Becoming An Elder


Spirituality and the Land
Author Peter McCloy

Author Peter McCloy looks to Aboriginal culture to gain insights into the role and responsibilities of elders. In this piece, he speaks with Aboriginal painter Tex Skuthorpe to find some of the answers.
I am attending my first men's conference. Much to my surprise I am acknowledged as an elder by younger men. This is curious. I certainly don't see myself as an elder. Come to think of it, I don't even know what an elder is. I guess it must be my grey hair, which makes me look older than I am.

I ask an Aboriginal friend, Tex, when a person becomes an elder.

"Is it just a matter of age?" I ask him.

"No," he replies, "People become elders when they are too old to chase kangaroos, but it's not automatic. You can be old and stupid."

I look for role models in my own life, and I can think of only one man I would acknowledge as an elder. He is older than me, certainly, but that doesn't explain the respect I have for him. Tex is right; perhaps the qualities that make a man an elder come with age, but being old is not enough.

"So is it because they know all the stories, and the law?"

"No. In my culture, everybody knows some of the stories – it is their duty – and everyone needs to know the law. This is a matter of survival: the stories are passed down from our mother or our father, and they are passed down to more than one person. Nobody has all the stories, or exclusive knowledge of any of them. Everybody knows the law, because if they didn't know it, how could they respect it? Everybody is important in preserving the culture, which is dependent on all the people, not on any individual, even an elder."

"So it's not a matter of knowing the stories, or being expert in the law?"

"Definitely not, although you couldn't be an elder if you didn't know your stories, and your people's law."

Tex is playing games with me – he won't tell me the answer, but he will keep encouraging me to look for my own answers.

I have learned that this is fairly typical of Aboriginal people, and when I reflect, I realise that this is also the way the man I see as an elder behaves. He is a teacher, but not in the normal sense of that word. I can't remember him ever actually telling me anything. What does he do, to make me think that he deserves my respect, to make me see him as a beloved teacher, that empowers me to learn willingly, eagerly, without resentment?

The first thing I realise is that I feel safe with him, safe to be myself, safe to share who I am. He creates this safe space for me. I am empowered to be who I am, to recognise my own wisdom, to speak out without fear.

Tex agrees with me that this is a quality of elders. "When my people meet, it is the elders who keep order, who ensure that everybody is heard, and treated with respect."

In Aboriginal society, the transition from child to adult is marked by a ceremony of initiation. The ceremony is not initiation, but is a formal part of initiation. Initiation is an ongoing process of learning, punctuated by formal ceremonies.

Tex tells me that the first stage of his initiation started when he was 14, and lasted until he was twenty-eight. "We are expected to go out and visit other tribes, to live with them, so that we understand their culture. This is the way we gain respect for other people. You cannot become an elder without giving this respect, and you cannot give this respect unless you understand other people. When you understand other people, and their law, only then can you understand and fully respect your own law.

"My people are taught to respect themselves. Everybody has a part to play, a responsibility for part of the whole, and we know that our welfare is dependent on the welfare of the whole. The elders encourage us to accept this responsibility, to speak up for our knowledge of our part of the whole."

"The whole what?" I ask.

"The whole tribe, for a start. The welfare of the people will be no greater than the welfare of any individual member. It's for the whole country, for our land, because if the land isn't healthy, how can we be healthy? Each of us has a responsibility, and if any one of us is prevented from exercising this responsibility to the fullest, everybody suffers."

"So the elders gain respect by ensuring that everybody is treated with respect?"

"Right," says Tex.

Another quality I see is in the way my experiences are treated. I know that this man whom I respect as an elder has experienced parts of life that I haven't, but he never belittles my experiences. Rather, he will share with me his experience of something similar or relevant. He shares, rather than argues, and always his experience allows me to see things in another light. I learn from his experience.

"That certainly sounds like an elder," says Tex, and this is my experience of his culture – learning comes from stories rather than lectures.

"So an elder creates a safe place, empowers people to speak their own mind, and teaches by sharing his experience. Is that what makes a man an elder?"

"No. Elders understand the law, which tells us where we are going and what to do. They understand their responsibilities in relation to the law, and they help us to understand our responsibilities. They create a safe place for us to learn and discuss these responsibilities, where everybody can speak and participate. They encourage our participation by asking us questions that allow us to grasp this reality by speaking it. They act as guides and mentors by sharing their experiences and knowledge. All these things are true.

"Those are things that an elder does, but doing them does not make him an elder," says Tex. "Being an elder makes him do those things."

I recall an Aboriginal conference in Sydney, where I met Aunty Della Walker, an elder of the Yaegl people, from Yamba in northern NSW.

As we walked towards the conference room where she was to present a paper, I asked her if she was nervous. She was not. I asked her if she had her notes ready. She didn't have notes. I expressed surprise, and she told me to look at the title of her paper. "The Knowledge is Within Us", I read.

I got the message – what makes Aunty Della an elder is so deeply ingrained within her that she only has to speak and you recognise it. It's a part of her that has grown out of a lifetime of service to her people. Her audience is spellbound, not by anything she does, or the eloquence of her speech, but by something she is.

You become an elder when you develop this quality that is recognised, and when you have it, the acknowledgement of the people makes you an elder.

Being an elder is not a matter of age, nor is it dependent on exclusive or even comprehensive knowledge of history or the means of physical survival. Being an elder is a quality of spirit that transcends the physical, that can be earned only through service to the universal good.

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