For Our Elders: Guide for Respectfully Communicating with Elders

May 10, 2023
June 5, 2023
Last Updated
June 5, 2023
Written by
The Common Ground Team
Written by
Written by

Elders are highly respected people in First Nations communities. Not all older First Nations people are Elders. Elders are recognised by their communities for their wisdom, cultural knowledge, and community care and service.

Elders can hold authority and decision-making power. They have many important roles, including (but not limited to):

  • Mentoring and guiding younger people
  • Safeguarding stories and cultural knowledge (e.g. Law, language, art, song, dance)
  • Protecting Country and sacred sites
  • Holding space for ceremony 
  • Mediation and conflict resolution 

It is important to note that there are no set rules for respectfully communicating with Elders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities/Nations are diverse, and so are their protocols. While this is a non-exhaustive guide to connecting with Elders, your approach should be tailored to your local place and context.

1. Connect with local organisations

Sometimes the most appropriate way to reach an Elder is to contact local organisations first. Depending on the place, this could look like a Local Aboriginal Land Council, Aboriginal Medical Service, Traditional Owner group, cultural centre or aged care centre. Please note these organisations can be very busy and with limited resources. They may not have capacity to support your request. Contacting your local council could be another place to start.

2. Address Elders appropriately

First Nations people often say “Aunty” and “Uncle” to address Elders as a sign of respect. However, this is not the norm in all places and contexts. And it may not be appropriate for non-Indigenous people to use these terms unless invited to do so. When you connect with an Elder, we recommend you ask how they would like to be addressed.

Ensure you write down their name and mob/Country correctly. Respectfully ask the Elder (or organisation who is connecting you) how to pronounce them if you are unsure.

3. Building trust and relationship

Relationships are at the centre of First Nations cultures. This is why family, community and kinship are so important to First Nations people. First Nations people will often ask each other where they’re from and who they belong to – “who’s your mob?” – when meeting for the first time.

First Nations communities are used to non-Indigenous communities – whether that be researchers, government officials, journalists and so on – taking and asking a lot of them. It’s important to deeply consider this context when communicating with Elders. Think about how you can build trust and connection with the Elder before you ask anything of them.

4. Reciprocity

Reciprocity is a key value in many First Nations cultures. It’s about mutual respect and exchange. It’s about ensuring relationships lead to longer-term benefits for both parties. When connecting with an Elder, think about how you can remunerate them for their time, energy and knowledge. This can (and should) include monetary remuneration, but can also extend beyond that. For example, you could:

  • Get them a gift
  • Provide morning/afternoon tea or lunch (remember to check dietary requirements)
  • Cover their travel costs or offer to pick them up/drop them home
  • Provide them with photographs of the event they participated in
  • Ask them if they need support with anything

5. Respect and cultural safety

Respect for Elders is another key value in First Nations cultures. Many First Nations communities have an “Elders first” approach. Younger people often make sure Elders are comfortable and have everything they need before considering themselves. This could look like making an Elder a cup of tea first, making sure they have a plate of food first, or ensuring they are not too warm or cold before commencing the yarn, ceremony or event.

When you bring an Elder into a space (e.g. a classroom, staff meeting or award ceremony), it’s important it is culturally safe. Cultural safety is about shared respect and shared power. It’s also about truth-telling and not denying history, identity or experience. Remember to ask the Elder (or organisation who is connecting you) if there is anything you need to do or consider to create a culturally safe space.

6. Accessibility

It’s important to consider accessibility when approaching and communicating with Elders. Accessibility is about being inclusive and ensuring there are no barriers that prevent interaction with or access to your spaces, services, communications, and so on.

When connecting with Elders, it’s important to consider digital access. For example, you may need to think about printing resources instead of emailing them, calling the Elder on the phone instead of texting them, and tailoring your communications to suit that particular Elder and where they live. If bringing Elders into physical spaces, you need to consider visual, auditory (hearing) and mobility accessibility too.

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