In Native American tribal communities, elders are the wisdom-keepers as they know our history, know our culture and educate the next generation.
For the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe people, elders are held in the highest regard.
Nowhere was that more evident than at the recent Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Senior Fun Day.
Organized and managed by the RSIC Senior Program, the annual event drew over 350 participants from as far away as Bishop, Calif., and Fort McDermitt, which straddles the Oregon-Nevada border.
Teresa Bill, one of the RSIC staff members who helps orchestrate the event, said that the mission for Senior Fun Day is simple.
“We have elders from so many different reservations this gives them an chance to see family and friends and catch up,” Bill said. “When we come together, we learn more and really, it is just to have fun.”
That sentiment was echoed and celebrated from 10 a.m., until the last visitor left the RSIC Gym at 3 p.m.
Plus, it was the principle of Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) Chairman Arlan D. Melendez’s welcoming remarks.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we are all Native, and we are all family,” Chairman Melendez said. “Today’s event shows that right here.”
Besides meeting and greeting friends from afar, the participants showed off their personalities by wearing unique hats that culminated with a hat contest via loudest applause.
Many of the elders played chair volleyball. Everyone enjoyed the catered lunch compliments of Bertha Miranda’s Mexican Food Restaurant and Cantina. There also was bingo with prizes as well as many information booths with souvenirs and important materials to take home.
“It overwhelms me and I feel so good in my heart to see so many family and friends,” said Reynelda James, an elder from Pyramid Lake. “We don’t see everyone that often so this is a blessing.”
Furthermore, two elders from faraway Bridgeport, Calif., not only participated in all the Senior Fun Day activities, but 94-year-old Madeline Stevens Lundy and 91-year-old Joyce Glazier took in an art exhibit: The Culture of Weaving: Traditional Baskets in Transition, Paiute, Shoshone & Washoe Baskets which is housed through the end of the month by the RSIC Cultural Resources Program/THPO.
Bill, who often identifies and organizes outings for the RSIC Senior Program, explained that the coming to Reno adds a special dimension to the day.
“Since the RSIC senior center is so centralized, many of the elders take the opportunity to shop and see things in the city,” Bill said. “That helps us get so many people to attend.”
Certainly, Tribes are in the best position to provide services to Native elders, and considering the future growing population of older Americans, that is not an easy job.
According to a November 2015 report by the American Association of Retired Person’s Public Policy Institute, by 2050, the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) ages 65 and older will more than triple, and the number of those 85 and older will increase sevenfold–from 42,000 in 2012 to 300,000 in 2050.
Today, more than 5.2 million United States citizens identify as American Indian / Alaska Native (AI/ AN), either alone or combined with other races.
Heartbreakingly, almost twice as many older AI/ANs are uninsured than are people in the same-age US population (16 percent versus 8.5 percent). A larger percentage of AI/ANs ages 50-plus receive Medicaid or use Veterans Affairs coverage, and 22 percent receive care provided by the Indian Health Service.
In areas like Reno-Sparks, the number and proportion of AI/ANs (of all ages) who reside in urban areas have increased 34 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Today, 44 percent of AI/ANs ages 50 and over reside on tribal lands. Alaska has the highest proportion of AI/ANs ages 50 and over (14 percent), followed by Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Montana. California has the most AI/ANs ages 50 and over (nearly 172,000), followed by Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Of course, the federal government has a trust responsibility to AI/ANs that includes a legal obligation to protect treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, plus a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law to AI/ AN people, and our elders are at the core of our communities. However, these same elders comprise the most economically disadvantaged group in the nation and are at increasing risk of financial exploitation and neglect.
To combat this crisis, the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) was established in 1976 by Tribal Leaders to advocate for improved comprehensive health, social services and economic wellbeing for our elders.
“In our culture, we hold our elders in the highest regard,” said Brendan Able, the RSIC Senior Center Activities Coordinator. “Typically, our youth have the energy while the elders exercise their wisdom, which guides us all.”
Able said that an elder–man or woman–is not elected or appointed, but always is widely recognized and highly respected for their wisdom and spiritual leadership.
“Our elders often are known for being the kind of people who have paid attention and gaining knowledge and wisdom from life,” Abel said. “Certainly, we feel that on Senior Fun Day.”