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For tribal elders, life begins at 55

LITTLE BOSTON — Anyone who sat down at a table in the Port Gamble S’Klallam gym Friday afternoon during the tribe’s New Elders celebration was sure to learn something.

Being in a room with what was estimated to be between 300-400 people who were mostly tribal elders, a history lesson on the any of the various tribes in the region was within earshot.

But it was a day to recognize the new elders who will be sharing their infinite wisdom for years to come. Members of more than a dozen First Nations came together to help the Port Gamble S’Klallam honor and celebrate its new elders.

“New old guys,” Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Chairman Ron Charles joked about several of his friends who are younger than him but are elders as well. “They were always little guys to me. Now they’re elders, too.”

Many of those in attendance Friday believed that the nearly three-hour event, aside from the 10-minute honoring ceremony, was a time in which people could gather and visit.

“It’s nice to get together at a time like this where we don’t really have an agenda,” Charles said. “It’s a happy time.”

“Modern day potlatch” is what elder Ted Moran called it. The Suquamish resident who has various strands of Native American blood in him — Port Gamble S’Klallam, Lower Elwha, and Jamestown, Skokomish, Makah and Chippewa — said it’s a way to visit family.

“We’re all related in one way or another,” he said.

Makah elder Verna Bunn of Neah Bay said she and 22 other elders made the three-hour trek from the far northwest corner of the state to visit family and friends and pay their respects to the new elders.

“That’s how we were brought up — to respect our elders,” Bunn said. “We learned a lot from our elders. It’s a tradition.”

Port Gamble S’Klallam member Georgia Makris was one of the seven new elders being honored that afternoon. While she has lived in San Leandro, Calif. for 29 years, she visits family in Port Gamble several times a year. But in July, when moves back to North Kitsap, she’ll just be a few minutes away from family rather than a few hours.

“I think it’s important to be here,” Makris said. “I just want to try and be a benefit to the community as much as I can be.”

Her primary goal as an elder will be to talk to youth about drugs and alcohol and how they are unnecessary in life, she said. She is a recovering alcoholic and is just a few credits short of receiving her associates degree in alcohol and drug counseling.

“I just want to be a part of the community,” Makris said. “I’ve been away for so many years.”

Port Gamble S’Klallam member Al Justin was inducted a few years ago and said has really enjoyed the perks of being an elder — group vacations with other elders, being first in line for buffets at celebrations and free access to resources such as crab, shrimp, chopped wood and a nurse who does house calls.

He also added that the community’s perception of a person changes, too, when they reach that lucky age.

“It’s a place of honor,” Justin said. “Everyone changes their attitude toward you.”

An elder’s role in the community is valued in different ways, such being a disciplinarian. When a minor gets in trouble, instead of going through juvenile detention, they have the choice to sit down with a group of elders and discuss what they did and why it was wrong, Justin explained.

Tribal council also approaches the elders and asks them their opinions of what they would like to see for the future of the tribe, such as new buildings for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Police Department, Elders Center and Little Boston Library, Justin said.

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