On this page...

An essay to coincide with the Sydney Elders exhibition, written by Aboriginal Curator Djon Mundine.

When an elder dies, a library is lost. Universal Indigenous Saying [anon.]

Aboriginal life can travel so fast many Aboriginal people are already grandparents before they are forty. And male attrition rates can be that high that by the time males are thirty they may have few, if any, elder role models to guide them in life.

What is an elder? What is the determining age, 50 years old? Mervyn Bishop tells me in golf, at 60 years you are a ‘veteran’. In some Aboriginal societies it was anyone over 35 and certainly at the appearance of white hair. A dancer-singer or ritual performer traditionally can be an ‘elder’ at age 25, due to their prowess, strength of performance, adherence to ritual practice, humility and knowledge.

Many creative spirits are described as ‘old man dreaming’ or ‘old woman dreaming’ with their associated sites – when you perform their dance you may dance with walking sticks indicating old age.

Some people have white hair and look battered and they’re not even 50. It’s not about just looking old, and even having grandchildren. Do they want to be old? I don’t want to be old or called old – you have a few aches and pains and taking medication to keep alive – just getting by – going without and not having means to get ahead.

The word elder, in the present sense of older or respected person, most probably comes from old English. The tree now known as ‘elder’ is from a root of the same time but different. It’s from the tree worshipping times of pre-Christian Celtic Pagan Europe and was one of a number believed to be the embodiment of a powerful creative spirit. Both can be thought of as evil or sinister as well as for good. The tree blossoms in white flowers in summer. When you use its branches, timbers, fruit and flowers you speak to this being, asking permission and thanking them for their fruitfulness. Having such a tree near your house protected you, so does wearing the flowers and leaves. The wand in Harry Potter is made from elder wood. Aboriginal people as with those societies of animistic beliefs, are also a tree worshipping society. In central Arnhem Land there are a number of antecedent beliefs and practices and similar ideas around these plants are observed. The Wurrkigeyndjarr people [literally flower power people] honour the flowering of the eucalyptus tree that heralds the honey season [August/Sept]. One of the most sacred spirits of David Malangi’s ‘dollar note’ design is the Raga; White Berry bush, whose sweet small white berries indicate the renewal of the world. I was told that this bush was as sacred as the Rainbow Serpent itself for Malangi’s family. Closer to home, the wattle trees blooming in the Sydney area moves the world from near death of winter to summery abundance and rebirth. So the idea of elder is about someone who is very old [near death] and yet near spirit [eternal and rebirth].

An elder is a person valued for their wisdom who accordingly holds a particular position of responsibility in society. Both male and female elders are equally valued, and allowed some form of ‘governance’ tied to responsibility. The advice frequently sought, for its wisdom comes from age and experience. They talk to, give service to the community.

For this reason, the meaning is to honour the beginning in every end and the end in every beginning. Each death, each end, brings a new start a rebirth.

In some societies elders may teach and have an authority to criticize and ‘tell-off’ those who aren’t doing the right thing. I’m told that in Wik, the term used for elders; Munthian means the ability to speak of old ‘stinking’ things – speak of serious things, important or contentious things, to talk of the dead. To speak of all contentious issues and events impartially, open-minded and objectively.

I know the testimony of A young anthropologist Will be respected While that of an elder Is ignored What I Know, Anita Heiss

In Queensland someone told me of the over-55 ‘corporation elders’, those we’ve all seen, who are set up by white people to sit in committees. White colonial authorities always looked for and appointed ‘elders’ and gave them breastplates – Aboriginal people most often called these ‘dog tags’. And this early claiming of elder status that we have all experienced, can also be the pushing out the real old people – of trying to super cede them to some degree. Respect goes with contempt in some cases.

In Arnhem Land grey hair was a sign of an elder, but was still debated – some people never seem to attain that respect or status. A friend told me that some deserve respect, but others try to demand it. He really meant that; I [the friend] will decide who I give respect to [no-one will tell me who I have to respect].

The claiming of being old man, or elder, is possibly the sign of just surviving. Historically or traditionally its eating the wrong food or surviving a life of doing the wrong thing, that’ caused your hair to go grey. So being an old man or woman elder is possibly the sign only of surviving.

As I write this, the non-Aboriginal man sitting opposite me on the train is staring, and looks very closely at my jacket, ‘Ah, you have an OAM!’.
I tell him, ‘it means ‘old Aboriginal man’ – ‘Oh, I’m eighty, my own OAM stands for ‘old angry man’ he replies with a chuckle!

Once upon a time as I went to the pub they would greet me; Hey bro-brother, [or hey sis -sister], ya got any ngyugs? Or maybe hey bunji [brother-in-law]. Then suddenly one day, jarringly they said; Hiya uncle or hello aunty, and even worse – you need a seat! At least they haven’t called me ‘granny’ yet.
As social terms, they are mere age categories, almost from Christian missionary practice [father-mother-brother-sister-all God’s children] as much as Aboriginal tradition; those using them are rarely your real blood relatives.

Nhe dhuwala yaku, dhuwala dhuwala, dhuwaliay [what is the name of this place we were brought to]
Bob Randall of the Stolen Generation.

Aboriginal people were seen living in the region of what is now Redfern, Chippendale, since the first white settlers moved there [1800]. By the 1950s-60s the Aboriginal population was still relatively small in what was then a terrible inner-city slum. But then heaven can be a place on earth if we choose it to be. They worked in local factories; IXL, Cadbury’s Chocolates, the state rail carriage works, and so on. But this then began to change by the end of the decade. The Foundation For Aboriginal Affairs began in 1964 to assist new arrivals find work and a place to live. And now in 2012 we’re to have change again.

I cannot think when hunger consumes me gnaws at my insides pleads me weak Prayer to the old people Romaine Moreton

We’re really like some form of internal displaced person, following the violent widespread war of colonization. Whole populations were then massacred or moved about across the country, and society totally disrupted and families broken up. It is in these conditions of generations of diaspora living that real elders appear.

this is a prayer to the old people who have walked this road before I know you would want us to live long Prayer to the old people Romaine Moreton

Djon Mundine OAM
Independent Bundjalong curator, writer and occasional artist.