- Indigenous Elders' Perspective and Position
Inspired by a great deal of work on Indigenous methodologies,1 I feel it appropriate to start by positioning the perspective from which I write this essay. The task I have undertaken is to reflect over the more or less institutionalized concept of an "Indigenous Elders' approach." I will do this from the combined perspective of a Sámi Elder (at least one who is approaching the age of becoming an Elder) and from an academic vantage point in which Indigenous scholarship has been a key instrument in my university practice over the last 3 to 4 decades. Although age is not the only qualifying criterion for achieving the status of an Elder, in my case, I feel, on the one hand, that the experiences that come along with age in addition to growing up in a traditional Sámi community, and, on the other hand, that my role as a long-time instructor of Sámi students in the academy and as a devoted researcher in the field of trans-Indigenous Studies and a commentator on cultural and societal development within the Sámi communities, together should grant me a position from which it is fitting to say a few words about the position of Elders, an issue that has been essential in Indigenous scholarship.
First, I will comment on the concept of Elders and its actual status today, and then I will consider its implications for research. Because [End Page 259] storytelling is central to an Elder's approach, although this is an academic essay, I will operate primarily in the manner of a storyteller, leaving, as tradition would dictate, the final interpretation to the reader. This approach will also have some consequences for my citation practice in this essay, as it is the entire wide field of Indigenous Studies over the last 40 years that has prompted me to investigate a matter so often mentioned, but so seldom theorized. Therefore, I have included a list of references at the end of this essay where I mention some of the texts that have inspired me over the years, without actually having any direct quotations or references to them in the running text. The essay is meant to be congenial to the common reasoning behind roles and position of Elders in Indigenous communities. It is also a twofold attempt at combining academic writing with storytelling, where the story should be free to flow on its own terms. I think this combination should be practiced more as an attempt to bridge two different kinds of knowledge systems in order to disseminate collected wisdom in both Indigenous communities and in the academic world. As should be clear to the reader already, this is an overwhelming enterprise for a brief essay, but I feel that it is time that Indigenous scholarship pose the question of whether the contested importance of the Elder's position is more rhetorical and ideological than practical and factual today. On a more humoristic note, I may add that I am not doing this just because I myself am approaching the age of an Elder, but more as a challenge to myself to try to tell—in a story format—about the position of Indigenous Elders in an otherwise academically fashioned essay.
The Elder's perspective has never been designated as a distinct method within Indigenous research, but in my view, there are actually good reasons to put this idea forward—if not as a distinct method, then at least as an important source of understanding and a way of putting the Indigenous dimension into practice in research. Elders possess a wealth of knowledge and experience that Indigenous cultures have always valued highly. In a fair number of methodological discussions, it has been noted that Elders possess competencies that are not necessarily theorized or described in academic language, but that nevertheless are crucial for the reservoirs of cultural knowledge. At the same time, we know that traditional cultures have not differentiated between theory and practice, but that theory is embodied within practice—that it derives its validation from its functionality; people do what they've always done because experience proves this...