NAIDOC 2023 celebrates the Elders of our community, our old people who offer their time in caring for our Jarjums and our community.  Our Elders bring mob together in times of joy, celebration and during times of grief.   They are also our most important teachers. 

Since ‘time immemorial’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have had an effective and efficient education system in place.  All children had to learn the necessary skills to survive in their local economy.   

These skills have always involved a wide range of complex scientific and engineering concepts, embedded throughout culture.  Elders play a vital role in teaching the spiritual Dreamtime stories which explain how the world came to be, and how to interact with the world so that our resources will be there for future generations.  

The Elders ensured that a child’s learning journey began in infancy and was a life-long journey.  They used a variety of learning styles.  Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children learnt through observation, watching their teachers and then imitating them.  

The Elders through their educational instruction used a hands-on approach focused on direct experience and learning through inclusion, collaboration, and cooperation. This ensures that the student, the child, feels that they are an essential member of the language group and that their contribution is valued.   This approach fosters a positive learning environment where the student learns vital skills effectively shoulder to shoulder with their teacher rather than being taught explicitly or in a formal manner.  

Reflections from Stronger Smarter 

As we’ve been talking about the NAIDOC theme with our staff, a few staff members shared their memories of Elders who have been important to them, and the knowledges they have shared over the years.  Here are their stories. 

My late Aunty, even though she is no longer here with us today left me with a heart full of so much love and memories. She was the one I would confide in with secrets in my teens. Our bond grew in the kitchen, when I was a child, over the stove as she would teach me how to cook her famous dishes.  

She would always invite all the family over for meals and before eating would always take a picture of the food and the set table. I remember her always saying “food brings us all together”. I have found myself carrying on her tradition, cooking for family and loved ones and always taking a picture of everything set ready for a shared meal and all the laughs and conversations that flow from a simple meal. 

Her memory lives on in my heart – my dear Aunty… This one is for you! 

Ereehna Grogan, Kuku Yalanji 

When my partner April, from Darkinjung & Gumbaynggirr nations and I were pregnant with our son Kai, both our Matriarchs (Nan & Avo) passed away. It was a difficult time but more than this it made us reflect on the contribution of Elders in families and communities, and the hole that seems to appear when they’re gone. These fierce female leaders have shaped who we are, they have shown immense resilience, strength, and perseverance, and more than all this they showed up with unconditional love.  

April and I have been fortunate enough to have other community Elders, who have continued to provide space for care, love, and guidance. We are reassured that our old people continue to walk with us. We felt our Nans with us in the birthing room and we feel them everyday walking with us and guiding us. 

Today and every day we celebrate the Elders of our communities, the people who have come before, who have cared for this land and embraced us in their hearts, they are the heartbeat of what remains and are in the stories of what’s yet to come.  

Kelly Coelho 

 If it wasn’t for our Elders, we wouldn’t be here today.  Our Elders are the ones who have fought for our rights and provided us with the possibilities of equal opportunity.  

When I think back to how my Elders lived, and the hardships they faced, resilience comes to mind.  They always made do with what they had, and it was bountiful even though it was so little.  That resilience comes from my great grandfather, who was taken from his family at a young age and placed in Queensland.  Even though he was taken away from his bloodline, away from his mother, his father, he still became a great man of knowing.  He still remembered what he had been taught by his family and passed that onto my mother.  The knowledge of bush medicines, bush tucker and living off the land, and the connections to saltwater and freshwater. 

I remember going out to the ranch and we’d go down to the crossing and Mum would show me the bush tucker and the trees with the leaves to use as soap.  That knowledge and those values are now instilled in me, my children, and my grandchildren.  They will continue to be passed on to future generations.    

This sense of learning from our Elders comes not only from my immediate blood line, but also from the many other Elders who have impacted my life.  Working for the Institute, it’s the connection with Elders in each community we work with.  We’re always in that learning space, listening to stories of personal journeys and learning from their experiences.    

The resilience of my Elders, their upbringing, what they were taught, and who they were taught by has had such a strong impact not only on their journey, but on my journey as well. The spirits and the love of holding a family together that came from my Elders, that resilience, are the values that keep me walking on that journey. 

Michal Purcell, Butchulla and Ambryn Island, Vanuatu 

 I have been blessed with the best for thousands of years. I come from a very strong line of powerful women. Women with powerful stories who have overcome turmoil, adversity and injustice but ALWAYS come out the other side happier and wiser and always doing what they do for their families.  

The women in my family have taught me everything I know… my favourites being my resilience, my ability to look for the positives, and my compassion.  

To my Mum, my Nan, my Grandmother, my Great Grandmothers… my Elders, for me the epitome of Humanitarians… thank you for your stories, for your positive role modelling, your firm but fair teachings, your constant guidance to achieve more, your truth telling and your sacrifices. I love and care for you all more than you’ll ever know.  

My cousin shared this quote:
Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say, watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”  – Linda Hogan (author) 

This really hits for me, because everything I do with the Institute, particularly when advocating for achieving better educational outcomes for our Jarjums is because of the love and passion of those right behind me. 

Rebecca Giles , Dharawal  

The knowledge and experience of our Elders across the country can bring so much to our education system, to our teaching, and to our Jarjums.  The Stronger Smarter Metastrategy of Embracing Indigenous Leadership reminds us that great wisdom can often be found outside the traditional structures of leadership. 

We encourage you to keep the spirit of ‘For our Elders’ alive beyond just the few days of NAIDOC week and seek ways to engage with the deep knowledge and experience of the Elders in your local school community.

Written by:  Catherine Jeffery, Kelly Coelho, Ereehna Grogan, Rebecca Giles, Michal Purcell, and Cathy Jackson.