Honoring Elders

Honoring Elders: Aging, Authority, and Ojibwe Religion

MICHAEL D. McNALLY
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/mcna14502
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  • Book Info
    Honoring Elders
    Book Description:

    Like many Native Americans, Ojibwe people esteem the wisdom, authority, and religious significance of old age, but this respect does not come easily or naturally. It is the fruit of hard work, rooted in narrative traditions, moral vision, and ritualized practices of decorum that are comparable in sophistication to those of Confucianism. Even as the dispossession and policies of assimilation have threatened Ojibwe peoplehood and have targeted the traditions and the elders who embody it, Ojibwe and other Anishinaabe communities have been resolute and resourceful in their disciplined respect for elders. Indeed, the challenges of colonization have served to accentuate eldership in new ways.

    Using archival and ethnographic research, Michael D. McNally follows the making of Ojibwe eldership, showing that deference to older women and men is part of a fuller moral, aesthetic, and cosmological vision connected to the ongoing circle of life-a tradition of authority that has been crucial to surviving colonization. McNally argues that the tradition of authority and the authority of tradition frame a decidedly indigenous dialectic, eluding analytic frameworks of invented tradition and naïve continuity. Demonstrating the rich possibilities of treating age as a category of analysis, McNally provocatively asserts that the elder belongs alongside the priest, prophet, sage, and other key figures in the study of religion.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51825-3
    Subjects: Religion, Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xix-xxiii)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xxiv-xxiv)
  7. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-41)

    In the Ojibwe language, a number of terms apply to elders. The primary one is gichi anishinaabe (“great person”), nothing short of the paragon of humanity, a Mensch. An “old man” is an akiwenzii, glossed by one Ojibwe source as “long dweller on the earth”; to call a woman “an old woman,” mindimooyenh, is a huge compliment. An elder is also known as a gichi-aya’aa (“a great/old being there” or “s/he that is greater”), a term that can also be applied to impressive or aged animals, trees, and plants. Even the verb denoting the plain fact of being aged, gikaa-,...

  8. 1 AGING AND THE LIFE CYCLE IMAGINED IN OJIBWE TRADITION AND LIVED IN HISTORY
    (pp. 42-81)

    Life cycles are imagined even as they are lived, and our experience in living them is importantly shaped by those ways we imagine the life cycle. Whatever our culture or moment in time, as humans, our bodies commonly are born, mature, age, and die. But our respective experiences of that process (and even our bodies themselves) are as much inflected by culturally specific imaginings of the life cycle and its meaning as determined by the biological facts of our aging. For example, the category of adolescence, which we take to be such an axiomatic and natural demarcation of the transition...

  9. 2 ELDERSHIP, RESPECT, AND THE SACRED COMMUNITY
    (pp. 82-123)

    Several Native people to whom I have introduced this project have been curious whether I could generate enough material on the subject of elders to fill an entire book. In part, their curiosity owes to the fact that honoring elders is so axiomatic in today’s Ojibwe communities. In part, though, it may derive from an Anishinaabe conviction that honoring elders cannot be divorced from respect for all others: human others, but also plants, animals, weather phenomena, rocks, ancestors, and spirits. As Thomas Peacock puts it, “As with our ancestors, the path to wisdom really comes down to simple things, simple...

  10. 3 ELDERS AS GRANDPARENTS AND TEACHERS
    (pp. 124-158)

    As the last chapter shows, eldership has less to do with the maturation of individuals through the natural life cycle than with the relational place and authority of older people in a sacred community. This chapter considers the most elemental social role of old people in Anishinaabe communities, that of grandparents, but acknowledges the expansive notion of grandparenthood as applying to all people of one’s grandparent’s generation. There is, I will show, a vocation of grandparenthood, a vocation organized around the work of education through example, through reproof, and most powerfully through stories. In other words, this chapter considers the...

  11. 4 ELDERS ARTICULATING TRADITION
    (pp. 159-229)

    Moving out from the familial/pedagogical authority of elders as grandparents, this chapter elaborates on the more public nature of elders’ authority. Of course, given the expansive reach of grandparenthood described in the previous chapter, there can be no stark distinction between private and public authority. But we should consider more directly the dynamics of eldership as that form of public authority charged with defining what tradition is to be in any given situation. Elders can be seen as stewards of tradition, those who meet needs of those around them, as stewards do, with a judicious economy that implies fidelity to...

  12. 5 THE SACRALIZATION OF ELDERSHIP
    (pp. 230-279)

    In The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society, Leo Simmons locates the chief relevance of the elderly in terms of their religious presence. “Not all magicians have been old nor have all aged persons been shamans,” Simmons writes, “but superannuation and the supernatural have been very commonly linked.” Because of their role as ritual leaders, “the aged have been afforded an excellent means for continued participation in the vital affairs of community life, to the mutual advantage of themselves and younger generations.”¹

    In a sense this has been true for Anishinaabe people for some time. Although the difference between...

  13. 6 THE SHAPE OF WISDOM
    (pp. 280-314)

    In each of the previous chapters I have endeavored to denaturalize Anishinaabe eldership, to put it into historical motion in order to see the different uses and meanings it has accrued over the years and also to claim how consistently the practices of deference and sagacity that constitute eldership have been the stuff of disciplined thought and action, of hard work. Anishinaabe tradition and Anishinaabe history show that honoring elders comes anything but naturally or easily.

    In this chapter I want to ask why it has remained such an urgent priority for Anishinaable people to continue the practices of eldership...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 315-354)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 355-364)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 365-382)