The Elder’s “Hat” in the American Indian Culture

Good Morning & Happy Tuesday!

Since we’re coming up on Thanksgiving and since it is, for many of us, time with family, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy a leisurely trip through Native America and the “hat” that the elders of the tribe carried with them.

And in addition, since we’re coming up on a holiday season, how about a free give-away today, as well?  Just leave a comment and you’ll be entered into the give-away.

Interestingly, my own grandparents weren’t a part of my upbringing.  My mother’s mother died in childbirth and my grandfather on her side lived pretty far away.  My father’s father had died before I was born and my grandmother on his side (where my American Indian heritage comes from) became lost of her wits in old age, and was put into a home when I was very young.  When I had children, my own mother was deceased as was my father and my ex’s family never seemed very interested in our family.  Although they lived only 40 minutes away, we only saw them once or twice a year — and even then, we had to go to their house on Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Rarely did they ever visit us.

So until I became a grandmother myself, I didn’t realize that there is a “hat” there, until suddenly it was thust upon me and I was left gapping…oh my gosh…there’s something a grandparent is supposed to do.  What a concept for me…I hadn’t realized…

The picture above by the way if of Grandfather George, who lives with my husband and myself — although of no blood relation, in Native America all elers are called Grandfather or Grandmother, and so for my husband and myself, he is a grandfather in many different respects.

Anyway, upon realizing there’s a “hat” here, I took to studying, looking and delving into the American Indian Culture to see how they historically viewed and how they treated their elders.  It is said by a very wise man that only by looking at how a society manages its young, its old and its infirm (treating them kindly) can one tell the state of civilization of that culture.

So if this be the case, then one could say that the American Indian culture was well advanced.  But don’t take my word for it.  Let’s have a look at many of the ways in which the average American Indian treated his/her elders.  The photo here  is of me and my granddaughter, Lila, at her birth.

Not all tribes were the same, so much of what I’m telling you is what I know of the different tribes — mainly the Blackfeet and the Lakota.  In both the Lakota and Blackfeet tribes, the elders taught the children…any elder.  Often the mother or the father was so busy doing other work (like we are today) that the actual care of the children would fall to the grandmother.  In Native America the grandfather was important in teaching the child about the tribe, about the wisdom he had accumulated in his life, instilling in the child a deep respect of  life and of the tribe itself.

It is said that all life passes along its wisdom to the new generation — even a cell when it divides passes on all its knows as part of the genetic code of the new cell.  Knowledge — important stuff.  It was this “hat” that the elder in Native America possessed.  In addition to taking care of the young, so as to allow the mother and father to do other work, it was the duty of the elder to pass along as much widom and knowledge and he or she could.  Thus, the bond between the young and old was forged and life continued on uninterrupted.  Elders were respected by all tribal members, their past energies and accomplishments carrying along with them into old age.  Often the elders sat in on  the tribal counsel, if only because of the wisdom which often comes as we grow older.

It’s my belief that the best that we have to offer to the next generation should not be left to sit in nursing homes as though they are no longer useful, and that unless that elder needs constant or urgent medical care, he or she is in good form when teaching the young — doing what God created them to do in sharing their knowledge of interaction, of nature and of life in general with the young.  These people are natural teachers — the best perhaps…and propaganda – free…  And in this day and age that’s a value that is without a price.

There are some cultures in this modern age that seem to delight in the degradation their elders — putting a price tag on them in their later years (as though their earlier years of service were for nothing) — even death “counselling.”    But I think that if one looks at real history — not necessarily that sort of history that one is  taught in the public schools — but real history — one will see that those cultures that degrade the elderly, the very young and the infirm are fly-by-night cultures, not flourishing and certainly not a safe place in which to live.

Well, all that said, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject — one that is dear to my heart.  How were you raised?  Did your grandparents have much influence in your life, or were you, like me,  raised without knowing much about them?

Let me take a moment here, also, to wish you all a very happy and wonderful Thanksgiving.

From us — my mother in law, Joyce; my husband, Paul, in the background there, and me.


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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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30 thoughts on “The Elder’s “Hat” in the American Indian Culture”

  1. Oh, Karen, I am so sorry that you did not have grandparents involved in your life. All four of my granparents were an important part of my life as my mothers grandparents were in hers. The times I spent with them is often the center of stories I have shared here, My parents and My husbands parents were very important in our childrens loves, attending most of their school functions. In fact my dad was known as grandpa to our son’s school teams as he attended them all. I am trying to be that kind of grandparent for my grandkids. Although most of them are teans now I have preschoolers for whom I quit my job. Cancer has a way of making you reevaluate yur priorities. Wish I had been there more for my middle grandkids but asm there for them now. Looking forward to spending the next few weeks with as many of them as I can and being there when they need me for a long time yet!!

  2. Hi Karen,

    My paternal grandfather died when my dad was 11 years old. My dad’s mom we only saw once or twice a year. She died when I was 12. My maternal grandparent’s lived in my hometown. I did see them frequently but I was actually closer to my great aunt Anna, my grandmother’s sister. She never married, her fiance died in WW1. She died while I was away at college a year or so before I married. I still miss her a lot.

    I too have a granddaughter. My husband and I plan on being an active part of her life! My mom is 88. Luckily she is still able to live independently.

  3. What a thoughtful blog, Karen. I was lucky to grow up with all four of my grandparents nearby, all of them sharp and independent. I had them all till I was 21, then lost all four in the next four years. My children grew up farther away from their grandparents but were able to enjoy all but one for a long time. My parents are gone now and I wear the grandmother hat. My three grandchildren are 45 minutes away and I see them often.

  4. this is pretty funny to me because my paternal grandmother just pretty much ruled our whole family. She was in charge of my mom and dad (her only child) and all eight of us grandkids.
    She loved us in her tyrannical way and my parents were great and a nicely united team, but that woman was strong willed and we all either did as she said or hid from her.

    My parents had a very mild-mannered, long suffering acceptance of her and that made it so the kids didn’t have to take her criticism too seriously. In fact we all got pretty good at ignoring her nagging over the years.

    She favored my brother, the oldest boy, fourth born, to such a degree it became a family joke. He got blantantly better birthday gifts for example. So Grandma would want something and we’d say, “I got a ten dollar watch for my birthday, you got a $100 check. You go help her catch her stupid chickens.”
    My brothers would throw his hands out and say, “I can’t control what she does!” (which was the absolute truth)
    Then we’d laugh in his face and make him go. (she lived two miles from us)

    We were her whole world and she did love us and work very hard to help raise us (whether my parents wanted the help or not) and I really have a lot of affection for the old bat, who died after I’d had two children (she was in pretty advanced Ahlzheimers by then and living with my parents) and she’d turned into a confused and very cheerful old lady and just ADORED my two daughters. She loved them even more than my BROTHER! Neener, neener, neener.

    My mother’s mom was alive too, but she lived two hours away and back then that was a long, long drive. We saw her a couple of times a year usually. A sweet mild-mannered lady like my mom.

  5. Hi Connie!

    Yes, I wish I had known more about my grandparents — but growing up like I did, I just didn’t know what I was missing…until, like I said, suddenly I became aware that there’s a hat here… 🙂

  6. Hi Laurie!

    That’s wonderful that you had your aunt. I’m thinking more and more that family is the best way to go when you have young ones — not sure anyone else is going to care as much. Just my thoughts. 🙂

  7. Hi Elizabeth!

    Yes, my husband and I will be moving closer so that we can be a part of the grandchildren’s lives. It does seem to be important. Wonderful that you had so much of their influence when you were growing up. 🙂

  8. Hi Mary!

    Wow! What an unusual woman. I must admit that my ex’s mother had favorites — and I only had 2 children — and the one she left out remembers that to this day…unfortunately…

    I loved your post. As spirited as your books and an absolute pleasure to read. 🙂

  9. Hi Margaret!

    Your post made me smile, too. I do remember my grandfather on my mother’s side not having favorites at all — but we saw them so infrequently, that I barely remember him, except in a fond sort of way. : )

  10. My father’s mother lived with us since I was a child and both my mother’s parents lived nearby. I had all 3 until after I was married but unfortunately I didn’t have my children until later in life so they never knew them. My sister had her children early so they had a long time with grandparents and great grandparents. My sister is a grandmother of 8 – 7 from her daughter and her son just had his first. I am totally jealous. My sister never wanted to babysit and boy has that changed lol. My daughter’s marriage was short lived and my other daughter is not married so it’s hard to tell if I’ll ever get that chance (sigh). We are all lucky that my mother is still with us at 90 so she has been able to enjoy and be included in her 4 grandchildren and all her great grandchildren’s lives. My husband is an only child (as was my dad) and his parents only got to see my children a few times since they were divorced and both lived quite far away and passed away too soon. My sister decided it was too much to have everyone together for Thanksgiving and Christmas so it’s no longer the big, wonderful get together. (another sigh).

  11. By the time I was born, only my paternal grandmother was alive and she was living with us. She had come to live with my parents some time after her 2nd husband had died. She lived with us up until her conditon deteriorated so much my parents could no longer take care of her.

  12. Hi Kay,
    My parents escaped the east coast and their families to move to California in 1923. When I was born, during the Depression, nobody traveled too much. I never knew my Grandparents on either side. I did correspond with my maternal Grandfather. He lived in Pennsylvania. After that with World War II, our family (I had 2 brothers), moved here and there. Now I’m a GreatGrandmother. I have grandchildren in Northern California and Nevada and I don’t see them very often. They go where their spouses go.
    My single daughter and I stay in one spot.
    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and Holiday.
    Mary J

  13. Hi Kay,

    You always write such thought provoking posts. Thank you.

    My paternal grandfather died long before I was born, and we didn’t see my paternal grandmother very often even though she lived close.

    But my maternal grandparents couldn’t get rid of me. They had a dairy farm and I spent as much time as possible out there “helping” them. They were both such a blessing in my life. I learned so much from the stories they’d tell and just being around them. They’re both gone now, but the lessons I learned from them still play a big part in my life.


  14. Hi Catslady!

    Actually it sounds like a wonderful childhood — one of my children has decided not to have children and so my grandkids and so I’m afraid I’ll be relying on my youngest daughter to have some more grandkids. 90 is a great age. So glad she’s still with you.

  15. Katren, I had three of my grandparents in my life growing up and they were very much a blessing to me. My kids also had three grandparents to cherish and mentor them when they were younger but my mom is the only one still remaining. I think our lives are so much richer for the history and tradition they bring to the family unit.

  16. Happy Happy Thanksgiving! Wishing you the very best with the start of the holiday season Karen! 🙂
    I mostly only saw my maternal grandparents… it was wonderful seeing them whenever we could… my grandmother was my rock… she was the one in the family that made me feel special and loved. For my father’s father, we saw him once every couple of years…sadly years ago they all passed away… I miss them.

  17. Just loved Mary Connealy’s comment. It brought back memories of my dad’s mother, Gramm we called her. Like many farm families in the 40’s and 50’s we shared the house. She lived on one side and we lived on the other (today it would probably be called a duplex) and some days were very trying for my mom. Inspite of that Mom always reminded us that she had raised our dad and he was a good dad. Our maternal grandmother died when I was six and Grandpa married Grandma Millie 2 or 3 years later. She never had any children of her own but she was very proud of her 26 grandchildren. She had come to the US from London, England after WWII and from her we learned first hand experiences of the German Blitz. I have always been thankful we had grandparents so close and such an important part of our lives. I hope that we can be the same for our grandchildren.

  18. Kay, we always lived about a 2 hour drive from my grandparents, and really didn’t see that much of them. When we did, there wasn’t much “talking time” or sharing. I was not close to any of them–probably the one I WAS closest to out of all of them would have been my dad’s dad. I loved your blog! You always have such good insight.

  19. Hi Colleen!

    At least you got to experience the thrill of a grandparent that really loved you. As I grow older, I realize more and more just how important family is … all of it. Thanks so much. And Happy Thanksgiving. 🙂

  20. Good Evening Hilltop Farm Wife!

    What a blessing! It seems to be a real blessing, doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Have a really good holiday!

  21. Hi Cheryl!

    Like you, I just didn’t get raised with grandparents around — and so never knew what I had missed and didn’t even know there was this hat there called “grandparents.” 🙂

    It really came up on me when I wasn’t looking! Have a really wonderful holiday!

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