The Importance of Elders
By: Brad Cole

The large white owl leaped out of the willows and flapped its great arching wings and soared across the snow covered slough, disappearing behind the bushy horizon. It was late on a March afternoon and a star had just arrived in the western sky to signal the ending of the day. I had spooked the owl while walking along a snow machine trail. It was probably the largest owl I had ever seen, I thought, while continuing on with my trek through the snow, wanting to reach the point where the willows close in on the slough, leaving no more bank on which to walk and forcing me to turn around and head back to Emmonak. A soft breeze shuffled down the slough from the south bringing with it a mild warmth.

Seeing the beauty of wild animals enhances the way we see nature, I reflected while stepped into my own footprints while returning to the mouth of the slough, opening out to the Yukon River. Wild animals give nature a soul and a meaning that go beyond the practical concerns of our everyday lives. It is this spirit in nature that helps us to center our lives.

But I also get the same feeling of centering when I remember walking into my grandmother's apartment as a child. Her furniture was old and antiques cluttered up the small living room with a dark colored couch. It felt like a place from a time far removed from present day society. Memories and old connections to things now past hung on her walls in photographs and small tapestries. There was so much meaning in those keepsakes and various objects that she could never abandon. The room embraced so many memories and emotions that as a child I would never be able to understand. Only the feeling of love came across in that small apartment and it fed my childish but slowly growing spirit. I learned the meaning of becoming centered by seeing the eyes of my grandmother, much as it does now by watching a raven fly across the willows.

I saw that the sun was slowly settling into a bank of clouds on the horizon so I quickened my pace being anxious to start an evening steam bath. I loved the feeling of heat when first sitting down and preparing for the waves of steam to assault the body. The heat of the fire draws out the rich spirit that lies buried within our lives, like a fine silvery smoke rising from heated wood.

Elders are so important in the lives of their children, I pondered as I walked out on to the mouth of the slough, the Yukon River stretch endless miles to my left and right. They can draw the truth out of a youth and show the child how to see problems more clearly. Experience is the greatest of teachers. As a teacher in Emmonak I focus on reading, writing and math. But Elders can teach the children how to move into the dark universe that surrounds our day and night, up and down world.

Walking back down the slough I saw tracks that I missed on the way up. The ever present fox tracks dancing across the powdery snow, winding their way in and out of the willows, circling their way across the tundra like a half crazed, restless spirit. A raven flew overhead with its stout wings barely flapping, crying out "gree-muk", "gree-muk". It must be mistaking me for someone else, I thought while climbing up a small hill of deep snow and hurrying back to the village.