In front of his family and friends, clad in his best beaded regalia, LeRoy Malaterre, the self-proclaimed "King of the Badlands" was bestowed with several honors on November 14, including one of the state's highest distinctions, the Sagamore of the Wabash. He is the first Native American in Indiana to receive it.

With characteristic humility, Malaterre cut short his acceptance speech, joking that the audience was lucky he was at a loss for words. But before the ceremony, he expressed his gratitude. "I'm overwhelmed; I don't know how this came about. There are so many who deserve it; I don't know if I do. It's very much an honor; now I have to live up to it."

He says that this day of acknowledgement, which included the presentation of a Pendleton blanket and an eagle feather by the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission, is special because "my peers and the people I love and respect are promoting this."

Elders have always played an important role in Native American culture and are deservedly honored for it.

Elder is a term of respect bestowed upon someone by others in the community regardless of gender or age. "Age is not important," states Sally Tuttle, a Choctaw originally from Oklahoma who played a pivotal role in establishing the NAIAC. "It's more important to leave a good footprint behind for the younger generation, to live by example. Children are the most important part of our culture. LeRoy always makes sure children are included."

Known as people who have gained knowledge throughout their lives and taken careful note of traditions and ceremonies, elders share their wisdom and teach their culture and traditional way of life to younger generations.

"An elder shares knowledge," Malaterre emphasizes. "An elder must be kind, courteous and patient, and should lead by example to teach people and encourage them."

A lifetime of service

Born on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in Belcourt, N.D., in 1937, Malaterre is an Indian school survivor and a Vietnam veteran. Now retired from Allison Transmission, he has been an advocate for Native American issues in Indiana for more than 40 years. As one of the most respected elders in the state, he is well known for promoting Native American heritage, racial tolerance and education, and has travelled to neighboring states to deliver cultural speeches.

He continues to volunteer more than 500 hours a year for Native American organizations. He's been a board member of the American Indian Center of Indiana, Inc. since its inception in 1992, is co-founder of the American Indian Council in Lebanon and has been a Native American culture and heritage instructor for the Indiana Department of Correction as well as other civic and senior citizens organizations. He advises two school boards and the State Department of Education. He also sponsors a toy and clothing drive for the children on the Reservation where he grew up, which he visits a couple times a year.

"Everything the Commission does is because he set it up," Tuttle says. "He is always there to help."

He helps by playing a very visual role in serving as master of ceremonies for powwows and gatherings, carrying an eagle staff for opening ceremonies at the International Festival and cutting the ribbon for the opening of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. In addition to enjoying the music and dancing, Malaterre attends powwows in order to "share our culture for better understanding. There's a lot of prejudice. People are skeptical of Indians."

"LeRoy has been instrumental in shaping the Native American community in Indiana," stated Diego Morales, special assistant to the governor. "I am pleased to offer this special recognition to a man who has contributed so much to our Hoosier heritage."

Honoring elders

His contributions are why the Commission decided to honor Malaterre with an eagle feather and Pendleton blanket.

Eagles are a symbol of leadership, their feathers considered sacred. To receive one is a great honor.

The giving of a Pendleton blanket is a traditional blessing that demonstrates honor, admiration and respect for a person's generosity and accomplishments. Placing a blanket on a person symbolizes wrapping the community's respect and admiration around him. Receiving a blanket is believed to bring good dreams and prosperity.

The Sagamore of the Wabash award is given only to those distinguished by humanity in living, loyalty in friendship, wisdom in council and inspiration in leadership. Sagamore was a term used by Native American tribes in Indiana to denote a great man whom the leaders consulted for wisdom and advice: an elder.