never lived on a reservation.  When my mother was pregnant with me, both she and my father disenfranchised . . . that means they formally gave up their treaty rights and left their reserve.  They took an axe and a gun, faced north and walked into the bush north of Lake Superior.  They did it to get away from government restrictions and the influence of the churches.  The result was that I am one of a handful of people still alive who actually lived within the traditional spiritual beliefs of the anishnabeg. 

Spring and Fall we had a pau-au (you know it as pow wow and those celebrations bare little  resemblance to the originals).  Ours was a system of governance - not a dance competition. 

Twice a year, from times forgotten, the seven clans of the Anishnabe gathered to renew family ties, old friendships and to discuss issues and concerns that would impact lives in the future.  It was also a time to resolve disputes if families or individual clans couldn't come to an agreement amongst themselves.  Folks nowadays refer to the procedure as taking their grievance all the way to the Supreme Court.

I mention that so that you can understand that when the clans gathered it was a big deal.

The drum called the clans and it thrumed . . . and thrumed . . .

I remember that it was my grandfather who would tell my father to bring out the drum . . . the big one carved from the base of a single tree. 

My nokum would begin to beat it, sometimes singing quietly to himself.  My father would eventually relieve him, warbling his own song.  Then my grandfather would take up the beat again.  They took turns.  They didn't stop.  Others relieved them. It went on day and night, night and day.  Sometimes for a week or more.  The drum was calling the clans to the pau-au.

If you were across the lake and heard the beat you might climb a hill and drum until others answered from down the river.  They would drum until others answered from over the hills and they would drum and others would drum and it went on and on until everyone was clear that everyone else got the message. 

The moccasin telegraph was very effective.  As people began arriving overland or by canoe, tents were raised and food prepared and messages were passed, about who was or was not able to make their way to the meeting place. Sometimes folks had to travel several days and the drum didn't stop until everyone who wanted to, was present.

Each clan had a dance . . . each clan had a song

One time the drum went on and on and on because we waited for a certain canoe to arrive.  It carried a very old man.  His name was Beb'n. Like me, he was a member of the turtle clan and we all knew that this would be his last pau-au.   Two young men had gone to bring him to us because he was very frail.  The whole process of fetching and delivering him was ceremonial.  A funeral for the living.

He'd come determined to sing his song for us one last time.  He'd made the effort to share with us the last days of his life . . . it was his gift to us.  It was not sad.  Even I knew that I was being honoured.  I think I was probably five years old at the time.

Each clan had a place in a circle around the fire.  There was an entrance to the circle.  The turtle clan members always sat across from the entrance. 

Each clan stood up in turn to dance and to sing their songs.  When it came time for the turtle clan to sing, a small drum was passed to the old man.  He began his song and we began to dance.  That's me in the foreground of the painting, my kokum in the red shawl beside me and the old man sitting on the other side of the fire.

What's all that got to do with you...?

Well, I'd been talking about what kind of gift you could give your Mom or your Dad or your Grandpa when he was very, very old. 

I told you this story because I thought you might notice that there is nothing for you to do except share what is left of their lives.  If you're lucky you can talk about the best times, the hardest times and what it's like for you to say goodbye.  If you're really lucky you can talk about your own fears and personal struggles. 

But all that matters is that you are there to share what is left.  It's their gift to you.  It will soon be gone. 

Your gift to them is to receive what they have to offer and in your heart to sing their song.

Links back to Empressive Gifts

Gifts for Moms

Gifts for Dads

Gifts for Seniors