An Elder-centred approach in Australian life

An Elder-centred approach looks to the Elder present in the child and builds around this emerging Being – an Elder in waiting as it were.

Hugh Brody wrote about this Inuit approach in “The Other Side of Eden” – a great book subtitled ‘Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World.’

Of course, it would be simplistic to accept the modern anthropologist’s category of ‘hunter-gatherer’ as a basis for comparison across different peoples life formations.

Australia’s First Peoples have Ways which may be very different from those of North American Inuit. But, lacking a dependence on modern master narratives, we find glimmers of wisdom where we can.

Writing about the clash of expectations between Inuit core values at one artic community and those seeking to be imposed by an external school ‘authority’ Hugh Brody says:

“The Inuit way is without authoritarianism: parents are inclined to trust children to know what they need. Individuals have to be left to make decisions for themselves; and children are individuals just as adults are, since they carry the names – for which we may say souls – of their late and much admired relatives. This belief is fundamental to the Inuit way of being in the world, to their culture, and to hunter-gatherer cultures more generally…To suggest that parents should impose authority, should defy the respected elder who lives in the core of the child, was not acceptable to the parents in Pond Inlet.” (Brody 29-30. my emphasis)

The ‘respected elder who lives in the core of the child’ is a wonderful insight.

It speaks of a most mature point of view – itself informed by countless generations of hard-won experience. In other words “wisdom”.

Life is a process of realisation. We creatively fashion our world – taking into account the presence of other amazing Beings who – further along the path – have already learnt much.


By comparison a ‘child centred’ approach is truly infantile.

It only gains ready acceptance in an adolescent society – a society in which it serves the interests of a small group to reduce the complexities of life to levels which are not adult.

The ‘child centred’ approach plays on a nerve we all share – that of being vulnerable when we enter (and, for some perhaps, re-enter) into life.

But there is far more to life than that. Life is an ongoing process of realisation. This ongoing process continues well into our mature years.

Becoming an Elder – and becoming a key part of life’s own system of governance – varies according to personal characteristics and experiences. It should be a normal part of life in a healthy society.

Western life has reduced the importance of Elders in order to achieve many other goals, not least of all meeting the cash flow ambitions of those who have no real interest in our well-being.

Little value is placed on our Elders – and the ongoing contribution they make to life is often made despite the lack of affirmation and recognition of the valuable experience they embody.

There is nothing more important in human life than hard-won experience.

The ‘child centred’ approach does not reproduce indigenous values. Instead in empowers and enables non-indigenous and Westernising values.

This was very clearly seen with Mal Brough and the Howard Government’s deranged charge into indigenous lives in the Northern Territory in the name of protecting ‘the children of the nation’.

The imaginary nation they had in mind is one which does not recognise the rights of Australia’s First Peoples.

Instead of seeking to act in the best interests of indigenous children, which requires bestowing full respect on their Elders, Brough and Howard were engaged in another variation of the Stolen Generations – forcefully inserting the State between indigenous children and their larger family.

Brough and Howard would have saved the child as a biological entity (of some kind) by robbing these children of their full cultural heritage. As they matured, such children may have survived but – in importance senses – would not have thrived. They would have been robbed of a unique future – that which comes from their special place in Australian life.

Non-indigenous recognition of these special places is a long time coming.

There has been a very long affirmation drought for those who keep the orthodox values of this continent alive. It is easy to understand – in the face of a dominating European presence which continually places no value on indigenous Ways – why the only futures appear to be those which are rooted in a one-sided monocultural Western view of life.

The Brough-Howard approach was another chapter in a psychic war directed at destroying the core values of Australia’s First Peoples.

Behind the mask of good intentions is the old racist surmise of evil Black Men. This surmise has played a key role in knocking out the indigenous core of Australian life so that non-indigenous people can insert their culture and themselves into the core of Australian life. It is cloning on a massive scale – knock out the original cultural nucleus – insert introduced Western values – suppress all attempts by life to reject the alien culture.

Such a approach is the antithesis of a true cultural dialogue. It is a form of bad-faith with Australian life. Imperialism and colonialism, as studied by Edward Said, involve a system of attitudes.

We have learnt, as the shortcomings of the modern period become increasingly hard to ignore, that those attitudes are destructive to life. Their self-privileging days are over. New Ways are now required.

The modern Anglo-Australian nation-state does not include recognition of Australia’s First Peoples in its constitution.

We are not talking past tense and 1901 here.

The modern Anglo-Australian nation-state does not endorse the more recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The ‘children’ who are to be saved in the name of this nation would be unable to learn of their unique indigenous birthright as life’s representatives of this very country – since the whole of the modern Australian state system is premised on the denial of Australia’s First Peoples as First Peoples.

Australia’s First Peoples are treated as a single entity only when the modern state seeks to impose some draconian measure – such as income control and behaviour modification – upon them.

The same collective recognition is completely absence when it comes to providing the affirmation necessary for peoples with rights to self-determination. How very convenient.

Even under the newly elected Rudd government we are given more pretence in order to protect Anglo-Australia privilege. These games remain the same under both sides of politics in Australia.

A Parliament which says “Sorry” to the members of the Stolen Generations does not have a single indigenous representative, let alone a culturally appropriate system of indigenous representation to ensure First Peoples voices in all aspects of governance here.

There is a real need for indigenous voices in the countries decision-making processes. Australia is a country which has been mismanaged by non-indigenous people since 1788.

Everything has been back-to-front in the land of Oz for so long we take this curious condition as being ‘normal’. It is not.

What is required, in order to restore full well-being to Australia’s First Peoples, is for non-indigenous people to change.


Instead of intervening in the lives of First Peoples in the name of the children of the monocultural Anglo-Australian nation the challenge for us all is to creatively fashion a new arrangement which bestows full recognition and full respect on this country’s original Elders.

Those who regard the present nation-state (as presently constituted) as the solution – and expect First Peoples to change in order to accommodate it – are very much part of the problem.

While insisting that other people should make impossible changes, they themselves refuse to change. They invest in the false certainty of a constitution formed in the 1890s, when Western racism was at its height.

Restoring full well-being to Australia’s First Peoples – and to the whole of Australian life – requires non-indigenous peoples to change in order to accommodate themselves to Australian realities of a kind quite different from those which dominate Western life.

The present Australian constitution has a hole where its heart should be – for this reason the messages which originate from the land itself cannot be registered within the institutions established by that constitution.

There is an important role for crafts people to fashion new ears for us all. This is a creative challenge of the highest order.

In moving from a modern nation-state (as presently constituted) to post-modern conditions of Being, life continues an amazing adventure in which the discovery of the New World (over the last five centuries) is merely one part – and not the final story.

A dialogue long suppressed finds new voices which say “We are still here, now are you ready to respectfully listen?”

We can learn a lot about life from artists and craftspeople rather than from professional politicians, academics and bureaucrats.

For example, the sculptor who looks at his or her raw material and ‘sees’ the figure waiting to be created. Their task is to remove the excess material and reveal something which was, in some sense, there all the time – waiting to be liberated from the stone, wood or bone.

So too with how we use our creative abilities to fashion the world we live in.

The past history of Australia, since 1788 at least, has fashioned an idea of life here which was been rooted in negative stereotypes of this country’s First Peoples. These stereotypes served the purpose of separating First Peoples from their living countries as new arrivals from Great Britain proclaimed Aboriginal people had nothing the British wanted – except all the resources necessary for life.

The new arrivals did not enter into balanced exchange relationship and did not establish a respectful cross-cultural dialogue. As part of a profound process of denial, Anglo-Australia blocked out its true surroundings and opted to pretend it was part of Great Britain.

This anti-indigenous life approach is part of the system of attitudes which Edward Said identifies, in his book on culture and imperialism, as a core part of imperialism.

For over two centuries there has been a lack of a real dialogue between the original and introduced cultures here. Stereotypes, particularly of the “Blackman”, have been used to dominate – and this manipulate – the thinking of non-indigenous people who have little real-life contact with indigenous peoples.

At some stage even the worst of imperial and neo-colonial cultures has to begin to mature – to put aside its false consciousness and start to seek better contact with its real surroundings.

Had there been a proper and balanced dialogue from the outset we would have long come to terms with the role of Elders in the lives of First Peoples – and, for that matter, for all peoples.

With slowly developing maturity we can begin to appreciate – and to move back towards – an Elder centred approach in Australian life.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn
10 Nov 2008