As the heartbeat of the world’s most enduring culture, Indigenous Elders hold stories of ancient wisdom and timeless resilience.
This year’s theme for NAIDOC Week – For our Elders – puts the spotlight on their profound influence, not only on their communities but also on the modern business landscape.
Eminent Indigenous advocates and business trailblazers explain how Elders’ wisdom continues to illuminate the path towards a future filled with pride, identity and community harmony.
Menang woman of the Noongar Nation and National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project Director Megan Krakouer, whose work embodies the spirit of this year’s NAIDOC Week theme, reveres the guidance of Elders and considers them as stalwarts in the fight for justice.
“In our relentless struggle to end deaths in custody, premature deaths of so many of our children and domestic violence, or reduce the diabolical rates of incarceration, prevent suicide and reunite families where children have been removed, we honour our ancestors and are guided by our Elders,” Ms Krakouer said.
“They speak of their battles over generations, the gains made and the way forward, fostering our moral and political will.
“We focus on immersing our most vulnerable in their cultural heritage and instilling an understanding of connectedness, thereby nurturing pride in the richness of their identities as descendants of this continent’s first peoples.”
Ms Krakouer said Elders faced many unfair challenges in the community but their resistance – both historical and contemporary – was inspirational.
“In our service, we listen and learn from our Elders to ensure connection, assistance and reciprocity through yarning,” she said.
“They are the sharers of stories, of who we are and what we can be, of how we should be to one another, and of what a First Nations workplace and its fair conduct should look like.
“They hold us in the best stead possible, keeping us honest to ourselves and each another.
“Culture and traditions have to be one with First Nations workplaces, otherwise they are not First Nations-immersed workplaces.”
In these work settings, many younger people need an authentic education reflecting Indigenous lore, culture and traditions, which fosters pride in historical and contemporary identity and fortifies community harmony.
On a personal level, Ms Krakouer said she was always guided by Elders and ancestors in the fight for equality and justice for all Indigenous people.
“I am profoundly humbled to be loved, guided and supported by our Elders, and their wisdom is profound beyond my descriptions,” she said.
“Their sacrifices have paved the way for us – the younger generation.
“I do not take any of their blessings for granted, knowing I stand on the shoulders of those before me.”
Wungening Aboriginal Corporation Chief Executive Officer Daniel Morrison-Bird, who has cultural connections to Noongar, Yamitji and Gija Country, said Elders were at the heart of the organisation, which provided a wide range of support services to nurture a healthy Aboriginal community.
“Our Elders – the keepers of our past and the heartbeat of our culture – are central to the community and the continuation of our culture and unique ways of working,” he said.
“They are the leaders and guides of our families, as we strive for the same as everyone else: a better future for our kids.”
Mr Morrison-Bird said NAIDOC Week’s theme cast light on the responsibility that continued to be passed down through generations.
“This is the obligation to ensure the next generation has it easier than their predecessors, ensuring the sacrifices and injustices experienced by those before us are not forgotten or in vain.”
Mr Morrison-Bird said the organisation was sparked by 40 individuals in the Indigenous community, including Elders, coming together and demanding services be designed and delivered by their own people.
One way of upholding Elders as the spokespeople for their families involved in the Birdiya Maya research project into homelessness.
An elected committee of Elders has helped to guide this project, amplifying the voices and experiences of people experiencing homelessness.
“Implementing Elders’ insights and advice is the only way we will start to see improvements for our community because nobody knows our communities like our Elders,” Mr Morrison-Bird said.
“This untapped knowledge should be more widely utilised through advisory positions on boards and within organisations.
“Wungening is committed to celebrating and profiling Elders, as well as their teachings to the broader community because we strongly believe everyone will benefit from this.”
Indigenous Elders, particularly those at the grassroots, are instrumental in providing a sense of stability and normality for future Aboriginal generations – that’s according to a descendant of the Gija people from the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, Author and Legendary Development and Training Director Greg Bridge FAIM.
In his view, they serve as the unsung heroes in their communities, bravely confronting many challenges in areas such as justice, health, domestic violence and housing.
“These Elders exude respect, demonstrate caregiving and offer understanding towards every community member, nurturing relationships within the clan,” Mr Bridge said.
“As teachers, mentors and key decision-makers, they strive to secure an early education for children, combat the threat of fetal alcohol syndrome disorders and domestic violence to ensure a promising start in life for our youth.
“They are trying to improve the future while acknowledging and protecting their past.”
With improvements in health systems, Mr Bridge said more Elders were living longer.
“In another interesting development, we’re also seeing people assuming the mantle of Eldership as early as their 40s and 50s, not just in their 70s and 80s,” he said.
Reflecting on his early years in the business world, Mr Bridge recalled how he prioritised getting the job done, relying on the values of hard work and relationship building instilled in him during his upbringing.
“The Aboriginal person came after that,” he said, pointing to a time when his Indigenous identity was secondary in his professional life.
However, with the evolution of corporate Australia and the introduction of Reconciliation Action Plans by companies, the landscape was shifting.
The change had extended the influence of Indigenous Elders beyond their communities, enabling them to advocate for support in areas like employment, infrastructure development, and even business entrepreneurship.
“There has been a dramatic increase in sole proprietorship and an explosion of joint ventures between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations,” Mr Bridge said.
“In the past, we’ve seen challenges where non-Indigenous organisations haven’t been fully transparent, or internal challenges regarding directorship within the Indigenous communities themselves.
“It’s no different from any workplace, with truth, respect and integrity being paramount for the success of these ventures.”
Mr Bridge said the approach and involvement of Elders differed based on various factors.
“Some Elders show an active interest, especially if they have family members in the business or if they possess a keen business sense, while others trust their fellow community members to run the business if they have previous experience,” he said.
“There’s a great deal of trust within the community, especially once connections are established and values are demonstrated, therefore it’s not just about the interest of the Elders but also the trust they put in the community and the business-oriented members.
“The successful operation of these businesses often depends on these valuable connections and the community's belief in meaningful and purposeful outcomes.
“Rather than focusing on who’s in charge, the attention is more on shared responsibility and collaborative effort.”