This is a legacy provincial website of the ATA. Visit our new website here.

Conversations with Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers

June 12, 2018 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Métis elder Irene Loutitt and First Nation knowledge keeper Rocky Morin. (CORY HARE)

Thoughts on reconciliation, education and hope for the future

Despite challenges, future is bright for Indigenous people, elder says

When Irene Loutitt was a girl, her long, braided hair and her race made her obviously different.

“I went to a non-Indigenous town when I was 11 years old to go to school, and I ran into so much racism,” says the Indigenous elder, who is originally from the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta.

“It was terrible the harm it did me. It gave me a lot of bitterness, and I didn’t like white people because of that. Now, it’s come a long ways.”

While racism still exists, it’s not like she experienced it as a girl, Loutitt says.

“I think it’s improving … because we’re out there now. We see successful Aboriginal people lots of times. There’s lawyers, doctors, teachers … nurses.

“Years ago — I can remember back 50 years now — you didn’t hear of any [Indigenous people] going to university. Now we’re getting educated and getting degrees and being role models for our community.”

Loutitt now lives in Wetaskiwin and works in children’s services. She says she feels proud every time she sees an Indigenous person in a visible professional role or doing well in business. While this is happening more and more, Indigenous people still live with serious challenges.

“I like to think they’re doing well, but at the same time we need to be honest ... their housing — there’s so many that live in one house, for example,” Loutitt says.

Housing, health and education are the main issues that need to be addressed.

“They all go together,” she says. “I think, in general, things are getting better.”

Elder protocol
Indigenous people generally do not refer to themselves as an elder.

While she’s considered an elder by her community, Loutitt refers to herself as a storyteller/teacher.

While racism has decreased, other trends are a concern. For example, it’s a challenge to ensure that traditional ways aren’t forgotten.

“Long ago almost everybody in my community hunted and trapped,” Loutitt says. “There are just a few in my community still that know. Most of the old-timers are gone.”

She stressed how important it is for Indigenous people to tell their stories and teach their language.

“I didn’t teach my kids [Cree], which I totally regret now,” she says. “I was younger then and didn’t really see it as really, really important as I do now.”

Regarding reconciliation, Loutitt says “it can be a good thing.”

“I think that it’s going to take a lot of effort for everyone to make it happen, to make those calls to action happen,” she says.

Loutitt’s message for non-Indigenous people is to break free from any fears that may be preventing them from reaching out.

“They need to not be afraid to ask the Aboriginal community, and to not be afraid of doing something wrong or saying something wrong,” she says.

For Indigenous people, she hopes to see more and more improving themselves through education and taking on visible professional roles.

“I hope that all Indigenous people keep moving forward and that there’s acceptance among all people.” ❚

Resilience drives Indigenous people to success

Q&A with knowledge keeper Rocky Morin

A member of the Enoch Cree Nation that borders Edmonton’s western boundary, Rocky Morin does a lot of cultural engagement work with teachers, school administrators and students. Sometimes referred to as a knowledge keeper, he prefers to refer to himself simply as a helper. The ATA News sat down with Morin after he’d spent a day helping at an event for teachers learning about the ATA’s latest Walking Together: Education for Reconciliation workshops.

It seems like reconciliation is being embraced by non-Indigenous people. What is your perspective on reconciliation?
I find for some [Indigenous people] there’s hesitancy, and I’ve heard directly from some that we shouldn’t have to reconcile because we haven’t really done anything that requires us to reconcile what happened. So some view it as a one-way street.
But in talking with many others, including a lot of elders, they say it has to go both ways, that relationship. So I think it’s important for Indigenous people to educate themselves about what that means — reconciliation — and what they can do on their part.

What would you like non-Indigenous people to know about your traditional ways, language, values and culture?
To try to understand or acknowledge that our ways are alive, our languages, our ceremonies. Our world view is all based on the idea that there’s a life force. That’s how we live in balance and harmony, and we treat everything — from the insects, the plants, the animals, the grass, the air — we treat it all with great respect because our understanding is that it’s alive. It deserves the respect from us as humans, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

To what extent do you feel it’s possible for Indigenous people to adhere to traditional ways, language, values and culture within the context of modern society?
It’s always been a struggle to find that balance, to walk in both worlds. On one hand, our elders direct us to maintain our languages, our sovereignty, our nationhood, to still have that relationship with the land, hunting, trapping and fishing, continue with our age-old ceremonies, the songs — all those things. On the other hand, we have to find ways to survive in modern society with housing, infrastructure, health, governance, education, so it’s trying to find that balance to be able to walk in both worlds.

I know the elders have always had a fear that if we forget our traditional ways, then we become assimilated and that’s not what they had wanted. I think it’s an ongoing struggle, but at the same time there is hope. There are younger people that are taking an interest in rediscovering themselves, their language. There are young people wanting to pick up the drum, learn the songs, put on an outfit and dance.

The languages are surging even at the early level ... there’s a lot of hope right there.

How would you describe the state of education of Indigenous children and youth?
We’re gradually increasing the number of our students graduating high school. In post-secondary we see an increase in graduates getting their degrees, getting their doctorates, PhDs. We’re seeing those numbers climb. It is gradual but it is happening so I think, on the positive side, things do look good moving forward.
But again, it’s an ongoing struggle. We’re faced with higher unemployment numbers, poverty, incarceration, addictions, those kinds of things, so again it’s trying to balance it out and bring our people up so they can succeed in this world.

What changes would you like to see take place?
Language, also land-based teachings, taking the kids onto the land and helping them to connect to their surroundings. It will have an effect on them that will only supplement their classroom learning.

If they’re outside spending a little bit of the day under the sun or standing on the grass, putting tobacco down by a tree, all those land-based teachings are going to help to restore that balance of traditional knowledge and Western [knowledge].

Some schools — not too many yet but some — are doing that. That’s something I’d like to see more of moving forward.

How would you describe the overall state of Indigenous people today?
A lot of it is resilience despite the past. Despite what’s happened, our people are here still.

We’re still faced with all these struggles, but at the same time, on the positive side, we are seeing progress. With racism … even as little as 20 years ago when I was in high school, it’s different now than how it was for me.

It’s different for my son today, as he tells me. I think there’s definitely progress there.

There was a time when, not too long ago, our ways, our ceremonies were outlawed. It was against the law to gather and do these things. There was a time when our people weren’t allowed to vote; we weren’t considered citizens. We couldn’t go to bars. Even university — there was a time when we weren’t allowed to seek an education.

Now we look today and so much progress has been made in that amount of time, so it makes you think, in the next 20, 30 years, how’s it going to look? I think our people are doing much better and I think it will continue.

What is your hope for the future?
I’d like to see a respectful relationship with non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, one that’s based on mutual respect, kindness and helping one another, sharing. And I think it’s going to be the next generation to kind of see that through. That’s really oftentimes what motivates me to continue to do work with education and culture, is knowing that I’m being a part of that change that will happen, that’s happening right now.

And the elimination of racism, that’s really what I would love to see one day, and I think it’s possible. I think we’re moving in the right direction. ❚

Note: Some answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.


The term elder refers to someone recognized by their community as having attained a high degree of understanding of First Nations, Métis or Inuit history, spirituality, traditional language, cultural teachings, ceremonies or healing practices. Elders have worked and studied over a period of time with other elders to earn the right to pass on this specialized knowledge and give advice on personal and community issues. Elders are highly revered and respected role models and mentors for all people. They embody First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture through their words, actions and being.

Gender and age are not factors, nor are they criteria in determining who is recognized as an elder. Some elders may be female. Other elders may be comparatively young in age but very well versed in ceremonial and cultural practices.

Elders don’t describe themselves as such, but rather it’s the First Nations, Métis and Inuit community that recognizes and identifies the person as having acquired and earned the gifts of an elder.

Knowledge keepers or cultural advisors are persons recognized and identified by elders of the community as being knowledgeable about cultural practices or world views. Rather than
being called elders, these people may be referred to as knowledge keepers or cultural advisors.

Source: Stepping Stones — Elder Protocol, the Alberta Teachers’ Association

More to come

Watch for more interviews and stories with Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers in the ATA News next year.

Also In This Issue