Sep 24, 2017 - What To Do When Your Elders Are Wrong By Mark K. Tilsen

Listen. Respectfully Disagree. Keep Moving.

My name is Mark Kenneth Tilsen, I am Oglala Lakota from Porcupine South Dakota and I love elders. It’s true, I really do. I was raised on my Great Grandma Bama’s hip (my relatives often still call me Baby Mark much to my embarrassment) and at one time in my life one of my few friends was my Auntie Kay Red Hail. I used to randomly drop in to visit her in Evergreen and we’d chop it up for hours, I miss her humor terribly. I moved from the Rez to go to school in Minnesota to be close with my Grandpa Ken for the last years of his life and we had dinner once a week together. I used to hang on every word that Leksi John Around Him said and watched as he conducted himself so humbly despite the decades and decades of wisdom. I took classes at OLC [Oglala Lakota College] just to hear him speak on the language or Lakota culture, which he believed was pretty much interchangeable.

The goal of this article is to give a road map on what to do when your elders are wrong and why it matters. This is NOT a hate piece or a bash that elders piece of writing.

The Elders Are Never Wrong

I have actually had this said to me before and I respond by saying don’t be foolish, anyone can be wrong. No one is perfect or infallible, that’s the nature of being human. We all make bad calls sometime or another. When our elders are homophobic or racist we can be compassionate to them and clearly see that their biases are from a bygone era and we don’t need to internalize everything that they have gone through. Sometimes despite their wisdom our elders make bad calls.

I Listen To The REAL Elders

I have often heard that there is a difference between Olders and Elders. Some people get old and wise and some people just get old. I nod my head but I’m from Pine Ridge, even our Olders have some strange survivors wisdom or luck to them or they wouldn’t still be standing through the ravaged decades. Often, I hear people say who the Real elders are and mostly those who agree with them. It’s easy to dismiss the older people in our community who have spent years upon years lost in addiction or have abandoned their families. There are times when even our legitimate elders assert themselves as leaders and make poor decisions and as a young person its really confusing when they do. We want to follow orders and do the right thing and being Native it feels right to do as our elders ask of us. Sometimes we don’t even want to question them, just simply follow orders. This a luxury we can no longer afford.


If you ever been to a community meeting on my rez you know there are people in our community who take over these public spaces and hold court on anything from boarding school trauma to treaties despite of whatever the agenda had set up. It’s as if being ignored and marginalized creates a madness in us that bubbles up and demands to be noticed.

I know this is common sense for most of us in Indian country but we need to listen to our elders, their time on Earth has given them insight and they carry teachings from the generations that have been lost to time. In dominate culture becoming old is not valued and you can see that to become old is to become irrelevant in many ways. As we listen to our elders we honor their sacrifices and hard learned lessons that they have to share. Listening is respectful and cathartic to everyone. Maybe if we are lucky, when our time comes, the young people of our day will in turn listen to us if we are fortune enough to become elders.

Respectfully Disagree

This doesn’t even need to be in public. When our elders are wrong we can respectfully show our love for them and tell them we simply do not agree. At Standing Rock, I had a legitimate elder tell me that he didn’t feel it was right for women to be pipe carriers. I simply stated that we can’t forget who brought us the pipe and women have played a crucial role in keeping our ways alive when the ceremonies were outlawed and all had to be conducted in secret. These don’t need to be big ego filled call outs to ‘put someone in their place’ or continuation of the call out culture we see online.

Keep Moving!

As young people (I’m 34 and no longer young but not yet old) our energy and our lack of fear of failure is our greatest asset. I have had elders who have not supported me or my ideas and it hurts. It hurts like hell, it hurts like mad and you cannot let it stop you. If your elders are wrong you cannot let them stop all progress or work that you are doing. Whether you are standing up to protect the water, educating yourself on your history, or learning your language you have to keep moving and be willing to make mistakes.

If an Elder Asks You To Do Something, You Do It!

To quote the famous Oglala War chief Tasunka Witko, Crazy Horse, “Hiya!” It means no and I am certain he must’ve said the word at least once in his life. This was the title of an article written by one of my relatives who led the defense of Bear Butte all those years ago. And if you recall, one of the biggest messages we got was to stay peaceful and stay prayerful and we watched idly while the largest biker bar in the world was built right at the base of one of our most sacred sites. We listened to our elders, we stayed peaceful and prayerful and we lost. Now? We will not blindly follow orders, if you want young people to follow your leadership you have to lead. You have to make sense to us, you have to earn our trust.

Why It Matters

Standing Rock is why it matters. We had anonymous elders step up and stop all actions and the fact that the pipeline is now built rest solidly on the shoulders of those who told us to stand down. “Which elder?” is an inside joke among us in camp, but our elders were not always anonymous. Outsiders were craving any leadership to follow and any elders could get a following of confused or lost people to rally around them. Most never even questioned whether the people they were following had any authority what so ever and never asked “why did we come all the way to middle of nowhere to NOT do something?”

We are going to fight KXL with all that we can. If someone tells you to go back to camp and pray instead of stopping the pipeline DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. Don’t be a tool who repeats this nonsense and learn to think for yourself. As for elders, advise us wisely and foster courage in the young people around you, we’re going to need them.

Mark Tilsen is an Oglala Lakota poet and educator

Last Real Indians