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FEATURED: What Indigenous culture can teach us about respecting our elders

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#AceNewsDesk – In many parts of Australia – where a recent royal commission revealed a broken aged care system – we could do better with the way we treat our elders.

So is there something to be learned from the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — cultures where where eldership is highly respected?

Worimi man Paul Callaghan says there is. He knows first-hand the essential role Elders play in their communities.

His Elders gave him “solace and support” when he endured racism growing up in Karuah on the NSW coast, and urged Callaghan to continue his education when he felt like quitting.

“They have always encouraged me to bridge two worlds,” he says.

When Callaghan, now 62, experienced a mental health crisis in his 30s and “struggled to find any tools for recovery in the Western psychological system”, an invitation to go bush set him on the path to healing.

Over 12 months, he went bush every week, learning about his culture from Elders who generously shared their knowledge.

“They provided me with a framework of thinking that totally reshaped the way I saw the world and enabled me to not only recover, but to go past the old me and become the real me, and be comfortable in my skin,” he says.

From that point, he says, “I achieved all sorts of success in all aspects of my life, including my career”.

Callaghan became the first Aboriginal CEO of a TAFE Institute, a role responsible for “23,000 students and 1,200 staff and an $80 million annual budget”. He has also recently completed a PhD.

The experience inspired Callaghan to write The Dreaming Path, a book that looks at wellbeing through a lens of Aboriginal philosophy and culture, in collaboration with Uncle Paul Gordon, a respected Ngemba Elder.

“Paul travelled the entire continent in his younger days connecting with Old People,” says Callaghan. “He is an encyclopedia … of traditional knowledge.”

Wisdom and knowledge

In The Dreaming Path, Callaghan describes the vital role Elders play in First Nations society.

An Indigenous man with short white hair.
Paul Callaghan wants his book to be a tool for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia.(Supplied)none

“In traditional times, Elders were of critical importance in ensuring the wellbeing of the community,” he writes.

Among their responsibilities were sharing story, song and dance as well as teaching, leadership, governance, resolving conflict, and overseeing spiritual practice and ceremony.

“It’s a hierarchy based on wisdom and knowledge” rather than “forceful power”, Callaghan tells ABC RN.

Research shows eldership is critical to creating healthy Indigenous communities.

A 2017 study identified the pivotal role Elders play in critical Indigenous issues such as health, education, unemployment and racism.

“By empowering Elders with the support necessary to address issues in their communities, we can make a positive step in helping close the gap and transferring sacred spiritual knowledge,” Dr Lucy Busija, one of the study authors, told NITV.

Yarning to stay strong

Many organisations, recognising the value of Elders’ leadership and cultural knowledge, are developing formal Elder-in-Residence programs.

In 2021, the University of South Australia (UniSA) launched the Elders on Campus project with the Purkarninthi Elders to support Indigenous students.

The seven Purkarninthi Elders – Purkarninthi means “becoming an Elder” in the Kaurna language – provide wellbeing support to students in structured and unstructured sessions both online and in-person.

UniSA’s Amy Cleland says the key themes that emerged from conversations with the Elders and Aboriginal students centre around the question, “How do you stay strong as an Aboriginal person in a predominantly Western institution?”

Subjects up for discussion in yarning circles include the impact of colonialism, local history, connection to culture, and identity.

The Elders – many of whom have links to the university through policy development and research – provide inspiring examples of First Nations people who have overcome adversity to achieve success in their lives.

“It really builds strength and resilience for students to know that they’re not alone, that they have a whole community that share similar experiences [and] understand where they’re coming from,” says Cleland.

“It helps them stay connected to their studies. It makes the campus a place that looks like them, speaks like them, and a place of safety and comfort – rather than feeling like the sore toe that sticks out.”

Similar programs exist at other Australian universities, including Curtin University, where a Nyungar Elder serves as Elder in Residence (EiR), and the University of Western Sydney, which runs an Elders on Campus program to link the university to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

While the Purkarninthi program is initially focusing on serving the needs of UniSA’s Aboriginal community, Cleland says there is potential to broaden its scope.

“We had lots of interest sparked from our posters saying the Elders were on campus, and it didn’t just come from Aboriginal people,” she says. “The international student audience is also extremely interested to connect with Elders.”

‘Family is everything’

Aunty Deborah Booker joined the Australian Air Force 13 years ago with the desire to broaden her horizons beyond her hometown of Alice Springs.

Two Aboriginal people pose for a photo
Uncle Harry Allie and Aunty Deb Booker with message sticks ahead of the Elder handover ceremony in February.(Department of Defence: Kylie Gibson)none

Aunty Deb served in a range of roles, including as a SECPOL officer, in Indigenous affairs and now as a reservist, before she took over as Air Force Elder in February from Uncle Harry Allie, BEM.

As the Air Force Elder, Booker advises the Chief of Air Force on Indigenous cultural matters, acts as a key cultural link between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the air force, and supports the air force’s 408 Indigenous aviators.

It’s a position that Aunty Deb has accepted with humility.

“The role in itself is enormous,” she says. “As I say to all my aviators and anyone I speak to, it’s not about me; it’s about what our community and everyone else wants.”

Aunty Deb has a keen appreciation of the crucial role Elders play in the community from their impact on her own life.

“Without their guidance and knowledge, I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t be standing in the role I am today,” she says.

When Elders speak, she says, everybody listens, reflecting a deeply held respect underpinned by the value of connection and relationships in First Nations culture.

A woman bends over to immerse her face in smoke
Aunty Deb Booker takes part in a smoking ceremony during the Air Force Elder handover.(Department of Defence: Kylie Gibson)none

Caring is a shared obligation, she says. “As an Aboriginal person, we care for our whole family, our community, our extended family.”

When the Booker family gets together, “we’re all together,” she says.

“We’ll chuck the mattresses in one room and all sleep together, no matter how old you are or how young you are, that’s what family’s about … It’s about being present in that moment with each other, and everything else doesn’t matter. Family is the most important thing.”

Inspiring early learners

Young learners are also benefitting from Elders’ wisdom.

John Lester is one of a group of Wonnarua Elders whose traditional lands are in the Hunter Valley.

The Elders meet as a regular body to dispense advice, make decisions, and, recently, to learn the Wonnarua language.

Dr Lester, who also serves as the Elder in Residence at the primary school my children attend in Newcastle, says Elders play a critical role as custodians of knowledge and lore in a traditionally oral culture.

Uncle John, as my kids and their classmates affectionately call him, is involved with developing the First Nations curriculum at the school, teaching children about the didgeridoo and Aboriginal dance groups.

He says he wants to be a positive role model for students and loves hearing the kids call his name as he passes through the playground.

“It gives me a great sense that they’re relating to me and my Aboriginality,” he says.

Important lessons for aged care

Callaghan believes Indigenous eldership offers a valuable lesson in how to treat older people with care and respect.

“Whenever I’m out and about with our mob, I’ll see the Elders being looked after by younger generations – getting cups of tea and things like that,” he says.

“It’s a sign of respect and … love and connectivity.”

Many non-Aboriginal families value their elders, acknowledges Callaghan, “but I also see a lot of disconnect where old people are relegated to old people’s homes, and they’re ignored, and forgotten, and disrespected.

“That makes me sad because they’re such a repository of knowledge, and story, and history, and have so much to give. Young people are missing out by not connecting to those old people, and the old people are missing out [too].”


#AceNewsDesk report ………..Published: July.06: 2022: 

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