When times are tough, elders are called upon to share their wisdom. (ABC News: Shahni Wellington)
Indigenous elders are the holders of cultural knowledge, keepers of traditional lore and role models to younger generations.
As the country continues to comprehend the social and economic ramifications of COVID-19, the situation serves as a fitting moment to recognise and appreciate some of the most treasured members of the community.
Whether specialising in traditional food and medicines, or working to improve the lives of our most marginalised, First Nations elders are a cornerstone of Indigenous culture and lifestyle.
Throughout the years, when things get tough, it is the elders who are called upon to provide reassurance, hope and wisdom.
Aunty Glendra Stubbs
A respected member of the Sydney Aboriginal community, Aunty Glendra Stubbs is a proud Wiradjuri woman and aunty-in-residence at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern and the Jumbunna Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“You make a difference, whether it’s just a smile or a young one wanting to come and have a yarn with you,” she said.
“I say to the young ones, ‘There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t witnessed in my life’.”
Glendra Stubbs (left) is aunty-in-residence at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. (Facebook)
She has been widely applauded for her work with Link-Up, an organisation established to assist Aboriginal people and their descendants impacted by the Stolen Generations reconnect with family.
“I started harassing people in Births, Deaths and Marriages, and people that were Stolen Generations no longer had to pay for birth certificates because why should you have to pay for your own information.”
Ms Stubbs has also worked as an Aboriginal engagement adviser for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
She recalls the often shared experiences of Stolen Generations survivors and abuse victims.
“There was nothing that I heard in that setting that I hadn’t already had to hear, listen to and try to support during my time at Link-Up.”
Also admired are her efforts to establish services to address intergenerational trauma.
“What taking our kids, our land, our language has done to us is that we don’t trust … we simply do not trust.”
‘Riverbank’ Frank Doolan
A writer, poet and philosopher, Uncle Frank Doolan he has spent decades working to better the lives of Aboriginal people, focusing heavily on improving the prospects of troubled youth.
“I can understand where the young people of today are coming from, how they feel marginalised in so many ways and prejudged,” he said.
But his efforts to reconnect troubled teens with their culture has led to positive outcomes in his community in Dubbo.
“What I’ve noticed is that when we take young people on country, it’s had a positive effect on the way our young people conduct themselves.”
A founding member of the Dubbo Men’s Shed, Mr Doolan has been a strong advocate of the need for more holistic rehabilitation programs to be considered for ex-prisoners.
“I think there is an obsession in this country with punishment, but there is very little in the way of post-release programs.”
He said there was a great opportunity for culture to be an integral aspect of the rehabilitation process.
“I know of a lot of Indigenous men who never picked up a paintbrush before they went to jail but can paint the most amazing Indigenous artworks, so they have inadvertently discovered something about themselves and their own people while in jail.”
Uncle Ray Minniecon
Uncle Ray Minniecon has dedicated his life to supporting members of the Stolen Generations and advocating for greater recognition of Indigenous members of the Defence Force.
A pastor at St John’s Anglican Church in Glebe, and a descendant of the Kabi Kabi and Gurang Gurang nations of Far North Queensland, Mr Minniecon grew up on an Aboriginal mission in the Atherton Tablelands.
With the missions and reserves run by churches or religious individuals, he said it was no surprise that many in his family took to a life of faith.
“My father was the first Aboriginal person given the responsibility of looking after the community in that nature as the local minister — no pay — but he was there as the leader of the community as a pastor.”
In 2007, the first Black Diggers March was held in Redfern, where hundreds of Indigenous veterans and their descendants took to the streets.
“It was really a community march to give recognition to our own people; we weren’t worried about trying to interfere with the white fellas. We weren’t into that political game,” Mr Minniecon said.
He was motivated by his own family’s military involvement and that of other Indigenous servicemen and women.
“One of the great people was Reg Saunders (the first Aboriginal man to be commissioned as an officer in the Army); I followed his career path,” he said.
“One of his greatest battles was trying to get recognition of Aboriginal people within the RSL, and that was something that I thought needed to be taken on by the community.”
Aunty Frances Bodkin
Aunty Frances Bodkin is a Dharawal elder, scientist, botanist and author, recognised for her advanced understanding of the environment and Indigenous cultural knowledge systems.
Ms Bodkin refers to this knowledge as Indigenous science.
“White society was absolutely ignoring our knowledge, because our knowledge is a science, it’s a science of observation and experience,” she said.
As an Indigenous education officer at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan, Ms Bodkin is able to inform new generations about the area’s animals, birds and insects.
“Mum wanted and made me promise that I would work hard to get a hospital, a university and a native botanic garden working together so we could prove that our science is just as viable and as beautiful as science of modern day.”
She is working on a revised version of her 1986 book Encyclopaedia Botanica, and says society can learn a lot from the inner workings of nature.
“If humans can work together the way plants do, we would not have problems in this world.
“Unsettlement and fear … it’s all happened before; Australia is the land of hope, and that is why we were able to live here for such a long time.”
Walking Together is taking a look at our nation’s reconciliation journey, where we’ve been and asks the question — where do we go next?
Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia’s First People.
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