The 230-plus Native American elders came from near and far for an annual holiday occasion, and when it was over they left richer by one large ham, a gift bag, best wishes from Santa Claus himself, and warm feelings about a great meal.
The 11th annual Denver Elders Dinner was sponsored by the American Indian College Fund (AICF), which provided dishes made from 220 pounds of buffalo as well as 30 pies, four cakes, and large trays of cookies and cupcakes to attendees 55 and older in one of many holiday events in the local Indian community.
Expectations were fulfilled—greetings from old friends along with some teasing, as in,“The Diné were trying to get me to exchange reindeer for sheep,” said John Gritz, Cherokee, emcee for the occasion. Plates of chicken, Osage meat pie, green beans, fry bread, wojapi and other treats filled the tables.
Elders from many tribes and places were united in the collective experience of seeing friends and family. One couple, Lionel and Leona Steele, Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute, respectively, drove eight hours over the mountains from their home in Cedar City, Utah to make the event for the first time in five years.
“I think it’s nice to come and see people we know,” Leona said of friends from their 40-plus years in Denver. Her husband noted their ages—he is 68, she 63, and added, “It’s good to come down while we’re in good health.”
It’s a contrast from the Steeles’ first trip to Denver, when they traveled by train from Nevada under the Bureau of Indian Affairs-administered urban relocation program, arriving with $35 and three children. Despite initial hardship, Lionel and his drum group later became an integral part of the local Indian community.
Honor songs were sung for several at the elders’ dinner, including Ada Bear, Winnebago, who was named Elder of the Year for her work on the annual event and for her unselfishness in serving others. Outgoing elder of the year, the Rev. Sonny White, Cheyenne/Lakota, was honored by his family, and AICF president Rick Williams was honored in a ceremony conducted by Charles Bearrobe, a fellow Oglala Lakota. Honor songs were sung for Edith Wilson, 90, who identified as Sioux, the oldest person present, and for Jordan Bear, grandson of Ada and Logan Bear, Ponca/Omaha, who is serving his third tour of Army duty in Iraq.
The dinner is only once a year, but it draws a lot together—people from near and far, traditions of honoring and appreciation—and, from all indications, inspiration for carrying its warmth into the new year.