The Tradition of the Elders

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That night old Arrowmaker found his fire warmed by boys come to sit around him as in his youth, before everyone had guns.  Once more they came to watch him as he trued the shafts with his scraper and notched them for the feathers. 

                      — Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn


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Citior, altior, fortior – “faster, higher, stronger.”  That’s the official motto of the Olympic Games.  It’s also a neat and tersely symbolic summation of what it takes to be a “somebody” in the modern world.

The coiners of the Olympic slogan could easily have added iunior – “younger” – to this list of desirable comparative adjectives, but that would have been superfluous.  Everybody already knows that youth is prerequisite to speed, strength, and skill.  In fact, it would be fair to say that almost all of the qualities associated with “winning,” not only in the Games but in the kosmos at large, belong exclusively to the young.  That’s particularly true in the “First World” of the West, and truest of all in the good ol’ USA.

“Our American culture does not esteem the elderly,”[1] says one astute observer, summing up the situation in eight short words.  His observation has become a truism in a culture where the economy thrives by commercializing youth and keeping “grayness” carefully out of sight and out of mind.

It wasn’t always this way.  Not that “ageism” – bias against the elderly – is an entirely new phenomenon.  Far from it.  But in the recent past it’s been ramped up, hyped up, and exacerbated to an unprecedented degree.  It’s not hard to see why.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been living in a technological rather than a traditional society.  The two operate on the basis of radically different assumptions.  Traditional societies depend upon the faithful transmission from one generation to the next of a long-established and unchanging body of practical know-how and life-skills.  Under this kind of system, older people are naturally valued and respected as the indispensable keepers, preservers, and propagators of the “tribal lore.”  Younger people look up to them because they desperately need them.  Their expertise is the key to survival for future generations.

It’s altogether different in a technologically based society.  Here there is no fixed body of “lore” to be passed from grandfather to father to son.  Here the practical knowledge required for economic survival changes on an almost daily basis.  In this context, it’s not familiarity with and command of a tradition that counts, but innovation, inventiveness and adaptability – qualities we naturally associate with the young.

In the 1870s the Northern Cheyennes of Wyoming and Montana were still a traditional society – one of the hundreds of ancient and distinct North American cultures to be crushed to dust and swept away before the relentless advance of “The Technological Society.”  It’s a measure of how rapidly and efficiently the new system supplants the old that, after surrendering to the juggernaut, it only took about five years for the tribe’s younger generation, many of whom had spent a significant portion of their lives on or around the government “agencies,” to begin losing touch with the tradition of their ancestors.

All that changed drastically when two Cheyenne Old Man Chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, made a decision to lead their people out of captivity in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and back to their home on the Yellowstone River.  On the night of September 9, 1878, about 300 Cheyennes, men, women, and children, went AWOL with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few supplies and firearms.  By a strategy of constant running, fighting, and hiding some of them managed to elude the military might of the most advanced nation on earth for nearly seven months.

This was a remarkable feat on any reckoning, but it wouldn’t have been possible apart from the tradition of the elders.  In a very real sense, those few Cheyennes who eventually made it as far as Montana owed their lives almost entirely to the skills of the aged Arrowmaker, who knew how to shape bows and shafts when guns and ammunition ran low; to the Grandmothers, who understood herbs and plants and the preservation of game meat; and to the old hunters and guides, who taught them how to cover their tracks “so the earth seemed touched only by the wind.”[2]

In many ways, the Northern Cheyenne Exodus is a picture-perfect parable of the Pilgrim Path.  It’s the story of a ragged band of hassled and harried travelers struggling to find their way home through unthinkable trials and against horrendous odds.  More than that, it’s a testimony to the indispensable value of the Old Ways.  Seen from the right perspective, it serves as a reminder that Pilgrims, like the younger Cheyennes of Little Wolf’s band, are in many ways dependent upon the wisdom of those who have trod the path before them:  veterans of faith with the experience to act as wise custodians and purveyors of a precious body of eternal truth – truth that never can and never will change.


[1] Steven J. Cole, “Psalm 71:  Growing Old God’s Way,” © 1993.

[2] Mari Sandoz, Cheyenne Autumn (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1953), p. 153.

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