It was Elders Day, celebrated by the 33,000 members of the Tohono O’odham Nation and presented annually (now in its 18th year) to honor tribal elders and the wisdom they have accrued.
While grey hair wasn’t a prerequisite to attend, many of the 900 who pre-registered sported that head-covering, along with tribal regalia and a smile. Attendees agreed the process of aging wasn’t just biological, it was also cultural and many said, “with age comes wisdom.”
The gathering of Tohono O’odham elders spent their day with song, dance, food and ceremony celebrating respect for the senior members. Included in this year’s crowd were two dozen attendees in their 90’s (including two 99-year-olds).
Because the Nation includes hundreds of miles of remote desert, some elders had to be up at 2 a.m. to be bussed to the tribe’s Desert Diamond Casino for the day-long function. MaryJane Juan-Moore of the Schuk Toak District was among the lucky ones who only had to travel 50 miles to the festivities.
“I have an extended family and a lot of friends scattered throughout our vast nation, so this is a big community celebration. It’s a day to recognize and honor our elders – and a day to celebrate being one – and I come here to give a lot of hugs to those I don’t see that often.”
In opening remarks, Michelle Begay, Executive Director of the Health & Human Services Department, lauded elders, saying, “We are here because of you. You gave us life. My grandmother raised me and taught me to value education, tradition, and beliefs, and to turn problems into opportunities.”
Switching easily from the O’odham language to Spanish and English to accommodate the multi-cultural preferences of those assembled, the Nation’s Chairman, Edward Manuel, noted: “Elders may need our help, but we need their help too. We need to interact with each other and share the collected wisdom. We need to respect, love, and help each other because when you learn skills and knowledge, it’s not just for yourself, but to share with others. There are so many miles that separate our people and this is like a big party to celebrate family and friendships.”
The Chairman’s Governmental Affairs Assistant, Richard Ramirez, has attended several Elders Day events with his four sisters. “We’re so busy nowadays, that we don’t have time to visit with one another and even though technology has made it a small world, it’s still a big world for elders who have limitations, no ability to visit friends and family members. This day allows them to get away from their isolation and limited social interaction. My uncle is 93-years-old and will be recognized today. I don’t get a chance to see him often and learn life lessons from him, that’s why we come here as a family to be with one another. When elders speak, they do philosophically with lessons imparted in just a few words.”
Rosemary Lopez, Director of the Health and Human Services Department acknowledged simply: “I come here to see my old friends I consider my brothers and sisters.” Another Lopez, Lisa, was a volunteer who accompanied her 78-year-old mother to the festivities. “It’s an honor to be here serving our seniors. They are precious because they are our historians.”