Respect for Elders and culture

Aboriginal culture is based on respect, for the land and for their elders. Not showing respect is one of the biggest mistakes non-Aboriginal people do when interacting with Aboriginal culture.

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What makes an Aboriginal elder?

Aboriginal communities are hierarchical structures. Though there is no single leader (as the early explorers assumed), Elders can hold a lot of power.

In some communities men and women are elders with equal standing; in others it may be a few men who hold that status.

Elders are usually addressed with "uncle" or "aunty" which in this context are terms of respect. They are used for people held in esteem, generally older people who have earned that respect. They don't need to be elders.

At many activities and events the protocol is "elders first". This custom has its origins in traditional culture where elders were the first to receive the best bits of food. Then and now it's a gesture of respect for the knowledge and wisdom holders of the community.

Some describe elders at events as "butterflies": They fly in, sit down and rest and talk and yarn and joke, then fly out. But at the same time they have a presence of authority that commands respect.

Most elders are suffering from a mix of chronic illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and thus belong to the most vulnerable group of Aboriginal people. This was a big concern during the corona virus pandemic in 2020.


Being an elder does not mean to be inactive. Many elders practice some form of physical activity, and some participate in the Elders' Olympics, an annual event which sees groups of over-50s compete in various sports, including traditional Aboriginal games, to promote a healthy lifestyle.

At the end of the day, [elders] are the ones who lead the community. Everyone looks after them and looks up to them.

— Sophia Malie, Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation

Homework: Elders vs the elderly

Note how Western culture has the notion of "the elderly" while First Nations cultures know their "elders".

  • Rapidly brainstorm what you associate with both terms.
  • Now sort your associations into positive and negative columns.
  • What picture emerges?
  • Consider aspects such as "economic value", "knowledge" and "purpose" in your reflection.
  • Describe what you would do as a leader to improve the Western concept of "elderly".
  • Are there any common points that apply to both concepts?

When are Aboriginal people elders?

Aboriginal people reveal their culture bit by bit to their younger generations. "You have to be initiated and trusted to be able to give another level of culture to [another] person," says Aboriginal woman Kathy Balngayngu Marika.

At 54 years of age Kathy hasn't discovered all layers of her culture yet. "I'm not even an elder," she says. "People think I am because I have white hair, but I'm still a senior. I'm still learning. It takes a long time to be an elder."

Story: Becoming an Elder: "It’s a lifetime of working for your community"

It took Wiradjuri woman Jenny Munro many years to become an Elder:

"Some people think [becoming an Elder] is an automatic thing. Well it’s not.

"You become an Elder because you have lived your life in a particular fashion giving service to your community. Your wider group will decide that you've reached a milestone and that you are then an Elder.

"It’s not like, Oh I was a dead bastard for forty years and I thought I’d change for the last five years, no, that five years doesn't make you an Elder. It’s a lifetime of working for your community."

Video: Dr. David Suzuki On Becoming an Elder

Environmental film maker, author and science broadcaster Dr. David Suzuki defines what an 'elder' is.

What have an XBox and an Aboriginal elder in common?

Both compete for the attention of young Aboriginal girls and boys, along with American culture on television and in cinemas.

“What hope is there for our existing Elders, especially those in rural and urban areas, to take our youth for walks into the bush to learn of the old ways or to sit around a camp fire on the banks of the river to hear of their connection to country,” asks Stephen Hagan, an Aboriginal author and academic.

“Our best chance of not totally losing our young to these contemporary competing interests is to tell our stories through another medium – book, stage or film – so when the time comes, and they've had their fill of modernity, it will be there for them.”

Aboriginal elders are under pressure to pass on their knowledge about the Dreaming, or tjurkurpa.

"If [young children] don't have tjurkurpa they really don't have anything, they are lost. When someone goes there and asks them what dreaming is yours? They don't know, they don't have tjurkurpa. That's what will happen one day," explains Anangu elder Robert Stevens.

To compensate for the intrusion of television, radio, DVDs, games and players onto their lands, Anangu in 1988 decided to make their oldest intact songline public, hoping that their children would get more interested this way.

Fewer people respect elders

Lack of respect for elders is growing. Many elders in remote Northern Territory communities are highly intelligent and should be leaders. But they are not supported because they have lost the respect of their community. Young people see how non-Aboriginal people do not listen to them (for example those involved in the Northern Territory Intervention) and refuse to listen themselves.

Mainstream media coverage about cases of poor governance in Aboriginal organisations highlights the breakdown of the role that elders once, but no longer play in their communities.

Rex Japananka Granites says during his time in communities there were always council meetings to discuss with tribal elders what went on and who came into their community. This responsibility, he says, no longer exists.

Glenda Nicholls from former mission town Moree in northern NSW agrees. "Even though we didn't have much, there used to be community unity and respect for your elders," she says. But, she adds, "the moral standards and the family values in this town have dropped in such a way, I can't even describe."

The loss of respect seems to be part of the breakdown of Aboriginal communities. Previously, if one disrespected an elder, they got punished, but communities no longer follow this custom, allowing "young fellas [to] get away with anything".

Story: “These people don’t respect our culture”

Following is an account by Mabel Tommy of the Yinhawangka people. She talks about the lack of respect in the community of Bindi Bindi, about 200kms north of Perth in Western Australia.

“We hate [Bindi Bindi]. People are drunk, and the kids go through your room and steal your things. Things that you really want to keep and have kept for years. They’d go through the cupboards and take anything. They go through the freezer and take all of the food. Nobody stops them, no mother stopped them, the fathers are busy drinking and don’t look after the kids who just go anywhere.”

“They always make noises and the big people have no feeling for the old people. They make a lot of noise, they never think the old people have to rest. Night and day they go, drinking and music going full bore. Nobody stops them, and that’s why I’m always growling at people at Bindi Bindi. I tell them, you fellas drink and don’t know how to look after your kids. I never did any of these things, we’d have got a big hiding from our old people. These people don’t respect our culture, nothing.”

Do elders still pass on knowledge?

In traditional times elders took their youth out of the routine life to teach them and pass on wisdom, often for months at a time.

In post-invasion Australia this extensive and intensive knowledge transfer has stopped. In the context of Western education (schools, universities) there are fewer and much smaller periods available where elders can teach what they know to the younger generations. Often such periods are during sorry time (funerals).

Some call such periods 'ceremonial opportunities' – a time where elders can educate the young.

Also, young Aboriginal people come less and less to their elders to pursue knowledge and learn about their culture. This leads to a stalemate as elders refuse to teach restricted or mature topics to youth who are not ready to show the respect such wisdom transfers command. Thus, a lot of traditional knowledge transfer is breaking down.

How can I show my respect?

How can we feel a part of the Australian community, they don't give us the respect or the recognition?

— Paula Weldon, Aboriginal women from Sydney

If non-Aboriginal people respect Aboriginal culture and people they have overcome a big obstacle towards a dialogue between both cultures.

You can show your respect if you

  • Learn about Aboriginal culture, for example by reading texts written by Aboriginal authors.
  • Resist the urge to propose solutions for Aboriginal issues, but rather listen deeply. Too many people have tried telling Aboriginal people what's best. "People make fantastic promises, then nothing happens. I was so used to being let down, I'd developed a shield," says Kyol Blakeney, a young Aboriginal man.
  • Ask questions during workshops or cultural events you visit.
  • Avoid stereotypes. It's very easy to offend by light-heartedly imitating Aboriginal stereotypes. When actress Nicole Kidman played the didgeridoo in a TV show it offended Aboriginal people as in many parts of Australia women are forbidden to play the instrument. (This includes Uluru (Ayers Rock) where didgeridoo lessons are only offered to male visitors.)
  • Consult, consult, consult. A common mistake is not to consult with Aboriginal people. Ask, if you promote a certain area. Ask, if you make references to Aboriginal culture. Ask, if you use Aboriginal resources. Contact an Aboriginal Land Council for permissions and advice. Better be respected than sorry!

In one community they called the new government business manager "The Egg". On arrival he disappeared into his gleaming white new house, instructed not to mix with the locals, and everyone was waiting to see when he would be hatched and actually come out and talk! He didn’t want to hear what people were saying.

— Don Palmer, CEO The Malpa Project
Actress Nicole Kidman blows the didgeridoo while actor Hugh Jackman imitates an Aboriginal man standing on one leg.
Actors behaving disrespectfully. Nicole Kidman blows the didgeridoo while Hugh Jackman imitates the traditional pose of an Aboriginal man. It's easy to fall into a stereotypical trap. Learning how to respect other cultures helps avoiding them. Photo: AP

Meeting Aboriginal people at a grass-roots level can also earn you respect. Mingle with them and treat them with the respect you hope to earn yourself.

Non-Aboriginal people working in remote Aboriginal communities often lack proper awareness of Aboriginal protocols. It has been suggested that these workers take part in cultural awareness training to qualify for a black card, similar to the "blue card" which qualifies people to work with children (through a police check).

Black cards are already operational in Queensland's Woorabinda Shire Council since October 2008.

For too long services have been coming into our community and telling us what we need. Now we are saying if you want to work in our community, this is what you need to do.

— William Sullivan, Woorabinda Council, on the black card

Poem: From The Oceans To The Dusts

We will honour our elders 
Till the chains of time rust
They shared their legacy 
From the oceans to the dusts.

It’s not written on the pages of Wills,
Or even on the Net
It’s just as they left it
The same when they went.

No signage is written 
In words with a meaning 
By words from their mouths 
Grew generations of Dreaming.

Animals and plants 
They mirrored the souls
The stories had teachings 
For each waterhole.

Time has watched fete change
And the stars they still shine
They showed us the heritage
An environment sublime.

We will honour our elders
Till the dawn meets the dusk
They entrusted a legacy
From the oceans to the dusts.

Poem by Zelda Quakawoot, used with permission. Read more Aboriginal poetry.

Consultation is essential

Not consulting with Aboriginal people is a mistake many Australians do, from the ordinary Jack and Jane all the way through to top-level politicians.

How not to do it

When the Royal Hobart Hospital in Tasmania was to be renamed after a major upgrade, Aboriginal people learnt from a newspaper that one of the names considered was 'Truganini Hospital'. The proposal caused an outcry among them.

Truganini is an important woman in Tasmanian Aboriginal history who witnessed the genocide of her people. She died in 1876.

This idea [of proposing 'Truganini Hospital'] arose without consultation with the Aboriginal community and is offensive, and paternalistic.

— Sara Maynard, state secretary, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

The right way

Qantas ran a very successful campaign, "I Still Call Australia Home", from 1997 to 2009. One of the commercials of the campaign opens with an Aboriginal boy from the Torres Strait, Tyus Arndt, sing a rendition of the first verse of the song in his native Aboriginal language.

Qantas showed huge respect in their preparation of this clip. They ensured that the song's lyrics were translated and approved in the appropriate way by consulting with members of the Torres Strait Islands community. Qantas sought endorsement of the interpretation by a tribal chief. Other Aboriginal communities were consulted regarding the use of the song on, and filming access to locations on their lands.

Watch the clip and try to find out where in Australia Tyus is standing:


View article sources (17)

[1] 'The evil within', SMH 19/1/2013
[2] ''We treat them like gold': Aboriginal community rallies around elders', SMH 30/3/2020
[3] 'Trust, tension and tradition', SMH Spectrum 1/10/2011 p.6
[4] 'An Interview With Jenny Munro', Gaele Sobott 25/1/2015,, retrieved 2/2/2015
[5] 'Tell your story', Koori Mail 400 p.21
[6] [6a] 'APY elders share sacred songline with the world', SBS podcast 27/2/2014
[7] 'Elders the key, says barrister', Koori Mail 506 p.8
[8] 'Warlpiri Elder wants his responsibilities returned!', Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association 17/10/2013
[9] [9a] 'The towns we left behind', SMH 6/9/2014
[10] 'Karijini Mirlimirli', Noel Olive, Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1997 p.60
[11] [11a] Q&A: Week 2, Richard Trudgen,, viewed 18/4/2020
[12] 'Do you feel part of the 'Australian' community?', Koori Mail 393 p.41
[13] 'Two of us', SMH Good Weekend 5/11/2011 p.10
[14] 'Not bleeding hearts, just the bleeding obvious', Don Palmer, inaugural Sydney University Red Cross Society Lecture, 16/8/2011
[15] [15a] 'Black card idea gets thumbs up', Koori Mail 457 p.7
[16] [16a] 'It's a sick idea', Koori Mail 397 p.5
[17] Reconciliation News 12/2009 p.4

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Respect for Elders and culture, <>, retrieved 17 June 2024

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