Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

NAIDOC awards recognise pioneering Elders

Yuin and Wailwan man Uncle Dean Kelly (L) and Wiradjuri and Yuin man Tyson Frigo agree on the importance of Elders but their perceptions differ. Source: SBS News.

This year’s NAIDOC theme is ‘For Our Elders’. But what is an Elder?, SBS News, 2 July 2023

By Jennifer Scherer, Marcellus Enalanga, and Caroline Riches

NAIDOC Week celebrates the importance of Indigenous Elders, but perceptions of them vary.

Key Points

  • This year’s NAIDOC Week aims to recognise the role Indigenous Elders have played and continue to play.
  • When it comes to recognising Elders, traditions and cultural practices vary.
  • Two pioneering Indigenous Elders have been honoured at the NAIDOC Week Awards Ceremony.

This year’s NAIDOC theme is ‘For Our Elders’, which aims to recognise the role Elders have played and continue to play in Indigenous communities and families.

But what is an Elder?

When it comes to recognising the status of an Elder, there’s a range of traditions and cultural practices which vary between nations, clans and family groups.

What is NAIDOC Week?

Yuin and Wailwan man Uncle Dean Kelly says an Elder is defined by behaviour.

“My perception of Elder is you earn the right from the community or the people, the people tell you who you are by the way they start to respect you, your behaviour is important,” he told SBS News.

Wiradjuri and Yuin man Tyson Frigo has his own perception.

“An Elder to me, in my personal opinion, is someone who has gone before you, someone you can go to and they’re able to imbue you with the knowledge of their lived history.

“I’ve known Elders who are younger than me in some instances, but within community they are seen and respected as Elders because of the way they carry themselves, the protocol they carry as well as the cultural knowledge they carry and share.”

A man with a serious face looks at the camera.

Wiradjuri and Yuin man Tyson Frigo says knowledge passed down from Elders is like a river. Source: SBS News

Mr Frigo is a curator of Indigenous Programs at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Its new exhibition, Shaped by the Sea, is a collaboration between First Nations curators, Elders and community, and represents more than 40 Aboriginal and Torres Strait language regions.

Mr Frigo credits Mr Kelly for passing down knowledge to him, which he describes as a “river”.

“It has to flow, it can’t be stagnant and needs to pass from one person to the next.

“Whether that be orally through conversation or perhaps what we are doing through the digital space website Garigarang Garigaru, which allows us to reach a broader audience which might not be able to access the museum in person.”

Sharing knowledge to keep knowledge

Mr Frigo says elders have taught him valuable advice.

“One of the most important things that my old teacher said to me was, ‘give it away to keep it’.

“That statement stuck with me for a long time now. Even though he’s gone now, it still rings in my ears.

“Raising awareness about our culture, practical ways, or sitting yarning and sitting quietly is important. Why is it important to preserve it? Well, we don’t want to lose it.”

Mr Kelly says Elders must earn respect and adds that he’s sceptical about the term “emerging elder”.

A portrait of a man looking at the camera.

Uncle Dean Kelly says Elders have earned the right to hold the term from their community. Source: SBS News.

“Emerging Elders, I don’t know, each to their own, no criticism to those who believe in that. But your time will come, if you are going to become that Elder who people come to, who has knowledge wisdom and all the other characters that come with that, well you have to start somewhere and the time will tell you and the people and the community will respond to that.”

Mr Kelly hopes to share his knowledge, to help grow the next generation.

“Working with young people excites me, it encourages me to keep on going. When I see a young person doing something well with culture, I know that I’m doing okay.”

NAIDOC awards recognise pioneering Elders

Ngambri (Kamberri) Wallabalooa (Ngunnawal) and Wiradyuri Elder Aunty Doctor Matilda House-Williams has won the female Elder of the Year Award. Credit: Blacklock Media.

The NAIDOC Week Awards Ceremony on Saturday night recognised the outstanding contributions two pioneering Indigenous Elders have made to the lives of people in their communities.

Aunty Doctor Matilda House-Williams won the female Elder of the Year Award for her instrumental work in founding the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 and helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service.

The proud Ngambri (Kamberri) Wallabalooa (Ngunnawal) and Wiradjuri Elder was emotional as she received the honour.

“We are very very powerful us Elders. I’ve never turned away from anything. I’ll fight till I can stand no more,” she said

Arrernte man William Tilmouth won the Male Elder of the Year Award for his tireless work supporting homeless people and young people at risk.

The awards honour Indigenous Australians in various categories including national NAIDOC person, lifetime achievement, female elder, male elder, sportsperson, youth, creative talent, caring for country and culture, education and innovation.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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