Elders and Knowledge Keepers

Indigenous Elders and traditional Knowledge Keepers are spiritual leaders. They are given their esteemed titles from their respective communities in recognition of life experience and wisdom. While all senior-aged people carry wisdom, an Elder is someone with a comprehensive understanding of Indigenous Ways of Knowing and the connection to the universe, including the land, animals, seasons and all life. Elders lead by example – living a quality life that embodies principles such as the Seven Sacred Teachings. Some Elders are also specialists in specific areas, such as ceremonies, healing, harvesting, medicines, counselling, negotiations and more. Elders and Knowledge Keepers have learned and earned the right to perform ceremonies through a long journey of ceremony and living a sacred life.

The role of Elder differs from community to community, as does the definition of what makes an Elder. It is also important to note that the terms Elders and Knowledge Keepers are not defined by age, but rather, the experience and wisdom derived from living and modeling a good life. They convey knowledge and teachings passed down to them in stories, songs, culture, and traditions, sharing life lessons and wisdom to the youth. Oral history is critical to Elders and Knowledge Keepers in sustaining cultures and traditions, and the collective well-being of Indigenous communities.

Hands-on experience is also an important tradition carried forward by Elders and Knowledge Keepers. Some healers and medicine people must go through very rigorous training before they earn the right to practice. For spiritual practices especially, having the appropriate teacher is important, and there is formal training for those conducting healing and sharing circles.

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Elders and Knowledge Keepers

The RMWB is building working relationships and partnerships with local Indigenous community leaders, grassroots members, and members as a whole, including Elders, seniors, and Knowledge Keepers. This is, in part, a direct response to feedback received during the Municipality’s formal Truth and Reconciliation engagements, including the Oct. 19, 2019, Sharing Circle on MacDonald Island. Attended by more than 100 Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, the RMWB was asked to increase greater awareness regarding local Indigenous ways of knowing, so it can be incorporated into the work with the Municipal projects and initiative development. Advancing the RMWB’s ongoing commitment to the TRC Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, requires continued building and strengthening of relationships with the Indigenous communities and their Elders and Knowledge Keepers.

Elders and Knowledge Keepers Roles

Elders and Knowledge Keepers’ roles are both dynamic and diverse. For the RMWB, their increased involvement with Municipal departments is helping to improve communication and information-sharing, remove barriers with staff, enhance pre-existing relationships, and enable cross-cultural exchange. Elders and Knowledge Keepers and department staff come together to discuss ideas and approaches on Municipal projects and initiatives. Local teachings and wisdom from Elders and Knowledge Keepers help guide and better inform the Municipality, improving the RMWB’s projects and initiatives important to Indigenous communities in Wood Buffalo.

Individual Elders and Knowledge Keepers each have their own specialties, expertise and areas of interest. Some key roles and related activities Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers may take on in their interaction with Municipal staff include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Sharing wisdom with departments on Municipal projects, initiatives and activities;
  • Assisting in social, cultural, and spiritual events, such as prayers and ceremony, that bring Municipal staff and/or Wood Buffalo residents together;
  • Participating as guest speakers in special Municipal events and workshops and providing prayers and keynote speeches;
  • Conducting and providing guidance on ceremonial activities, such as smudging, pipe, and prayer;
  • Offering storytelling, carving, craft-making, traditional drumming and singing, and other activities; and
  • Conducting Talking and Sharing Circles and participating in Committees, Working Groups or Advisory forums.


Elders and Knowledge Keepers encourage and promote understanding and respect for Indigenous community perspectives, culture, and values. Elders are selected to join or participate in events because of their wisdom. At Municipal events and ceremonies, Elders and Knowledge Keepers may choose to be called by a given first name or an ancestral or cultural name. They may also give a prayer in their language. It is important to ensure the correct spelling and proper pronunciation of Elders’ and Knowledge Keepers’ names, and those of their respective First Nations or Métis community, well before scheduled events. It is also important to ensure Elders are given a detailed summary of what is being asked of them.

Tobacco, one of the sacred medicines, is offered to Elders and Knowledge Keepers in exchange for requesting advice, knowledge, or wisdom and in recognition of the respect for the knowledge and teachings shared. Tobacco and gifts received in advance of events are often used by Elders and Knowledge Keepers to make an offering in exchange for taking something from, or making changes to, the landscape.

In the RMWB, it is respectful protocol to offer tobacco to Elders and Knowledge Keepers when asking for help, information, or advice. It is important to give as much information as possible about the request, as well as an opportunity to accept or decline. An Elder’s acceptance of tobacco signifies endorsement of the request. Honorariums or a small non-monetary gift of gratitude are often presented to these individuals by RMWB staff after the engagement or event has completed.

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