Honoring Our Elders

Me with John Emhoolah

November is now and we’re celebrating Native American Heritage Month!

We commemorate the 23 years since the establishment of Native American Heritage Month by embracing our cultures and values, and the historic contributions made by all tribes.

My focus this year is to recognize the importance of our elders and what we can learn from them. Our elders are the beholders of sacred knowledge, songs, and prayers, and with that are the leaders and true storytellers of the people.

I sat with elder, John Emhoolah, who is Kiowa and Arapaho. By the shake and embrace of his hand, I immediately felt his humbleness. I introduced myself to him in Navajo and then translated my clans and where I’m from into English. Mr. Emhoolah then told me he knew my family. That showed how small the world is and that tribes being familiar with one another is a beautiful thing. He spoke of my grandfather and how he used to attend his Native American Church ceremonies in their younger days. I rarely spoke of my grandparents since their passing; to me it remained unspoken because each time my throat would tighten and I would then hold back my tears. But hearing him speak and laugh about the times he shared with my Cheii made me feel lifted and happy. I was comfortable then to sit and ask about some of his lifelong achievements.

Emhoolah is recognized as one of the finest performers of Southern Plains traditional music and song. Talented in voice and rhythm of the drum, he sang songs and shared a piece of his identity and homeland in Oklahoma.

He’s a leader in Indian education, directing Indian education programs for some Denver-area schools. I remember him saying that education is the key and that I should continue my schooling until I receive my Ph.D. His enthusiasm is one of the many features I admire most because of his belief that all Native American students have the power to change and reshape the world using both traditional and modern knowledge.

Active in Colorado Indian affairs, he is co-founder of the Denver March Pow Wow. Also he advised for the Anthropology Department of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

I learned a great deal from him during our visit and at the end of it. He presented me with an eagle feather. I was very much honored to receive such a gift. I carry that feather with me when I sit in Native American Church ceremonies and hold dear the privilege of meeting him on my journey. Through his many achievements and what he’s known for in the Kiowa and Colorado communities, I very much respect and think of him as a Cheii of mine.

For this year’s Native American Heritage Month, I dedicate this honor to all Native American elders and their importance in our communities. Without their sacrifices and contributions we would not be here in this world, so let’s pay our respects, ahee’hee (thank you.)

Shaina Nez (Diné) is a graduate of Diné College and author of the TCJ Student blog, Red Storyteller.

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