COVID-19 Updates See our Phoenix Forward page.

Working with Elder Oral Traditional Scholars

The opportunity to study with Elders in the manner similar to those who continue to traditionally approach their Elders as practiced in North America for thousands of years is rare, unusual and possibly unprecedented in the academy. Certainly it is not a widely known practice or standard. The UWGB Professional Program in Education’s Center for First Nations Studies offers opportunities for students and faculty to learn from Elders and engage in a more complete First Nations Studies teaching/learning experience. It is because First Nations Elders are willing to continue to provide teaching opportunities to younger people through this experience that the Center is able to provide such an opportunity. We are grateful to the Elders for this tremendous teaching and learning opportunity!


The Professional Program in Education’s Center for First Nations Studies provides students a chance to experience a way of learning used by many First Nations Tribal members; that is to experience a way of knowing that emanates from interacting with Elder teachers on a regular, albeit brief, basis. The opportunity to interact in such a normal and regular way with Elders provides students with learning/teaching activities not always possible within the normal academic channels. Students should experience a way of listening, observing, doing, and inquiring that fits within an indigenous cultural context.

Student Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will interact with Elders.
  2. Students will demonstrate oral traditional learning, listening, and remembering skills.
  3. Students will demonstrate the tribal values of respect, reciprocity, relationship, and responsibility.
  4. Students will take part in and demonstrate an understanding of Elder teaching methods.
  5. Students will demonstrate protocols for learning and working with Elder teachers.

Working with Tribal Elders: Useful Elder Protocols

Each of the suggested protocols should be orally discussed with a student prior to their time spent with Elders in the Center.

  • When an Elder meets you please be on time, and ensure that the Elder is met at the door if in a large building or organizational property.
  • The Elder should be escorted to a comfortable place for the meeting with a place for the Elder to sit down, get acquainted, be given a refreshing drink, and if applicable, a place for his/her coat & other carried belongings to be placed.
  • If the Elder person is a Medicine-person, and it is suitable, instructions need to be sought as to how to begin the meeting.
  • Always carry any items for Elders, including anything he/she may be carrying when he/she arrives.
  • Always fetch and carry for Elders. Run any necessary errands including fetching a glass of water, without being asked, when the Elder is speaking before a group. Bring or refill coffee and tea for Elder teachers without being asked. This is a subtle form of reciprocity.
  • Some Elders need chairs for lectures, or chairs to hold to when standing or some form of support. This support should be as unobtrusive as possible. Remember that when speaking to large groups, or even small groups within noisy surroundings, that the elder may have difficulty projecting his/her voice. Check into the possibility of a microphone, if the Elder finds that comfortable, or think creatively to solve the hearing issue.
  • Elders are not interrupted once they begin speaking. If they do not finish 'on time' audiences should be instructed to remain seated and wait until he/she finished speaking. It is considered bad manners to interrupt a respected Elder.
  • Elders are not interrupted during conversations, or other verbal interactions, or argued with by individuals. This is a cultural form of respect for Elders.
  • If one eats with an Elder, someone should fetch his/her meal if it is a buffet. The Elder should not have to stand in line. If he/she insists on doing so, ensure the Elder is one of the first in line. Carry away the items after finishing eating for the Elder.
  • If you are going to take notes, or want to take notes please try to do so after talking with the Elder. Do this on your own time, perhaps immediately afterwards. If you want to record an Elder, it is very important to get his/her permission, show the elder what you have written, explain what you want to do with it, and get permission, if this is not possible, accept with grace.
  • Try not to ask the Elder direct questions. As you proceed to building a relationship with the Elder, it will be apparent, how and when you might ask the odd question or two. Try to learn how to make statements that indicate your level of understanding so that if the Elder wishes to, he/she may elucidate further for your comprehension/understanding. This is also a cultural form of respect.
  • Some Elders may want to indulge in 'idle' or informal conversation prior to any work being done. This period of time may last from 5 minutes to 15 or 20. Learn that this is a cultural difference, and enjoy the time! It builds relationship, shows respect, and engages reciprocity.
  • It is important to engage in active listening with Elder teachers. As you first get to spend time with an Elder, let them lead the conversations. You are an active listener and learner above all.

Other items will be added to this listing as faculty listen, remember, and observe during Elder gathering events where faculty go to learn from their Elders.

The Education Center for First Nations Studies would like to acknowledge the work of our Elder teacher Dr. Rosemary Ackley Christensen in the creation of the Elder Protocols. This protocol list is based on her work with Elder Protocols used by Ojibwe Mekana Learning Laboratory (Duluth, MN1991), and the Minneapolis public school, Indian Education Section c. 1980s. Chi Migwetch to our Elder teacher! Dr. Christensen retired from her faculty position here at UWGB at the end of the Spring Semester, 2010.