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Aging & Society

What we can learn from a Tribal Elder

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In Sioux culture, a tribal elder is defined as a man or woman with meaningful experience and indisputable wisdom, despite age.

At 75, Francis Whitebird very much fits the image. Tall, powerfully built, dignified, with long flowing locks of black hair, he is a prominent and respected presence in the Lakota Sioux community that resides on the vast Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota.  But when you ask him about sharing advice with others, his answer is a surprise. 

“I never give advice” he says. “I tell people what I know. They can take it or leave it.”

In the more than 550 federally recognized Native American nations across the U.S., it is traditional for elders to receive a high level of esteem and respect not always accorded their counterparts in many other cultures.   But age alone does not qualify one to be considered an elder.  

“There must be real accomplishment over time – serving in the military, succeeding at farming, ranching or some profession, being a steward of the land, providing for a family,” he says.  “There is no ceremony or appointment – it just happens.”  

I first met Francis in 1969 when we served together in an infantry company in Vietnam.  He was a medic – fearless in combat – and his presence reassured the troops on the battlefield.  His status as a warrior– revered in many Indian cultures  – was just the first step in a distinguished resume; he would go on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard and serve as South Dakota’s Secretary of Tribal Relations.   

Throughout his life, Francis says, he’s heeded the lessons and examples of his aunt and uncle, John and Minnie Whitebird Face, who raised him from the age of four after his birth parents divorced.   John had served with the infantry in World War I and with the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, in World War II.  With a sixth-grade education, he amassed 2,300 acres of land and raised generations of cattle.  Even in his 40s, Francis says, he was considered an elder. 

“My uncle had what he called ‘Rules of Life,’” Francis says.  “Not advice – just the things he knew.” 

Among them:

  • Family is the cornerstone of society, “People judge us by the actions and words of our children.”
  • Listen to others, even strangers – don’t ask why.
  • Do the best you can, work hard and plan for an independent future.
  • Develop your skills, mentally and physically. 
  • Avoid jealousy at all costs.
  • Seat elders first, feed them first – they must give the prayers at meetings, meals or ceremonies.
  • Tell stories with self-deprecating humor and use animals (rattlesnakes, buffalo, eagles, etc.) to illustrate them.   

Today, Francis enjoys retirement on a small ranch near St. Francis, South Dakota.  His wife, Kathleen, is a high school principal.  He has five children, two of whom have completed combat tours in the military.  He remains an advocate for preserving and passing on the Lakota language.  And by his own account, he watches bemusedly as the world passes by.  One day recently, a young man asked him for suggestions about how to survive the numbing winter cold on the Great Plains.

“I am like the prairie dog,” he told him.  “When it’s nice, I poke my head out to see what’s going on.  When it’s not, I stay in my hole.”

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