Everyone has a certain idea of what an Elder is in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. However, there are still a few who are confused or who are too embarrassed to ask who is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Elder and what role do they play in their community and the broader community.
Some think that to be an Elder, you have to be an older person as they have more experience and that they are knowledgeable in life.
This is not the case.
Through many years of working in Communities, in this blog I will attempt to answer some of the usual questions surrounding Elders and the importance of their role in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that I am asked.
Let’s start with the most typical question asked. What makes an Elder?
Most often, an Elder’s definition in the community varies on the culture they live by and what they want to pass on to the next generation. However, the common trait of an Aboriginal Elder is a profound spirituality that touches every aspect of their lives and teachings.
They do their best to live by example – by actively following deep-seated principles, values and teachings.
With the term Elder, one would think that a certain age is required to achieve this status. This is Definitely not the case. Elders are not defined by their age. They are described as someone who has achieved the respect of their people through knowledge, accord and stability of their actions in their traditions and customs. It is also important to remember that there is no specific gender required to become an elder. In Aboriginal cultures, women are also referred to as Elders
So let’s dive deeper and answer the main question. What role does an Elder have in the Indigenous community?
While the specific role of an Elder may change from one community to the other, they are identified by the common principles they uphold and instill to their community members.
Some of these principles are respect for their environment and that the earth is their mother. Elders are also devoted to imparting their knowledge, provide leadership, teach others to respect their natural world and to learn and to listen to the rhythms of the elements and seasons.
In modern day, an Elder’s role in the community has helped tackle a range of community concerns such as health, education, unemployment, racism and oppression. By supporting Elders, they can provide an optimistic move in bridging the cultural gap within the community and transfer revered spiritual understanding. Spending time with elders and community can help people deal with their day to day lives, feel a positive connection to their history, country and the Dreamtime.
Elder engagement by Government and Communities should be paramount to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Elders have importance within their communities and can lobby their community to empower themselves in areas such as unemployment, improved health, and providing a safe, cultural space for teachings.
Elders should be considered vital, not just to their Indigenous community, but to all of us that call Australia home. They help mold minds in respecting the surroundings, teach people to love our country as their mother and help continue the traditions that the first Australians have lived by for thousands of years. Elders help pass on the knowledge, tradition and spiritual culture that they follow, to their fellow Indigenous community and the broader Australian public, as well as help educate non-Indigenous people on how to deal with certain aspects that affect the daily living of Indigenous People and share our beautiful culture.
How do you know who is an elder or not?
You can find out who the Aboriginal or Torre Strait Islander Elders are in your community by contacting the local Aboriginal Land Council. If there is not a Land Council in your area, you can contact your local Aboriginal Medical Service, or any other Aboriginal organization to get some information in relation to who this might be in your local area. Indigenous people also generally have an idea, so if you know any of the Indigenous people in your community, you might just ask them the question.
Now this could land me in hot water with some, but my response when giving or participating in cultural competency workshops or facilitating engagement with RAP Plans is always the same, ASK! Do not just ask one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, ask many. This is true, as in many communities there may be different tribal groups, Traditional Owners Groups, and these groups generally have different cultural practices traditions and opinions.
Always keep in mind, The person who screams the loudest may not be the right person to speak with.
We must always remember that there are more are many different Indigenous Australian nations and although there are similarities in many, no one tribe, country or countrymen is exactly the same.
It’s always good to speak the Traditional Owners (TO’s)of a particular area first on matters that relate to the area you live in especially when it comes to cultural heritage or the local history and this is also very respectful in terms of doing “business” or engaging with Indigenous community as it aligns with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protocol.
However sometimes it’s good to get another opinion or perspective on issues of interest, and this information can be obtained by talking to another person who is not a Traditional Owner, remembering though that TO’s will have very strong opinions and will general have knowledge on Cultural Heritage Info, and again should be the first point of contact when dealing with specific cultural issues in the area you live or work
“Who does your community go to in times of crisis or to get advice or feedback?"
This really depends on what the crisis or situation is. Sometimes there are things that are dealt with by an Aunty when it is a female type situation, and the same thing can happen when it is more of a male situation that needs addressing. Traditionally there was a Mens Business and Womens Business, and this is still carried out in contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society.
It is generally thought that Indigenous Australians have lost much of their culture, but in fact we haven’t. Much of the way we used to live and interact with each other hundreds of years ago is still practiced today, its just in a modern way. We still have our own ways of living, communicating and being, but unless you are exposed to our way of life, it is not really visible.
“Who in your community do you trust to give you advice?"
I personally have obtained advice from Elders in my own family in the first instance, however there may be times when you reach out to other members of your community, again it really depends on the circumstance or situation, and I think this is very similar in all cultures.
“Who in your community does good for the whole community in which they live?”
For so long non-Indigenous people have spoken with Indigenous individuals who have spoke the loudest and stamped their foot the most, now many of these people are considered Elders though many are not elders within their own communities. Again Ask, Our people are proud of our role models and will tell you with pride who are the people in their community who they admire and respect.
"Is there a ceremony or initiation for someone to become an elder, do they get a crown or a sash?"
There are still Aboriginal communities that have traditional ceremonies, that give rights of passage and depending on which community there will be ways that the position or title of Elder is obtained. Again however every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is different, and connecting with the local Indigenous community and organisation within your area, they will tell you. Even though I keep saying each community is different, we do have one thing in common is we love to have a chat, especially if you want to learn about our community in a positive way.
"Are they beholden to their community?"
In many ways yes Elders are beholden to their communities. There is still a strong sense of community and obligation that is just innate and is still something that is practiced across (in different ways) across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. The position of Elder is one that is taken seriously and reverently to the person who this title is bestowed upon.
What if they do something wrong, what does the community do?
Indigenous communities have their own ways of dealing with situations like this. Sometimes there is resolve, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes people are ostracized from communities, or told to go to never return. This of course is extreme circumstance, but I have seen this happen where one highly respected people in a particular community are “banished” and have had to resort to living off country moving to an urban setting, which has led to them becoming what are called where I am from in the NT long grass people. ( People with no fixed address, sleeping in parks or areas in suburbs in a town or place, often drinking themselves to death), it’s really quite sad.
Is the position of elder handed down through families, Can it skip a generation?
For most Indigenous people there is a time in ones life whereby the title of Elder will be attained. For some it will be with through ceremony, for some it will be with age, and for others, it will be combinations of both. However, it is a generally a position of respect and for those of us who are not Elders, should make every attempt to appreciate and respect our Elders as for the most part, there is much we can learn from them. The position of Elder, can skip a generation though mostly it doesn't, due to the passing down of knowledge from elder to child within families the core beliefs and moral code are passed down and carried forward with the next generation.
"Do I go through an intermediary to organise to meet with an Elder?"
If you do not know the elder or the community, yes. If your are wanting to meet with an elder regarding a person in their community, Issues affecting their community or to spend time on country reach out through the lands council, Local Aboriginal Health Organisation or a community member that can Introduce you or vouch for you.
"How do I make sure I don't offend an Elder?"
Be respectful, be mindful, Go into conversations with the openness to listen and learn. If you do inadvertently offend, apologise.
"Do I have to take a gift when visiting an Elder?"
No, but go with an open heart, a ready sense of humour and manners.
So you may ask, Am I an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elder? and to this I say, it takes time to be an elder, it is the most revered position in my communities and in time this position I hope is bestowed upon me. What I am is a trusted member of my community, I am known to uphold the culture I was born to and in time I look forward to becoming an elder in my own community. In the meantime I am proud to be a conduit between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous communities to do my bit in bringing about reconciliation.
My name is Dion Devow and I am an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man and a father of three. I was born and raised in Darwin but moved in Canberra in 1994 to attend university. After graduating with a bachelor of applied science in health education, I decided to stay. On my father's side I am Manbarra. We are traditional owners for the Palm Island Group in North Queensland, and South Sea Islanders (Kanakas) from Tanna Island. My mother's people are from Erub or Darnley Island in the eastern Islands of the Torres Strait.