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Keeping the Fires Burning: 30th Annual Elders Gathering at Trent
February 2, 2007

With the lighting of the fire in the outdoor tipi beside the First Peoples House of Learning, so began the 30th Elders and Traditional Peoples Gathering at Trent University last weekend. A longstanding tradition held annually on Trent’s campus, the three-day long event ran from Friday, February 16 to Sunday, February 18 attracting more than 250 people.

According to many First Nations cultures, winter is the time of storytelling. This gathering provides Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike the opportunity to listen to these stories, hear traditional songs and drumming, participate each morning in a sunrise ceremony, and appreciate the cultural vibrancy and ongoing struggles of Aboriginal people.

Many well-respected elders and traditional teachers from across the continent shared their stories over the course of the weekend on the theme of "Today and Tomorrow". These stories were spoken in many languages, such as Anishna abe, Cree, and English. A wide variety of topics were covered, including a session led by Mike MacDonald from Akwesasne on the rights and responsibilities of wampum belts, Jan Longboat’s medicine teachings, and Professor David Newhouse’s presentation entitled "Imagining the Future". A new feature this year was Sylvia Maracle’s women’s circle, the first one in ten years at the Elders Gathering.

Trent student Gayatii Gockalingan described the event as "a great experience for others like myself to build a personal connection with the Aboriginal community. The stories and culture give me a different outlook toward life and its happenings."

"I think that the gathering is the University’s best annual event," said visitor Drew Carrell. "It gives people the chance to interact with all of the teachers and hear their stories, and learn things that I would not have been able to learn elsewhere."

Speaker Michael Thrasher gave a powerful presentation about the changing face of eldership, noting the significant changes witnessed in his own lifetime. "When I was a child, there was an elder for different aspects of life. One gave you knowledge of the land, another shared their insights into spirituality, another taught you about medicines, and yet another would show you how to do things," said Mr. Thrasher. Today, he observed, there is the expectation that elders have to know everything, and with 40% of the Aboriginal population in Canada under the age of 14, the demands are great. "As elders, we arrive at this position by attrition," explained Mr. Thrasher.

For many, this year’s gathering was both a special time to celebrate the strength of Aboriginal cultures, and to keep the fires behind their efforts to improve conditions for Aboriginal people burning brightly. According to one participant, "It is important that the elders are willing to share, and I am hoping that the elders will be just as willing to teach the people who are willing to learn, because this is the only way our traditions can get passed on."