Growing up in Oneida of the Thames First Nation, Elder Bruce Elijah was raised by his parents and grandparents, learning the Oneida language and the traditional and healing practices of his community.
He later realized how others in his community were denied that same right, and credits his mother, a residential school survivor, for “being very careful and protective” in ensuring he retained his language and culture.
“I was born and raised in it,” Elijah said. “I just assumed every child was raised that way.”
Elijah’s upbringing helped him to become a widely sought traditional teacher and healer, and a respected advocate for Indigenous practices in his home community and around the world.
For the past 20 years at Western, he’s played an important role as a visiting Elder and advisor. His contributions, along with those from other Elders in the community, have helped guide important work towards truth and reconciliation, including the creation of the Office of Indigenous Initiatives.
Now, as the first Elder-in-Residence at the Wampum Learning Lodge (WLL), Elijah continues to make an impact, sharing his wisdom and knowledge with Indigenous students, staff and faculty, and the wider Western community.
Role model and mentor
His recent appointment answers a call made in Western’s Indigenous Strategic Plan to grow the visiting Elders program and to incorporate Indigenous pedagogical practices in the classroom.
One aspect of his role, he said, “is to encourage young people to stay and finish school, helping them in any way.”
Amanda Myers, director of the Indigenous Student Centre said that type of support is essential to the personal and academic success of Indigenous students.
“To do our best learning, all ages need to be present, listening and sharing. Having an Elder-in-Residence is a good first step toward wholistic educational structures that benefit all. For Indigenous students at this time, in truth sharing and moving toward reconciliation, Elders are an essential part of their wellness.”
In addition to offering guidance, Elijah shares important teachings, rooted in Indigenous knowledge.
Global advocate and healer
Learning from his own elders throughout his life as a member of the Wolf Clan, Elijah brings an in-depth understanding of the traditional practices of the Haudenosaunee and other First Nations communities.
He has held positions as the “chief seat warmer” and faith keeper for his clan. As an active participant in Haudenosaunee business meetings from 1967 to the late 1990s, his counsel has been sought on a number of international and domestic issues affecting Indigenous Peoples.
In 1977, as an Oneida representative, Elijah travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, as part of the Haudenosaunee delegation, for the first gathering of Indigenous Peoples seeking the protection of Indigenous rights and freedoms. He continued to travel to Europe for several years, advocating for inclusion and the right to self-determination.
He has applied the wholistic medicinal practices he learned “at his grandmother’s feet,” locally and around the world. In 1996, the University of New Mexico honoured his contributions with the prestigious Martin Dela Cruz award. The award “recognizes excellence in traditional and alternative healing” and allows him to work within many health-care facilities across South America and the U.S.
Grateful for guidance
In addition to working with students, Elijah’s regular presence as the Elder-in-Residence has a meaningful impact on the WLL team.
“I can’t express enough how grateful we are to have Bruce here – not only for the students, but for us, as staff,” said Paula Cornelius Hedgepeth, community relations and space coordinator at the Wampum Learning Lodge. “Work can be overwhelming at times, and we don’t have all the answers. Having him here for guidance and reassurance in how we approach things is so valuable. When we sit down and do a check-in with him, he picks up on things we are all feeling. He’ll share a teaching with us, remind us about the simplest things and the power of gratitude. We walk away with something to think about and feeling better for the rest of the day.”
Decolonizing the curriculum
Elijah also plays a vital role across campus by sharing Indigenous knowledge in classrooms.
Last February, King’s University College professor Karolina Werner invited him to speak to students in her introduction to human rights course.
His insights and experiences helped students develop an understanding of the connection between the environment and the natural world, and its significant impact on the rights and survival of Indigenous Peoples. When the students asked how they can create positive change, he answered with a few questions of his own.
“You may not be able to change the world, but you can change what’s within you. What do you want to see? What do you want to hear? What do you want to be part of?”-Bruce Elijah, Elder-in-Residence, Wampum Learning Lodge
Elijah encourages that same careful reflection when speaking with the WLL staff about the path ahead in providing a safe gathering space for Indigenous students and in creating an intercultural teaching and learning centre.
“We have a tremendous group here,” he said. “I listen to their wants and needs and see how we can advance them. The main thing I tell them is to ‘take it slow.’ We should treat this space as a family would treat a baby. It’s about family, it’s always been about family.”
-with files from the Wampum Learning Lodge and King’s University College Communications