21 March 2011

reflections on elders

One of my favorite things about Alaska is that elders actually exist here.

It took some getting used to, as I've heard my whole life that I should respect my elders, but in a context vastly different than the way it works here. In Alaska, elders aren't just old people, they are people who act in the manner of an elder. There is a dignity attached to it that automatically engenders respect, regardless of age or the mandates of my mother society. This is the classic concept of an elder that all societies have celebrated, yet which is so rare in the remainder of this country.

I went to a function at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall a couple of weeks ago*, and at the beginning of the event, food was served to the assembled guests. Venison soup and fry bread had been prepared, among other items. When the Master of Ceremonies asked for some youth volunteers to serve the elders first, not only did seven or eight teenagers jump up immediately to help, but they then circulated through the room making sure that everyone had a bowl. At this event, the first few rows weren't explicitly reserved for elders, but I saw several people get out of their seats and stand to make room for someone who was having difficulty walking.

More recently, while sitting in the car in a parking lot, I saw a van from the Swan Lake Senior Center here in town come pick up an older lady from the grocery store. Emblazoned on the back of the van was "proud to serve our elders" or something similar. It struck me that that isn't just a slogan here. Yes, children are reminded that their elders should be respected and that attention should be paid to them, but I think they innately understand that in a way that nobody I knew growing up understood it. Here, it's an agreement between the younger and the elder: the younger will respect and honor the elders, but the elders will carry themselves in a manner befitting that honor and respect. I normally like knowing that Alaska is a bit different from the rest of the world, but I wouldn't mind exporting a bit of this.

*non-Alaskans: This event celebrated the life and work of Elizabeth Peratrovich. I know you've never heard of her because I hadn't before moving here. Look her up.

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