Image: Aunty Munya Andrews with the late Uncle Jack Charles (NOTE: Uncle Jack Charles’s family have given permission for his name and image to be used.)
Elders are highly respected senior members of the Aboriginal community, providing spiritual guidance, support, and cultural teachings to preserve and protect stories, heritage, and the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, past and present.
How Are Aboriginal Elders Recognised?
How do you become an Aboriginal Elder? Elders aren’t necessarily appointed through any formal process but are honoured by their communities as people whose voices have influence and bring value, knowledge, and wisdom to the local people–regardless of age.
One of the many ways we can respect and appreciate the depth and richness of Aboriginal culture is to mark NAIDOC Week, established by the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.
What is NAIDOC Week? This annual week-long observance runs from the first Sunday of each July, celebrating the achievements, history, and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the NAIDOC Awards.
At the end of the event, the National NAIDOC Awards are announced at a ceremonial ball, including an award for the Male Elder of the Year. This year, 2023, the NAIDOC Week theme is ‘For Our Elders.’
In 2022, the recognised Elder was Uncle Jack Charles, who grew up in a care home in Melbourne, one of the Stolen Generation. Uncle Jack founded the first Aboriginal theatre group, advocates for and mentors incarcerated young First Nations men and serves on the Council of the Archie Roach Foundation.
Well-Known Aboriginal Elders
Respect is the foundation of Aboriginal culture, applied to people, land and Elders. Communities do not have one individual ‘leader’ and may have several Elders, all with equal standing, or a small group of senior Elders.
Understanding the importance of Eldership is important, particularly when attending any event or activity where the custom is always Elders first, similar to the respect afforded to senior citizens in other cultures, who are invited to sit, speak, and eat first. It’s important to note that Elder may not always mean older, although there are few young Elders. This is because to hold a position of such esteem, an individual must have experience and a deep understanding of culture to be able to advise others.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye
An Anmatyerre Elder, Emily was born in 1910 in the Northern Territory and became one of the most significant Aboriginal contemporary artists, having grown up in Utopia, a remote desert region.
She took up painting in later life and produced a vast and influential body of work, comprising more than 3,000 paintings over eight years. However, she was not recognised internationally until around the age of eighty.
Having lived away from the Western world, her work was deeply rooted in cultural life and her custodianship of the Dreaming sites for women in Alhalkere. Emily passed away in 1996 in Papunya.
Many of her paintings explore the tensions around land rights and the colonial legacy of Australia and have been featured in the Tate. A posthumous 2008 solo exhibition in Japan broke audience attendance records, exceeding those of the previous holder, Andy Warhol.
Russell Charles Taylor AM
Russell was awarded NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year in 2018 after four decades of campaigning for the rights and acknowledgment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
He devoted twenty years to public service, serving on the Aboriginal Development Commission, acting twice as Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and was granted the Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 for his contributions to Indigenous Affairs.
As a Kamilaroi Elder, Russell was born in Miller Point in New South Wales and is passionate about preserving cultural heritage and empowering First Nations people to lead change. He is currently a Board Member of the Healing Foundation and Nature Conservation Trust.
Joyce Clague MBE
Joyce is a civil rights activist, born in 1938 and a Yaegl Elder who helped instigate the referendum in 1967, when 90.8% of Australians voted to change the Constitution, driving towards recognition and equality.
She campaigned to improve voting participation across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, encouraging 6,500 individuals to register and was involved in countless initiatives to implement social change.
In 1977, Joyce accepted an MBE on behalf of Aboriginal people, supported by her father. She has served as a representative in the World Churches Commission to Combat Racism, stood in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and for seats in the New South Wales Labour Party.