Paddy Murray looks at the use of the term “elder” in indigenous cultures and questions our interpretations of what it means to age in modern society.
You are a Kaumatua, a young Maori man, Arana said. I was running a family violence prevention group for men in Sydney. It was a mixed-race group run as a circle with much time spent respectfully listening to each person’s story.
Arana had an interesting story and had made it a point to learn the Maori language, which had not been spoken in his family. He said that when his people came together in a new group, they told their story, described their special physical place and poetry and always in language.
I invited Arana to step into the circle of 15 men to show us how he would do that. He proudly stepped into the circle and spoke passionately in Maori with lots of gesturing. Offering his Mana, or life force, to us all.
The men cheered and clapped the performance. A white Aussie bloke sitting next to me said “we have got nothing like that in our society.” Arana had touched on an archetypal tribal memory—a ritual of belonging. A year later, I was rung for a reference on Arana for a job he was applying for in the welfare industry. He obviously trusted me.
Kaumatua, means ‘elder’ and is associated with: the keeper and teller of stories; knowledge-holder, including law and ceremony; a sense of wisdom and compassion. It also has an association with Mana, a person who emanates some life force and understands that in others, in nature and the bigger spirit realm.
I tell this story because this elder thing is all about context. No one can self-appoint himself or herself as elder or even generally attach that label to themselves. For Arana, I had showed him respect by listening to his story and showing him that I recognized his life force or soul force, his deeper sense of existence.
That was big, as no one else in this time of trouble, heard or acknowledged that. The Kalahari or San people say, “I hear you, I see you” and Arana felt heard and seen.
Kaumatua includes men and women. When wanting to identify gender the word used for men is often Koro and for women Kuia.
Therefore, it is about someone or a group at a point in time feeling that a person has demonstrated the qualities of elder for them. It has become popular to use the word ‘elder’ as a generic term for older men and women. Some invite all older people over a certain age to participate in an elders’ initiation ritual performed by other older people, to be proclaimed as an elder.
Some young people revolt against this, seeing it as an attempt at patriarchal or matriarchal dominance, without them having any say. For me, this sort of behavior diminishes the usefulness of the elder concept, leading me to say there are no elders, just people doing eldering.
With the modern greying of developed societies we are getting heaps of older people. Many spending more and more years in retirement and outside the comfort identity-zone offered by having a job. As such, retirement is an identity crisis and nature abhors a vacuum; so the elder label can be a response to the sense of alienation without identity.
Among indigenous Australian people, the concept of respect for older people is shown by using the word ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie.’ For them, ‘elder’ clearly means knowledge-holder and not all Uncles and Aunties have that. An indigenous friend of mine is an elder or knowledge holder in certain localities and on certain topics; outside of that, he is just another Uncle.
I spoke with a group of older men in a workshop who were examples of elders in their life. The answer was very clear, those that had the wisdom they were seeking and held it with integrity. A recent qualitative study of Australian men, spoke of the wish to have male role models and they defined that very clearly as ‘good men who can inspire’ —as distinct from the media stereotypes of actors, pop stars and sports heroes.
Our knowledge, wisdom and integrity is something that we have spent a lifetime developing, it does not suddenly arise with the touch of a magic wand. Plato said that the only people you should have as a politician is people who don’t want to be one, maybe the same goes for elders.
We can only be ourselves and continue to develop our qualities in a wholesome way; we must be generous in making any of that available to others. At all times, we should create a respectful place of our older people and provide a forum to hear their stories and honor them. Unlike Indigenous people, we have not designated a respectful name for our older people.
Read more Good for the Soul. Redefining the discussion about men and spirituality.
[photo: via Jan Truter on flickr]