Jackie Thomas Swanson

Lesson 1: Personal Identity

Grandparents and Elders in Your Life

In her interview Jackie Thomas Swanson covers a variety of topics she feels are relevant to the cultural and mental well-being of our Native families, tribes, and communities. One area she focuses on is family relationships and how our modern family structures are much different than traditional ones. This dissonance can be seen as an element of historical trauma, where some event or catastrophe damaged the traditional culture to the point that its primary function could no longer operate to benefit the people.

Jackie is adamant that we derive our identity from family and tribe. When we see ourselves as primarily individuals who happen to belong to a group instead of members of a family or tribe first, then we lose something that makes us uniquely Native.

Her example is to look at the role of grandparents in the family structure. In traditional times it was the role of the grandparents to raise the grandchildren. The grandparents lived in the family home and were taken care of as their role was crucial; to raise the youngest generation. The grandparents were raised by their grandparents and their children were raised by the grandparent’s parents. This cycle did a variety of things: it gave the grandparents an important role in the life of the family; it allowed the parents to do the work necessary to maintain the household; it gave the grandchildren access to wisdom accrued through the lifetime of the elders; and it connected the generations in a way that brought harmony to the family and the community.

In his book, “The Third Chimpanzee” Jared Diamond observes that at one time elders were revered for their knowledge and wisdom. Over their lifetimes they had developed and stored many experiences and teachings and practical skills and knowledge. People would turn to the elders for this knowledge be it where to find a certain plant or how to resolve a personal problem. Then writing and books appeared and the knowledge was now stored in these written documents and elders were no longer seen as important or needed. The knowledge was in the books.

Disease and warfare took the lives of many elders. Boarding schools removed many of them from their homes when they were children and they were not able to see or experience how a traditional family lived. Poverty and struggle made family life move from crisis to crisis and there was no sense of stability. Through the teachings and religions and laws of the invaders they were taught the traditional ways of being a family were wrong.

Putting these elements together we can see that an important thread in the fabric of our culture has been damaged; the cross-generational teaching and learning that once happened naturally within our communities is now diminished and grows weaker with every generation.

Answer the following questions:

Please keep in mind if you have non-Native grandparents we are not ignoring them or diminishing their importance for they too are instrumental in the upbringing and teaching of grandchildren. Our emphasis here is to look at the impact of having or not having access to Native grandparents has on the tribal cultural identity and mental health of Native children.

1. Were your Native grandparents active in your upbringing?

If yes, what do you remember in terms of teachings or life lessons or cultural knowledge?

If yes, do you now feel they had been impacted by historical trauma? (i.e. boarding school, adoption, being an orphan, loss of language, etc.)

If no, what do you feel you missed in not knowing your family elders?

2. Are your grandparents still alive?

If yes, do you still receive teachings and cultural knowledge from them?

If no, what do you know about them? Could you tell a short biographical story of their lives?

If no, how could you find out about them and their lives?

What questions would you ask them if you had the chance?

3. What is your opinion of the role of elders in today’s world? Do you think they receive the proper respect they are due?