An important Elder dies almost every day, somewhere in Indian country. When they die, important information on tribal history, tribal traditions, family history, language, songs, stories, etc., die with them. Therefore, it is so very important that we take the time to sit with Elders and preserve information for the benefit of future generations.
As one who has had some experience talking with many different tribal Elders and holy persons about a variety of topics for over 30 years now, I would like to offer the following methods that have worked for me in some situations when a video camera or a tape recorder is not welcome, at least not initially. Remember, a lot of Elders are still kind of shy about the whole ‘anthropologist style' interview thing, and may not want to participate right off.
1. If I do not know the Elder I want to talk with, I usually find a friend or relation that can introduce me to the Elder. Someone they already know and trust. I chat with them and become friends with them. In many tribal traditionsc it is considered impolite to start asking questions right off the bat. So I might suggest that I come to visit with them at their home at another time, and share a cup of coffee. If the Elder agrees, I usually try and set a day and time before we part company.
2. When I come to the Elder's home, it shows a level of sincerity and commitment on my part and helps put the Elder at ease in their own surroundings. When I arrive, I will make sure to bring a bag of groceries. One bag is enough. More than one could be taken as an insult, implying that you think they are poor or needy. One bag of groceries however usually is taken as a sign of respect and generosity. You are showing your willingness to help out. The groceries I usually pick out are basics like flour, sugar, coffee, fresh fruit, potatoes, canned vegetables, that sort of thing. I usually give the bag of groceries to the woman of the house, if there is one. I may just set it down on the kitchen counter saying, “I brought this just to help out in a small way.” I try not to make a big deal of it, because I’m not looking for thanks or recognition, as humility is another important cultural trait to remember, especially with Elders.
3. Because many of the tribal Elders I talk with are “traditional”, I also make sure to bring some tobacco with me. Even if the Elder does not smoke, I give him or her a pack of non-filter cigarettes, or a small bag of plain, loose tobacco. If the Elder does not smoke, they may have an occasion to give tobacco to someone else. If the Elder follows a traditional spiritual practice common in the Northern and Southern Plains especially, they will know the subtle significance of the tobacco gift. You have come to ask them something.
4. I then usually follow the lead of my Elder host. Usually, a cup of coffee is offered, and I visit for a short time of 15 to 20 minutes or so. Chit-chatting about the weather, people we may know in common, where I come from and what I do, or maybe talk about community happenings, etc. Usually, the Elder may then say something like, “So what's on your mind?” or “What brings you here?” or “So, what did you want to know?” and something like that. I usually wait for the Elder to announce in some way that they feel comfortable talking about serious matters now.
5. If the Elder does not give me a subtle sign that they are ready to talk about some serious topics, I may find an appropriate pause to say something like, “You know, I’ve often wondered about….”, or “The other day I was talking with ‘so-and-so' about ‘this-and-that' and I started into thinking about….” This might open things up for the Elder to begin talking about a particular topic that he or she now knows you are interested in.
6. Many times I have found that Elders feel it is impolite to ask them questions directly, like “What do you know about…”, or “Tell me about….”, or “I’ve heard you know a lot about….” Elders are often put on the defensive by such questions, and may not respond because of it. Frequently, they want me to understand that they know very little about a subject (although in reality, they may know quite a bit). The Elder usually tries to remain the humble keeper of knowledge, not the “know-it-all expert.” To ask a direct question of an Elder also implies, in their mind, that they have the responsibility to tell me everything in the most perfect way. Something that they may not feel capable of doing.
7. When an Elder starts talking about a serious cultural topic I want to know about, I usually do more listening than anything else. I make mental notes of everything that is said so I can write down as much as possible on a notepad I keep in my truck, once I leave his or her home. If the Elder is giving a lot of information, more than I can remember, I might ask them if they mind if I get a notepad in my truck so that I can write some of the information down. Frequently, they admire my desire to accurately preserve the information at that point, and willingly pause long enough for me to get a pen and paper.
8. Once I have made the initial contact, and the first home visit or two, and become good friends with the Elder, depending on the Elder and the topic, I might suggest to them that I could record some of the information they have already told me so that future generations may benefit from the knowledge also. If they agree, then I set a day and a time and bring my recorder. I may also bring recordings for them to listen to, of interviews I have done with other Elders, so that they can see how it would come out. Many times old songs and their meanings are preserved in this way. I then would follow a format to identify the person, the date, the location, and the information being presented.
9. Most important, whenever I have made friends with an Elder and learned from them, maybe even made recordings of them, I always make a point to stay in touch. Make a friend and be a friend. It is an important thing to remember that the learning process can be an on-going process. Depending on the situation, the topic and the Elder, my initial inquiry can lead to many more learning opportunities and even referrals to other Elders as well.
Please keep in mind that of the many tribal Elders I’ve had the honor of talking with over the years, the majority have told me that they are willing to pass on cultural information, but few people ask them any questions, and even fewer ask the appropriate questions in a culturally acceptable manner.
I hope this helps.