UW News

February 6, 2015

Elders-in-residence program brings traditional learning to campus

News and Information

As a girl growing up in Alaska, Elizabeth Fleagle learned life lessons and hands-on skills from her grandmother, from cooking to making fish nets and moccasins.

“Our grandma taught us how to make everything we had to make,” said Fleagle, who lives in Fairbanks and is Inupiat Eskimo. “In my culture, that’s how we learn.”

Fleagle, 79, recently shared that way of learning at the University of Washington as one of 12 Elders participating in a new pilot program launched in January by the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, part of the UW’s School of Social Work.

Elizabeth Fleagle, right, leads a beading workshop as one of UW's Elders in residence.

Elizabeth Fleagle, right, leads a beading workshop as one of UW’s Elders in residence.Jordan Lewis

The Elders, who belong to Native American and Alaska Native tribes from Washington and Alaska, will each spend a week on campus during winter quarter, joining in classes and sharing knowledge. During a recent week, Fleagle taught a beading workshop and participated in several classes along with Howard Luke, 90, an Athabascan Elder who lives in a traditional fishing camp near Fairbanks.

Other Elders participating in the program, which is being offered at the UW for the first time and runs through mid-March, include members of the Yakama Nation and the Makah, Klamath and Lummi tribes.

The program aims to create a welcoming environment for Native students, foster intergenerational learning and highlight the knowledge older people can offer. Jordan Lewis, an Aleut from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and an assistant professor of social work, hopes the initiative can help reframe perceptions of older people, who are revered in indigenous cultures as mentors and leaders.

“By having Elders in the classroom, we can see that they have skills and knowledge they can pass along,” said Lewis, who started the program with colleague Polly Olsen, Yakama, the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute’s director of community relations and development.

“They’re not a burden — they’re a resource.”

For Native students who wish to work in indigenous communities after graduation, Elders can provide guidance on how to regain the trust required for entry, Olsen said, since people in those communities may be skeptical of others with an education considered too Western.

“It provides access to community,” she said. “You have to have these relationships to prepare tribal communities to welcome back students and support them to take leadership roles.”

Elders Howard Luke, left, and Elizabeth Fleagle shared stories about their lives with an ungraduate health class.

Elders Howard Luke, left, and Elizabeth Fleagle shared stories about their lives with an ungraduate health class.Jordan Lewis

Elders-in-residence programs have been established at post-secondary schools around Canada and are now appearing at colleges in the U.S. to promote awareness and understanding of indigenous history and culture.

Christopher Teuton, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and chair of the UW Department of American Indian Studies, which is co-sponsoring the program, said Elders bring a particular, valuable form of knowledge to the university.

“One of the lingering assumptions in academia is that what we need to know is housed here and faculty are all experts,” he said. “But within indigenous studies, there’s a recognition that knowledge exists in community and exists with Elders.

“It’s important to break down those boundaries and have Elders come and be part of the sharing of knowledge, which is what should happen at a university.”

The program will also serve as a platform for UW research about Elders who are productive in later life. Lewis plans to investigate the level of students’ engagement, as well as how Elders benefit from the initiative.

“Through the teachings and guidance of our resident Elders, we can create a community that fosters cultural strength among our indigenous students and a sense of pride and purpose among our Elders, as well as a heightened awareness of traditional knowledge and Elders’ roles in education and well-being,” he said.