Native Leadership Program Preserves Elder Knowledge Through Intergenerational Relationships

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Gail Small, a leader with Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe, accepts one of the 2012 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Awards. Small is part of a team of Cheyenne leaders that helped form Native Action. In 1995, she was named Ms.’s Woman of the Year. (Vimeo)

The Spirit Aligned Leadership Program (SALP)—the only Indigenous elder women-run nonprofit program in existence—aims to pair Native women elders with younger mentees in order to pass on knowledge for the continued improvement of their tribes and larger communities. These philosophies, branching from medicine to environmentalism to activism, are often not emphasized within Western society, making this oral passage crucial to preserving the Native way of life. 

“We are excited and honored to create an avenue for some of the most dedicated cultural leaders to share their knowledge with one another,” said Katsi Cook, executive director of SALP and citizen of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. “These women hold within them some of the most creative solutions to the world’s most complex problems.”

The program earns its name from the typical arrangement of cornstalks, which are planted in line with one another; then, within each ear of corn, the kernels “align” themselves to form perfect rows and columns. SALP draws a parallel between Indigenous women, who also aim to be perfectly aligned with one another.

Currently, SALP has three “circles” of women inducted into their program. Each of these circles is composed of a group of Legacy Leaders, who must be older than 65 and have membership in a federally recognized tribe, nation or established Indigenous community. Each of these Legacy Leaders is then matched with a Future Legacy Leader between the ages of 18 and 40 who is committed to the preservation of elder knowledge. Within this year-long fellowship, the two work together to safeguard wisdom via community programming and documentation. 

Together, the intergenerational pairs work on cultural projects in their communities, including knowledge transfer; healing and wellness; climate change; solutions to contemporary challenges; Indigenous women’s roles and leadership; homeland recovery; language and ceremony renewal; Indigenous food sovereignty; and sky world knowledge—an Indigenous practice of mapping stars that informs traditional birthing knowledge and ceremonies, as well as agricultural and environmental practices. 

Gail Small, SALP program director and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, says the nature of the Legacy Leader and Future Legacy Leader pairing best maintains Native culture. “Intergenerational knowledge is best transferred intentionally. … Knowledge is learned by doing it in the practice of living everyday,” Small told Ms.

Small says the work SALP is doing is more important now than ever, as the pandemic, exacerbated by the lack of federal support given to Indigenous peoples, has led to the death of many elders—leading to the loss of their perspectives. 

“I am grateful for this opportunity to share my knowledge with my younger relative, Jessie Taken Alive-Rencountre from Standing Rock,” said one SALP participant, Norma Rendon. “Both of Jessie’s parents died from COVID-19, and I worked closely with them. I am carrying out my responsibilities to teach Jessie, and she will teach her daughters and other young women. This intergenerational leadership fellowship is exactly what we need.” 

This intentional act of storytelling dismantles Western individualist ideologies by pointing out how Indigenous peoples “always lived within intersectionality,” Small told Ms.

“The way the Western world attempts to position [elements of life] on an individual level rather than approaching the family or contemporary reality … ignores the history of colonization.”

While American narratives attempt to erase or mitigate the extent of the violence Western society has inflicted upon Indigenous peoples, programs like SALP exist to memorialize this pain so the U.S. can begin to address and repair centuries of damage. “Why isn’t that history told from our perspective?” Small asked. “We were fighting for a way of life.”

When asked what non-Indigenous individuals can do to support the work of SALP and the larger preservation of Native life, Small spoke of the importance of empathy and unlearning: “It’s your burden to go educate and raise your children differently.”

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Khira Hickbottom is an editorial fellow with Ms. magazine and a rising junior student at Tulane University studying English and Africana Studies. Additionally, she is also presently interning at Birthmark Doula Collective doing research surrounding emergency preparedness for infant feeding. Khira loves roller skating, dill pickle chips, and bad reality television.