Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

American Indian elders: Living libraries

Written by Kelly Connor, research assistant for the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies & MSW candidate, with support from Molly Tovar, EdD, director, Buder Center for American Indian Studies at the Brown School

There is a saying in indigenous culture that “when an elder dies, a library burns.” American Indian elders in many respects are living libraries.¹ Storytellers that transmit culture and traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.

Rich Oral Tradition

In American Indian culture there is a rich history of oral tradition. Storytelling is using verbal language to share their history, customs, and legends though vivid narratives. Each time a story is told, it preserves their culture for future generations.

This tradition of passing stories on to the younger generations is so important in native culture, that the Pueblo people have created clay storyteller figurines, to represent this relationship. They often feature one center elder sharing stories with children gathered around. Elders often tell the stories — they hold knowledge from life experiences.

Elders are highly valued and respected in Native Communities, so much so, they are honored through ceremonies, such as leading the Grand Entry at Pow Wows — which is an annual celebration of culture through song and dance. They are also consulted for most all tribal issues and often speak first at meetings.

Transmitting Traditional Values

Native elders also help transmit the value system of native communities. A Comanche elder LaDonna Harris outlines four Rs to live by: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution.²

Relationship is the kinship bond between all living things. It means that everyone can contribute to our common good.

Responsibility is the obligation to care for all our relatives, including the elders. It is also the responsibility of Elders to share their wisdom and traditional knowledge with future generations. Often this takes place in the form of storytelling.

Reciprocity is the idea that being in relationship means ongoing exchanges. Storytelling and the exchange of knowledge is therefore cyclical and reciprocal in nature.

Finally, Redistribution is the obligation to share and give away both possessions and immaterial things. Knowledge should be shared and passed on.

Language Preservation

One key way Elders transmit culture and identity is through language. In the United States there are 139 American Indian and Alaska Native languages, according to the UNESCO classification scheme. Of those languages, 70 are considered endangered.¹ In indigenous culture, language is much more than words and spelling. Language is a way of conveying “who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”¹

In the Lakota tribe, there are four words to describe gender: man, women, men who act like women, and women who act like men. Without elders sharing this information, the distinct meaning of these words stands to be lost.

In the Shu-shone-e tribe the native word for hummingbird was temporarily forgotten and an elder had to be consulted in order to rediscover what native word was.

Unfortunately over time and with each subsequent generation words and their meanings stand a greater chance of being lost. That is why language preservation programs and elder storytelling is so important. When we lose our language, we lose our libraries.

Elders on Campus

The Buder Center of American Indian Studies invited an elder from Santo Domingo Pueblo as the Elder-in-Residence to share stories and spend time with the younger generation. Through her visit, Grandma Crucita Melchor was also able to mentor students and offer her wisdom to the broader campus through speaking engagements.

It is my hope that institutions like Washington University in St. Louis continue to host native elders and bring their wisdom to the younger generation in St. Louis.

It is through Elder-in-Residence programs and language revitalization programs, that American Indian culture will stay alive. Though our Elders, the next generation will be able to receive stories of the past and become next great library.

For more resources on American Indian Elders or connections to local speakers, contact the Buder Center for American Indian Studies.


  1. Barushch, A., Tovar M., Golden T. (2015). Enhancing the Financial Capability of Native American Elders In Morrow-Howell N. & Sherraden M. (Eds.), Financial Capability and Asset Holding in Later Life (pp.87-103). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Harris, L. D., & Wasilewski, J. (2004). Indigeneity, an alternative worldview: Four R’s (relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution) vs. two P’s (power and profit). Sharing the journey towards conscious evolution. Systems Research & Behavioral Sci, 21(5), 489-503.