News & Events


May 20, 2015

IWRI’s Indigenous Elders-in-Residence Program – Winter Quarter 2015

Howard Luke (Athabascan) and Elizabeth Fleagle (Inupiat Eskimo) at the Burke Museum. Photo by Dr. Sven Haakanson (Alutiiq), director of the Burke Museum.

Howard Luke (Athabascan) and Elizabeth Fleagle (Inupiat Eskimo) at the Burke Museum. Photo by Dr. Sven Haakanson (Alutiiq), director of the Burke Museum.

During Winter Quarter 2015, the IWRI National Center of Excellence hosted more than ten Indigenous Elders from Washington and Alaska over a period of nine weeks. This very successful program, one of only a couple of university- or tribal college-based Elders-in-residence programs in the United States, enriched all who participated in it. Once word of the program spread across the UW campus, co-founders Jordan Lewis (Aleut) and Polly Olsen (Yakama) received requests from scores of UW faculty and staff to have Elders collaborate with them. And when word spread throughout Native communities in the Pacific Northwest, Lewis and Olsen were flooded with phone calls and visits from Elders asking if they could participate. What began as a program focused on bringing Elders into the classroom at the UW School of Social Work (SSW), grew to include participation by the American Indian Studies (AIS) Program, School of Medicine, Linguistics, and the Burke Museum.

The presence of the Elders enriched the educational experiences of all students in the classroom and brought a sense of purpose and joy to the Elders, as well. Dr. Jordan Lewis notes that, “I think that support and recognition from everyone else is also apparent in the Elders’ enjoyment in being here—like they’ve never felt this respected; they’ve never felt like they had to go out of their way to do something. People pulled together and created a community to make this happen.” One AIS student said, “Instead of lectures for hours like normal classes are, what our class did was have an honorary host come over to class once a week and talk to us. What I liked about this was that each host had his or her own story. They also had their diverse experiences to share with us.” Another commented, “Being exposed to these different communities and their stories through the Elders-in-Residence was a unique experience that allowed me to learn from folks who remind me of my grandparents.”

The Elders opened up their hearts and minds to the students, passing on their wisdom, knowledge, and stories with the goal of teaching the youth how to live healthy and meaningful lives, but also to embrace their culture, and be proud of their families and communities. The presence of the Elders in the classroom brought with it a shift in how the classroom felt and how the students interacted. The Elders’ wisdom allowed students to see the larger picture of why they were in higher education and how to apply book knowledge to practical skills, such as community organizing, helping others, and engaging in self-care to be of assistance to others. The Elders led a variety of workshops during their visits, including a poetry workshop, traditional Athabascan beading, and workshops on healing from past traumas. A majority of the activities and events focused on social work and health professions, due to the program’s affiliation with IWRI and the UW SSW, but students in AIS were also engaged in traditional arts and crafts, and worked as a class to prepare for the grand opening of the UW Intellectual House.

Lewis and Olsen are currently in the process of compiling data, surveys, and testimonies on the program to write an evaluation report and demonstrate to campus stakeholders the value and importance of the Indigenous Elders-in-Residence Program. The program’s success was due to the hard work and commitment of key people, as well as the support and mentoring of faculty and staff at IWRI, AIS, and the School of Medicine, including Cynthia UpDeGrave (AIS), NormaAlicia Pino (School of Medicine’s Center for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion), Sarah Jen (UW SSW doctoral student) and Jessica Ullrich (UW SSW doctoral student).

Spending time with Indigenous Elders was such a true blessing for all involved that there is strong support to make the Indigenous Elders-in-Residence Program a permanent feature of the UW SSW, thus creating a safe space in our classrooms and educational institution to acknowledge and honor our Native students, community members, faculty and staff, and most importantly, our Indigenous Elders.