Aboriginal Elders: Understanding how to be an Ally to Aboriginal Elders

What is an Indigenous Elder?

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elder is an individual who is recognised to be a custodian of Indigenous knowledge. Elders become a leader and guide for the community and take on the role of sharing, promoting, and sustaining their knowledge, beliefs, and practices in Aboriginal culture. Elders are important, both for their communities and Australia as a whole.

What is an Aboriginal Elder called?

A person who has gained recognition in their community as a conservator is known simply as an ‘Elder.’ Despite the name, an Aboriginal Elder isn’t necessarily a senior member of the Indigenous community; the role of Elder isn’t defined by age. Anyone can be an Elder, as long as they have achieved the respect of his or her people. That said, Eldership isn’t voted on nor assigned–it’s typically bestowed after a natural acknowledgement from their community. For example, Aunty Munya has been acknowledged as an Elder by the Bardi people who are the Traditional Owners of the area north of Broome and inhabiting parts of the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, where Aunty Munya was born.

How do you address and respect an Aboriginal Elder?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people refer to an Elder as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle.’ However, it’s recommended that non-Indigenous people check if it’s appropriate for them to use these terms when speaking with an Indigenous Elder. Knowing how to show respect to Aboriginal culture takes learning and practice. Through training and talking with Indigenous peoples, you can learn how to respect the Aboriginal community and Elders. 

Are all Aunties and Uncles, Elders?

No, not necessarily. Aboriginal people refer to most older people in the community as Aunty or Uncle. Even as a non-Indigenous person, you might be lucky enough to be addressed as Aunty or Uncle by a younger Indigenous person, which is a sign of their respect for you. Not all older Indigenous people take on the role of Elder in their community. There is a saying, “while all older people are Aunties and Uncles, not all Aunties and Uncles are Elders.”

Are all Elders, old?

While it usually takes decades to gain the cultural knowledge and respect required to be recognised as an Elder, their are some instances where quite young Indigenous people have earned the title of Elder.

What is the role of an Elder in an Aboriginal community?

While the role of an Elder may change from one community to another, they commonly take on the responsibility of upholding their principles, such as respect and reverence for the earth, and instilling these in their community members. Elders share their knowledge, teaching others to respect the environment and learn Indigenous practices.

Elders also assume duties such as participating in protocol at meetings and events, and leading ceremonies and negotiations. Indigenous Elders also tackle the concerns of the community, including those involving health, education, and employment.

Nowadays, Aboriginal Elders also engage with the government to lobby for the empowerment of their communities in schools, the workplace, and other cultural spaces. Read about some famous and influential Aboriginal Elders.

Why are Aboriginal Elders so important?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders are important in their community as they guard, promote, and sustain their customs and principles. Beyond that, Elders are also vital to Australia as a whole. They are custodians of the traditions that the First Nations have lived by for thousands of years. As such, Indigenous Elders can pass on this knowledge and spirituality to everyone, while educating non-Indigenous people about the country’s deep-rooted culture.

Learn More About Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture with Evolve Communities

To bridge the gap between tradition and modernity, it’s important that everyone actively participates in increasing their awareness about the different cultures present in the country and their understanding of Aboriginal people and communities. Evolve Communities, Australia’s trusted authority for Indigenous cultural awareness training, can help you build a stronger and more inclusive workplace through effective Indigenous cultural competence programs (also available online). Learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture and how you can become an Ally with Evolve Communities today!

Access For Our Elders On Demand

This 45-minute On-Demand webinar was created by Aunty Munya and Carla to celebrate the 2023 NAIDOC theme: For Our Elders

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