First Nation youth are culturally obligated to learn and never forget our past if they intend to create a better future for our people. Our elders, who are living history and rank among our most-valued cultural treasures, are their best teachers. A priceless resource, elders provide language revitalization, cultural identity, and impart general wisdom gained over a lifetime of real-world experiences.
Our elders deserve respect and protection, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, extra-special care and attention. According to Courtney Skye, a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute in Toronto and member of Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, today’s health crisis is highlighting one distinction between Indigenous and Western values. “Non-Indigenous young people are still going on spring break, still going out partying. I don’t necessarily see that in our communities as much. Our community understands that collective value that we have and the role that we all play in supporting one another,” says Skye. “Elders don’t just have worth because they are caregivers or because they are knowledge keepers. They also just have human dignity and value themselves as people. For me, that’s a really strong Haudenosaunee value.”
Because First Nation family members visit each other often, Kahnawake Public Safety Commissioner Lloyd Phillips said that our communities are especially vulnerable to a rapid spread of the virus. “We know there’s going to be impacts across the board, we know there’s impacts on individuals, on businesses, and people’s lives, but it’s a requirement to protect the most vulnerable and to protect our elders,” said Phillips. “We have to take extra measures to protect our elders, which also falls in lines with our traditions of ensuring we are respecting our elders.”
Elders at Wikwemikong Nursing Home, whose values are based upon the Anishinaabe people’s Seven Grandfather Teachings, are relying on social media to remind families that it best for them to not visit and keep their distance. This because elders are particularly vulnerable to complications and possible death if infected with COVID-19.
Reinforcing the message of the necessity for social distancing, self-isolating, and handwashing – three key factors in preventing the spread of COVID-19 – the facility, located on the Manitoulin Island north of Lake Huron in Ontario, launched the public awareness campaign after administrator Cheryl Osawabine-Peltier felt people, not just locally but worldwide, were not taking precautions seriously enough.
Physical distancing and self-isolating is not synonymous with not communicating. Since every person, young and old, requires socializing, the Wikwemikong Nursing Home’s campaign includes messages from elders to their loved ones saying, “I know you love me,” and “we can Skype.” Osawabine-Peltier considers all Wikwemikong Nursing Home residents to be her grandparents and treats them accordingly. “As Indigenous people, we always hold our elders to the highest level,” said Osawabine-Peltier.
Peggy Mayo is the president of Golden Age Club in Kahnawake, Quebec. Her facility, like Wikwemikong, were ahead of the curve when they officially limited access to its long-term care facilities well before the provincial government ordered visitor bans. The Golden Age Club’s staff abided by their own rule by ordering employees over the age of 70 to work from home to limit physical contact with elders.
Physical isolation can be troublesome and a difficult adjustment to make for social-minded people, which is why Mayo checks in by phone with her most isolated members and connects them with volunteers who shop for their groceries and pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy. “Every day, I’m on the phone at least five-to-10 times a day, calling various people to see how they are, how’s everything going, thinking of them, and hopefully when this is all over, we’ll get together again real soon,” said Mayo. “It’s very important that we don’t forget about anyone, so they don’t feel alone.”