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A fragile relationship between Indigenous elders and youth has left dozens of cultures at risk of extinction. Rosa Saba talks to those trying to repair the damages of colonialism

Rosalind Williams walks with her grandson Aaron along the shore line of the Shuswap River in Enderby, B.C.

After Rosalind Williams' grandson Aaron was born, one of the elders in their community would visit the baby every day. Even if the boy was sleeping, the man known to everyone as "Grandpa" Francis Thomas would sit beside him for hours, watching – as if he was contemplating the child's future.

Grandpa Francis, who died at the age of 95, when Aaron was 10, knew there was something special about the boy, said Williams, a member of the Splatsin band of the B.C. Interior. "He recognized something in Aaron when Aaron was just an infant – and he invested in him."

Williams watched with pride as her grandson's relationship with community elders deepened over the years. He always greeted them with respect and listened to their stories, learning Splatsin traditions such as berry picking and salmon fishing.

"Being around the elders has been pretty beneficial to me," said Aaron, now 28. "It kind of helped me with my own identity." He manages media, documentation and archiving at the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn, or Splatsin Teaching Centre, while his grandmother co-ordinates the band's language and culture program.

For 40 years, Williams has been gathering all the knowledge she can from the Splatsin elders while trying to strengthen their bond with the younger generations. "We teach children to recognize and respect that small handful of people," she said. That handful is indeed very small – there are only seven or eight fluent Splatsin speakers, most approaching 90. "We're fighting time … our focus has to be on them."

As in many Indigenous communities, Splatsin elders have always formed a system of knowledge. And, as is also common across Canada, the line of transmission between them and the youth of their communities has been splintered owing to generations of colonial damage to Indigenous governance, language and culture.

None of the more than 60 Indigenous languages in Canada was considered safe by UNESCO as of 2013. All of them fall within four categories of endangerment, from "vulnerable" to "critically endangered." The Secwepemc language family – which includes Splatsin – is "definitely endangered."

Repairing knowledge transfer is largely dependent on small programs such as the one run by Williams. But the few elders with that traditional knowledge are passing away, and many people who grew up in the residential-school system don't have the knowledge required to be considered an elder in the traditional sense.

The term elder "is not a title, it's a form of recognition," said Michael Etherington, an Omushkego Cree of the Mushkegowuk nation and the manager of the cultural department for the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT). He said what elders have to offer is, in his language, pimatisiwin, which means "our way of life."

Many elders begin by saying, "'Let me share a story,'" Etherington said. "When they share that story, they're not being prescriptive. They're doing it in a manner that's accessible for you to learn." The Omushkego Cree term for this is weskatch tipachimowin the use of traditional stories to illustrate common life experiences and practical wisdom. Mowin means speech, which highlights the fact this knowledge is generally shared in an oral tradition.

Some elders also use objects to share wisdom. Jamie-Lee Oshkabewisens grew up in Wikwemikong First Nation, the largest reserve on Manitoulin Island, where elders often carry "bundles" of objects they have gathered throughout their lives. These may be ceremonial and could include pipes, sacred medicines and eagle feathers. The more objects an elder has in their bundle, the more knowledge they have to share.

"As Anishinaabe people, we're oral storytellers," Oshkabewisens said, highlighting the importance of talking to these elders. Although the 25-year-old felt disconnected from his culture as a child, he began attending more gatherings and ceremonies as a teenager. There, he was able to connect and learn from elders, strengthening his bond with the community.

Teachings from traditional elders are like seeds, Etherington said, and those who receive them can choose whether to nurture them.

One experience that stands out for him was with an Inuk elder named Mariano Aupilardjuk, who only spoke Inuktitut. With a family friend present to translate, Aupilardjuk shared some of his teachings through three rocks – simple, but carrying powerful meaning.

Michael Etherington (right) had a transformative experience with Inuk elder Mariano Aupilardjuk in 2009.

One was round and smooth; another, jagged and broken; and the third was round as well – but not as perfect as the first. The three rocks, Etherington learned, represented the past, the present and the future. The present was broken, but as Aupilardjuk told him, it could be repaired, which was what the third rock represented.

"It's not perfect, but it's the way forward," the elder told him. This resonated with Etherington, who sees firsthand the result of families torn apart by government policies such as the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.

He meets many young Indigenous people struggling with their identities, especially those who grew up outside their communities. Etherington advises them that reconnecting with their past will be difficult and often painful. "They want to know the teachings, the culture, the feel-good, but no one wants to hear these conversations," he said, referring to stories of displacement and damage.

Many such people identify as "urban Indigenous," which Etherington considers a colonial disconnect, one still perpetuated by the Canadian government. "I see the concept of community as moving away from that bureaucracy and tying our people back together," he said.

For him, one elder in particular encapsulated the way forward: his late great-aunt Marguerite Wabano, who was the oldest living residential-school survivor until she passed away in 2015. Wabano was one of four survivors who were invited to see Stephen Harper deliver the Canadian government's official apology in 2008.

Mr. Etherington said Wabano's advice was simple: Toonenamok, which means "forgive others." "Those words can never be forgotten," he said. "They can guide the community forward."

Various cultural programs at the NCCT are designed to help elders and youth rekindle their connection. Artist Karis Jones-Pard, 20, began attending programs there about five years ago. She grew up in Toronto with her father, who is Salish, from the west coast of British Columbia. Her mother is Blackfoot, of southern Alberta.

"There's a tradition that, because you were born from your mother, you sort of identify with her side more," Jones-Pard said. "But because I grew up only with my dad, it's kind of this weird disconnect."

When she was young, a medicine man in Lethbridge gave her a name in the Blackfoot language, Maohksisttsii, which she still struggles to pronounce. It means "red bird woman," signifying a creative spirit.

"I remember him very clearly saying that I would do great things," she said. "I kind of took it as I'm meant to touch the lives of every single person that I meet."

But she was also targeted in school for being Indigenous, which made her uncomfortable with her identity for many years. Growing up so far from her parents' roots also contributed to the sense of dissociation.

Even at the NCCT, the fact her family's culture and language were not local proved difficult. "I was learning all these traditions but I knew that they weren't exactly my people's traditions," she said. She is not alone: Displacement means young people may meet leaders who don't have the knowledge they are looking for.

A result is the emergence of what Williams calls "contemporary elders," people who learn as much as they can about a culture that is really foreign to them, becoming a different kind of leader. Williams knows these people mean well, but she said they risk not fully understanding the protocols of leadership in their culture and taking on the role of an elder regardless of whether their community considers them one.

These contemporary elders are more prescriptive, more ceremonial. Unlike traditional elders, whose role is to share their experiences after a lifetime of gaining knowledge and wisdom, contemporary elders often serve as public figures. Their efforts can be misdirected and result in further cultural confusion.

Aaron Leon holds a portrait of Splatsin elder “Grandpa” Francis Thomas.

Williams explained that for people trying to reconnect with their culture, it's hard to discern who to follow – without that deeply rooted concept of who elders are, the prescriptive and authoritative nature of contemporary elders can be more influential than the quiet ways of traditional elders.

"They're hungry for knowledge, they're hungry for guidance, so they don't know," she said. "Lots of times, they fall under the influence of someone like that and it takes them a long time before they actually figure it out."

Such non-traditional leaders can flourish in the urban space because the traditional community framework is even more damaged there, Etherington said. "In an urban perspective, most of the association is through an agency or organization. … But those are naturally divisive concepts."

But both Williams and Etherington want to make space for those who lost their connections because of residential schools – even though they may not hold traditional knowledge. And these survivors have something else to share: knowledge of resiliency. "I think it's important to give acknowledgment to those people who grew up away from their culture," Williams said.

The question of what it means to be an elder is complicated, varying from community to community, but it's also quite simple. "It's about who they are," Etherington said. "They've developed respect and recognition."

At the Splatsin Tsm7aksaltn, children have an opportunity to learn the language as well as important cultural traditions. "If [the elders] taught you something … they'd be able to identify, in their transmission of knowledge, how many generations that knowledge has been passed down," Williams said. "That's how we can validate, from generation to generation, that we didn't just make this up."

One way the centre is trying to promote the language is by accrediting its classes, which means people learning the Splatsin language can get university credit. "There are some young people in the community who haven't been shaken up in their lifetime," Williams said. "Those young people seem to have a better understanding and appreciation."

This includes her grandson, whose name in the Splatsin language, Tskwluwi7kn, means "straight, on point, like an arrow." After attending university in Montreal, Aaron returned home and has started facilitating arts programs in an effort to provide more spaces where the language can be spoken.

His path has been different than that of other young people who "haven't returned to their own community, where the help is most needed," Williams said.

Aaron said he realized the importance of elders' knowledge in public school, when he noticed a stark difference between what he had learned from his elders and what was being taught – especially Indigenous history.

Much of the knowledge he gained from the elders, especially in the Splatsin language, had to do with local cultural practices such as hunting or berry picking, which are intrinsically connected to the history of the community. Knowing how to fish for salmon or make birch bark baskets is more than just useful information – it has been passed down for generations and is tied to the land and the traditional language.

In fact, that's one of the barriers to promoting the language: The vocabulary is rooted in traditions and experiences that many people don't participate in often or at all. "There is no place for it in contemporary society," Aaron said. And so the centre's programs try to recreate those traditional spaces so elders can pass on the language and the culture to young people like him.

"All of the stuff that's significant to those knowledge keepers is significant to him. It was instilled in his brain, in his life as a young child," Williams said.

She believes Grandpa Francis was right about him. "It really gives you a sense of hope."