10 Life Lessons I Learned from Elders I Use Everyday
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
(Elder & Knowledge Keeper, Leader, Agnes Pierre)
I have lived and continue to live a blessed life full of love, teachings, connection, history, language, laughter, resilience, strength and grace. This is why I often identify as a culturally privileged person. Being born into a wealth of cultural identity, cultural values, and cultural knowledge has saved my life on several occasions. It has helped me overcome low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, anxiety, & depression. Given that much of these teachings that saved my life, my elders always taught me never to be stingy with my teachings - I am to pass them on as they have been passed on to me. In this light, I am going to share with you 10 Life Lessons I Learned from elders that I still use today!
1. Be still
I remember my (paternal) grandmother Agnes Pierre (featured in photo above) saying this phrase often as I was coming up as a child. But she often spoke of it to youth and young adults without any context behind it. It wasn't until I became a young man in my 18th year or so where she finally explained to me what it meant to "be still". I do not recall word for word what she said, but in my heart I know she was telling me that my spirit can get restless and reckless at the same time. And that it was important to train myself to be physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally still as often as I could. That this stillness would be medicine to my mind, body, and heart.
I did not understand this life lesson until a decade later where I finally comprehended what my grandmothers most valuable life lesson has been. It was self-regulation. I knew this and have been teaching this skill to Indigenous youth since I was 18 years-old but never learned it for myself until it dawned on me this cultural connection. My grandmother was teaching me self-regulation, to control my mind, body, spirit, and emotions. This is what mastery is in my mind. The ability to control yourself fully. Yet, it was so deeply rooted in an ancient knowledge and teaching my grandmother passed onto me. When you are still in mind, body, and spirit, you can see clearly and make informed decisions that will respect you and the people you work with. That is a lesson I am still learning.
2. Train your mind
As a teen I struggled from an early age with self-doubt, low self-esteem, and self-worth. But I confided these struggles in my parents. They both taught from about thirteen years old that I have to learn to work with my thoughts. It seemed like such a foreign concept to me at 13 still feeling like a big kid who wanted no responsibility whatsoever. I distinctly remember the day I had my first teenage meltdown and my dad telling me that our elders always taught us to train our mind, our thoughts, and if we don't, it can make us sick. At the time, I was too inexperienced to comprehend fully what he was offering. But over time, with this concept, it became very real and very workable. To this date, I work on training my mind to work with me instead of against me. A skill I will never undervalue.
3. Take care of the people when you speak to them
This teaching I do not recall the name of the elder who said it at one of our longhouse gatherings. I was visiting a Nation outside of my own territory and I have never heard this elder speak before. But I remember this man had stood up to speak to the people. I remember he was small in height (as am I), he was not loud, or preachy, but kind and respectful in his speaking. I remember thinking to myself as he was speaking that I wanted to speak like that someday, I must have been 16 years old or so. He was talking to a pair of men in the longhouse who were training to be speakers and he offered a lesson openly to the house. He said "take care of the people when you speak to them"... I will never forget those words for the rest of my life. For those of you reading this, when you speak publicly you know you have a responsibility of their care and attention when you address a mass group of people. You have their minds, their attention, their emotions, their interests at hand. That is a lot of responsibility when you hold space and speak to the people, you must use that power to be kind, gentle, respectful, and if you can be humorous to keep it light. So, I learned from an early age, that if I am speaking to a group, I am to take care of you with every word, breath, and request in that speaking engagement. I use this teaching in my own personal life when I speak with people individually.
(above: Elder Lekeyten, Kwantlen First Nation & Len, Katzie First Nation)
4. Trust in spirit
This lesson I learned from my mentor, teacher, and professor, Saylesh Wesley. Yet I know it in my bones to be an ancient teaching of our people. In class one day during my first year of university studies to become a teacher, we as an all-Indigenous cohort spoke openly about getting "nerves" during our public speaking presentations in other course areas. Really, we just joked and poked fun of one another about each other's speaking but I remember this serious moment that Saylesh interjected an important life lesson I carry with me until today. It is the same teaching I used before I walked on the TEDx stage, the same teaching before I go up to instruct a class, or speak to government, or to write blog posts such as this. That teaching is, to trust in spirit. Your spirit. That you are not alone in your endeavours. That we have armies of ancestors rooting for us and aiding as accomplices to our success for the people. This profound notion that I am never alone when I feel it most - has been a pivotal moment in my career and personal life.
5. Listen twice as often as you speak
This one is my favourite lessons because I work in corporate settings where the norm is to value people who never shut up. I have heard this teaching from many elders and still do today. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason - so that we might listen twice as often as we speak. That is why you will find me to be the LAST ONE to speak at business meetings and planning or collaborative meetings. It is a corporate strategy that demonstrates you are patient, reflective, reflexive, compassionate, and willing to hear the wisdom of others and it has served me well so far. I mobilize this skill on a daily basis to build this successful consulting company by listening to my advisors who are much more experienced and intelligent than me.
(Above: me, my Grandfather Bobby Campbell & Grandmother Jennie Campbell, Musqueam First Nation)
6. Give the people hope
Just as I have learned from the age of ten to speak publicly, I have learned to inspire people. Some of my earliest teachers, and elders today remind me to give the people hope. Hope, like love, is a gift, and is something people yearn for. The photo above is of me and my maternal grandparents from Musqueam First Nation. We ran into each other at the provincial Elders Gathering in 2018 where I was able to capture this selfie. They have always been proud and incredible supporters of my work since I was a teenager. We were so happy and surprised to see each other that this provincial gathering. One of the things they both said to me that I won't forget, was thanking me and saying how proud they were that I was there to offer hope for the people, and not a lot of people can do that. I paraphrase: I am glad you are here, this is not easy to talk about, but I am glad you're the one, you give the people hope. You see, I was there to talk about the toxic drug crisis and how it has impacted our First Nations communities - to several hundred Elders! It was a hard place to work, to be, and to teach. But when I saw my Grandparents, they reminded me of why I was there - to give the people hope. When I speak today, as a leader, the most profound thing I think about... is about I can bring about hope. Hope is a gift.
7. Telling people you are afraid is being brave
There is no real long story to this. But it is worth mentioning that Elders taught me that being transparent with your fear is being brave and courageous, nonetheless.
8. Give it back to Mother Earth
A lesson I seriously never let go of is how I can release things back to Mother Earth. My father and grandmother also taught me this. I also find it to be recurring in many of the teachings that are shared with me today from cultures across Turtle Island. My grandmother taught me at a young age that when life was weighing me down and the load became too much to bear, that I must find a thicket. In that thicket I must walk through it with all the snags, and prickles, and dirt, and sweat that goes along with it. As I am walking through it, I am asking the Creator, Mother Earth to pull all the negative energy off of me, that which no longer serves me. And the teaching goes that when I come out on the other side of the thicket, I will feel light as rain. And I've done it! and still do largely today as a self-care practice. It is a beautiful way of "letting go" or "processing" one's negative thoughts and energy.
(Above: myself and Elder Gerry Oleman: St’at’imc Nation from Tsal’alh)
9. Young people have heavy tongues
While I don't think this is a bad thing necessarily, it keeps our voice and position strong and clear. The downfall is that we as young people can speak without knowledge and information critical to the topic at hand. So, this lesson taught me that I must practice the art and patience of speaking lightly and with humility.
10. You are a rich person
By far the greatest lesson I have learned being a 21st century Status Indian, is that I come from wealth. My family comes from wealth. Though, not the way you might look or interpret wealth, but it is wealth, nonetheless. Our wealth is determined by relationships, history, access to language, storytelling, and tracing your lineage. This means that if I lost all my material wealth by tomorrow, I could walk into a Coast Salish community without them knowing who I am or where I come from - yet I can explain who I am, where I come from, and who I belong to in family ties, and our Coast Salish teachings would have us take care of each other. That is a newfound sense of wealth I still try to make sense of.