June 29: The Elders

In Sitka, Alaska there is a strong respect for tradition, a great devotion to the Native “ways,” and an appreciation for the Native culture. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska is made up of the Tlingit people and several other tribes and their presence on the southeast Alaskan coast goes back about 10,000 years. The Tlingit people have a rich tradition of “talking story” or story-telling, which is aided by things like totem poles.

In an interesting but unfortunate twist, in American English we have sayings about being on the bottom or the top of the totem pole. Being at the bottom is thought to be not-so-good, as in, you have a long way to climb. Specifically, a “low man on the totem pole” is a person of no status or power, someone at the bottom of a hierarchy. On the other hand, being at the top of the totem pole is readily seen as a sign of success. We talk, then, about climbing to the top of the totem pole, as if it were like climbing to the top of the corporate ladder.

The truth among Native peoples, however, is that the lowest figures on the totem pole are considered the most prestigious. Among the Tlingit people, for example, the person at the bottom of the totem pole is the one who supports all the rest. The bottom of the totem pole is where the “elders” of the tribe are located. They carry the whole nation, so to speak, on their shoulders. Meanwhile, to be at the top of the totem pole actually means you’re just the latest to arrive – it is not a sign of success or achievement. The ornate designs and carvings on the bottom of a totem pole are the ones that will be seen at eye level and it is there, according to the Tlingit people, that we can look into the eyes of the elders and draw on their wisdom and experience.

The next time we see a totem pole, let’s not be so enamored with whatever (or whoever) is at the top. The challenge is to look to the base, to look to the foundation: that’s where “the elders” of our tribe (and our world) are located.


Today in the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the two “founding elders” of our Church: St. Peter and St. Paul. The New Testament is filled with stories about how these two men heroically devoted themselves to building the Church, but it doesn’t shy away from recounting times when they made their own mistakes. However, one of the things that separates Saints like Peter and Paul from the rest of us is their humble ability to learn from their failings and their willingness to keep serving the Lord in spite of them. May we all learn how to keep moving forward and how to keep building up the Church, no matter what!

Let us pray. “Grant, we pray, O Lord our God, that we may be sustained by the intercession and the help of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Through them, you gave your Church a firm foundation so that we might live in faith on earth, with a longing for our heavenly home. Through Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.”


A personal not from Fr. Mark: Many of you know that I was able to go to Sitka, Alaska over the weekend for a niece’s wedding. While there, the temperature rose to a balmy 79 degrees on Sunday and the locals were complaining about the “heat wave.” All of you here in Portland probably find that laughable. I was glad to return late Monday and all the more glad to hear that all of you survived the “heat bubble” in good shape. Thanks be to God!

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