Learning from Elders

Topic: Core Part 1 - Aboriginal Identities
Student activity

Celebrate the dynamic identities of four Aboriginal Elders from the Sydney Elders exhibition and conduct a case study with Elders from your own community. 

This is the student activity 1 of 1 of the Aboriginal identities: Sydney Elders learning activity.

Two men looking at documents
Task No. 1

Four Elders, many stories

In 2018 celebrated Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones curated an exhibition in the State Library of NSW: Sydney Elders: Continuing Aboriginal Stories. This exhibition included the quote:

In Aboriginal communities our Elders are our libraries; they hold our knowledge and connect us to our past while strengthening our future.

Each of the four Elders who were interviewed represent different clans and groups that have not only survived in Sydney but have continued their ancestors’ legacy by actively contributing to their communities and to the growth and development of Sydney.

This physical exhibition has now been converted into an online experience on the State Library website.


Answer this question:

  • What makes someone an Elder? Are all elderly people ‘Elders’?


Watch the video of Uncle Dennis, a Gai-mariagal man from northern Sydney who has a deep knowledge of his mother’s country.

Answer these questions:

  • What kinds of changes has Uncle Dennis observed in the physical environment of Sydney over the course of his life?
  • How did government actions impact Uncle Dennis, his family and his community?


Watch the video of Aunty Sandra, a Dharug Elder from Blacktown, where she is an active member of the western Sydney Aboriginal community.

Answer these questions:

  • Identify some of the social and political forces that have impacted Aunty Sandra’s identity.
  • Why is land reclamation important to Aunty Sandra?
  • Why does Aunty Sandra say that before the 1960s it “wasn’t smart to talk about being Aboriginal”?


Watch the video of Uncle Chicka, who is from Gadigal country and a recognised member of the Redfern community.

Answer these questions:

  • How do Uncle Chicka’s stories demonstrate an undervaluing of the contribution of Aboriginal people on the modern fabric of Sydney?
  • How does Uncle Chicka express his culture through art and sport?


Watch the video of Aunty Esme, a celebrated Bidjigal artist and Elder from the Aboriginal mission community of La Perouse on the shores of Botany Bay.

Answer these questions:

  • How does Aunty Esme express her identity through art?
  • What was the impact of moving people from their land to missions around Sydney?

Read more information about each of the Elders on the Sydney Elders online exhibition.


Complete the activities below by combining the stories of all four Elders.

  • Create a mind map of all social and political factors referred to in these videos that have affected the lives of these Elders or their families.
  • Describe the diverse ways that these Elders express their Aboriginality (for example, through art, sport, activism, etc).
  • Create a venn diagram showing the factors that contribute to the Aboriginal identities of two of the Elders, and the ways they express their Aboriginality. Why might these individuals have different interpretations of Aboriginal identity?
  • Choose one Elder and explain how their story demonstrates resilience.
Task No. 2

Community consultation

The Library works proactively with Aboriginal communities across NSW concerning the preservation and management of Indigenous documentary heritage resources. We are guided by the protocols and statements of best practice outlined in the NSLA document Working with Community: Guidelines for collaborative practice between libraries and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Read the NSLA document carefully, especially the section Identifying a process (pages 3-7).

Answer the following questions:

  • What is the most appropriate way to make initial contact with community members?
  • What research should you conduct before making contact with a community?
  • What information should you include in your first contact with community representatives?
  • What are some general protocols to follow in your face-to-face meetings with community representatives?
  • After the project is complete, how can you maintain relationships with the people you have met in this community?

For additional information you can read the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network (ATSILIRN) protocols which inform the work of organisations such as State Library NSW. These are available on the ATSILIRIN website.

Task No. 3

Elders of your community

Elders hold great wisdom, knowledge and culture gained through a lifetime of experience and learning, and it is vitally important to show them respect. Elders may choose to share stories about their lives, knowledge and cultural practices as an act of generosity for the benefit of others in their community, or as part of their cultural responsibilities to pass on knowledge, language and traditions. However, you must also respect that Elders may choose not to share stories for many different reasons; for example, some cultural knowledge may only be suitable for particular people to learn, or some traumas may be difficult to discuss, particularly with strangers. Additionally, many Elders are busy with personal, cultural and professional obligations and are not always available to provide their time.

Answer these questions:

  • What does respect mean to you?
  • How can you show respect for Elders?

Using appropriate protocols from Task 2, make contact with at least two Elders in your community and interview them.

Review your answers from Task 2 about the process of community consultation and consider how they will apply to your local community.

  • Identify the Aboriginal community or communities in your local area.
  • Do you already have trusting relationships with Aboriginal Elders from your community?
  • List all of the Aboriginal organisations in your area who may be an appropriate point of contact.
  • Are there any cultural protocols specific to your community that you should be respectful of? If you don’t know – how can you find out?
  • Are there any sensitive issues you plan to ask about? Make a plan to show respect if people find some topics difficult to talk about.
  • Would you plan to pay Elders for their time and knowledge? Why or why not?

Write the questions you would like to ask your Elders to learn about their life stories. Include questions that will reflect on:

  • How the Elder’s identity has changed over time
  • How the Elder’s Aboriginal identity has been impacted by social and political forces
  • How the Elder expresses and celebrates their culture today
  • Changes that the Elder has experienced in this place over time

Write an explanation of your project that you can send to your point of contact. Be specific about:

  • Who would you like to contact?
  • Why do you want to contact them?
  • What would you like to learn about?
  • How would you like to record your conversation (for example, video, audio recording, or by taking written notes)?
  • Any timeframes or limitations you may have (for example, travel limitations or due dates).