I am currently in Juneau, Alaska, watching four days of intense basketball competition between teams from small, isolated communities in the Alaskan panhandle. This event, known locally as the Gold Medal tournament has been happening annually since 1946, the year I was born. My friends, who are Tlingit and Athabascan, say that to them this is as big as the Superbowl and is a surrogate for what was once more deadly competition between communities. Many things strike me here — the feeling of community both within and among the little communities like Angoon, Yakutat, and Hoonah; the almost unbelievable combination of tough, violent play and mutual respect (no “trash talking” or booing or garbage being shouted from the stands), and, most of all, the kind, universal respect accorded the elders.
This is something that is impossible to express. It is a context, an ambience. I was introduced to one man who I was told was a bearer of the community stories as well as a “hell of a basketball player in his day.” He shook my hand from his seat in his wheelchair and said, “If you ever want to hear the stories, you come down and see me.” I was with a young friend who is in his early thirties and had gone over to pay his respect. “That’s an incredible honor,” he told me. In the true Native way, he had assayed my heart in meeting me and determined that it was good. I was proud and humbled.
Meanwhile in Washington D.C. and around the country, young people were standing up and saying, “Enough is enough of this insane gun culture.” They were blowing right past all the tired, shopworn “guns don’t kill people” claptrap, saying, “Guns are killing us and our classmates. If you won’t do something about it, we will.”
All I could think of — and this has been on my mind for a long time — is that it is time for those of us who are elders, even if only by virtue of age, to not only support these young people, but to mentor them as they make their way into positions of authority and power in this country. Old men with bleached orange hair or hairplugs, old women with dye jobs and eyelid tucks should not be leading us. They should be teaching, mentoring, leading not the country, but the young people who will be leading the country.
“To every time there is a season,” “The marching band refused to yield.” Find it where you will, but the time has come to raise up these young voices and to not only let them be heard, but to give them the power to shape the world that they are going to inherit.
We have a strange national dynamic, and this won’t be easy. So long as the position of young people is, “Shut up, old man, and get out of the way,” and the position of older folks is, “You kids are still too wet behind the ears; wait your turn,” we will not get anywhere. Sadly, our culture fosters these positions because we do not look upon life as seasons with their individual strengths and talents so much as a straight line from birth to death. The young people don’t see the elders as the bearers of a heritage and the older folks hold onto power too tenaciously. It is a fight for the short period of influence and dominance that we accord to the center of life.
I was heartened by the young people around the country saying, “Our time has come,” because they see with fresh eyes not clouded by politics and influence and power. Now if we can see the leaders say, “Yes, we will use the influence we have gained to help shape the world you want,” we will be making progress. But until we reach a point where the young people go up to the elders and shake their hands for what they have bequeathed the following generations, and the elders raise up the young people and assist them in taking charge of the world they are going to lead and pass on, we will continue to be a clumsy culture where we all jockey for power and value dominance over humility and respect.
It is not a good way to live.