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Honoring the Elders: Interviews with Two Lakota Men

By Bowen, Deborah E. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Honoring the Elders: Interviews with Two Lakota Men


Bowen, Deborah E., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The beliefs that honoring the elders, commitment to family, and the connectedness to all creation are paramount are intrinsic to Lakota culture. Two Lakota elders, Albert White Hat, Sr. and Sylvan White Hat, Sr. are interviewed for this article. They express their concerns with major social justice issues, and offer hope for future generations of Lakota children. A strengths-based perspective of social work practice is compared to traditional Lakota customs and practices.

Key words: elders, connectedness, social justice, Lakota, strengths-based, traditions

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   Albert was telling about when he was a boy. He and other boys
   would go along the creekbeds in winter. The creeks were frozen
   over long periods of time, and the ice would be buckled up.
   Sometimes crawling, the boys would go through the tunnels under
   the snow made by the ice lifted up from the creek. I could see him
   then, a Lakota boy. When he got older he said he worked for ranchers
   around here, around Rosebud. He became a cowboy, he was a Lakota
   cowboy. Now, Albert's a teacher. He's taught at the college for
   several years and other places. He's older now, and, needless to
   say, he is Lakota and always will be.

        Simon Ortiz, 1998, p. 66

In the culture and tradition of the Sicangu Lakota people of South Dakota, honor and strength are paramount. To be honored, to be singled out of the tribe, is the greatest gift that can be bestowed upon a tribal member. To bestow honor upon another by verbalizing his deeds and personal characteristics is the greatest gift one can give. This is particularly true when it comes to honoring the Elders. Respect for Elders is not only expected, it is an integral component of tribal culture.

   "Life demands that we exercise perseverance, face adversity with
   courage, demonstrate fortitude in the midst of temptation, tell the
   truth no matter how painful, walk in humility, sacrifice for our
   families, practice generosity to be truly rich, respect all who are
   a part of the Great Circle of Life, choose honor above personal
   gain, act with compassion toward the needy, strive for harmony
   in personal relationships, and otherwise demonstrate the virtues
   that give meaning to life," (Marshall, 2001, p. 202).

Marshall's notion of honoring is coupled with the concept of the connectedness of all life. The idea of such connectedness is the basis for the Lakota term mitakuye oyas'in, one of the cornerstones in the belief system of the Lakota people. It means that everything that has ever been, or ever will be, created--every person, every animal, every plant, every stone, all the waters, Father Sky, and Mother Earth herself--are related. Coupled with the concept of mitakuye oyas'in is the notion of the tiospaye, or a group of people who live together or who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption (White Hat, 1999; Marshall, 2001).

The concept of strength among the Lakota people means not only physical strength, but strength of character, strength of self-sufficiency, and strength of the bond of the tiospaye (White Hat, 1999). Saleebey's (1992) strengths-based model of social work practice in many ways parallels the Lakota beliefs of empowerment, connectedness and synergy. Thus, social workers would do well to study Lakota beliefs as a way of honoring both our clients and the traditions of a great indigenous people.

While Saleebey (1992) speaks of empowerment and membership as hallmarks of the strengths perspective of social work practice and interpersonal relationships, the Lakota people have been living these concepts for hundreds of years. Thus, the terms mitakuye oyas'in and tiospaye were central in my recent interviews with Albert White Hat, Sr. and Sylvan White Hat, Sr.

I have been acquainted with Albert and Sylvan for several years. In my work at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I accompany students on service-learning trips around the United States and Central America.

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