Gwich'in elder discusses life and wisdom in new Yellowknife library program

The Yellowknife Public Library is offering the chance to learn from an elder, and kicked off the series Friday with William Greenland, who is originally from Inuvik.

The program is called Elders in Residence. Anybody is welcome to drop by for guidance, cultural or spiritual support. 

Greenland said people young and old, from all walks of life, came to his session.

“I had American people sitting there. I had a young woman come in with a tape recorder,” he said.

“She sat and started fixing her stuff up and everything and after a little while I said, ‘No. You’re not recording this.’ … the protocol is come in, sit down, listen for awhile.” 

Some people came in looking seeking guidance for how to approach their roles as social workers, or child-care providers, or nurses. Greenland, who is Gwich’in, said he dug into his own experience in an effort to help these people deal with their challenges.

“I don’t tell people how to live, I can’t do that. I can’t say, “… Do this and you’ll get better,” he said. “I’d say, ‘This is what I did and you can use that.'”

Greenland said he was surprised to get the call asking him to be an elder in residence because, up until now, he didn’t even think of himself as an elder. He says it’s not a designation one can put on themselves — somebody else has to do it.

William Greenland speaks during his time as an elder-in-residence at the Yellowknife Public Library. (Lawrence Nayally/CBC)


And he said he feels very honoured to be bestowed that title now.

“To come in and see my name, ‘Sit and visit with elder William Greenland,'” he said. 

“I know somebody who said, ‘You’ll get there. You’ll be in that place.’ But I didn’t know it was going to be now.” 

Greenland explained being an elder isn’t just about age, it’s about understanding how the good and the bad experiences in your past shapes who you are — and coming to terms with that.

“Get comfortable with those things,” he said. “Because we can’t flip those things over and make it good now. We can make things good moving forward.” 

That all involves staying humble, having respect for people, and avoiding judgment, said Greenland.

The library’s Elders in Residence program continues Oct. 4 with Inuit elder Annie Mitsima. It starts at 10 a.m. and runs until noon.

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