The wisdom of the elders

Author and photographer Peter McConchie travelled for two years collecting the stories that make up his unique publication Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Elders is a collection of transcripts of the thoughts of senior Elders and Indigenous community leaders. Peter made the book as a means through which the Elders may share their wisdom and history with non-Indigenous Australians.  

Nikki Fisher


Number one on menu is turtle, kangaroo, the red one. Turtle number one, red kangaroo entrée, then stingray when we get it. For the gapirri [white-tail stingray] is from November to February, in between they are plentiful. How we know is the white flowers, we call it warrkarr [white one] because it tells us it’s stingray season. It’s the start of the rainy season. What’s on the land tells us what’s in the water. What’s going on in the forest, same things going on in the sea.  

Nungki Yunupingu, Gumatj Clan, Yolgnu Nation.


On the papers it had what nationality you were, like it did on most papers, and he put Australian Aborigine. This was in 1918, and he was rejected from the Australian army and came home. He was adamant he was going to fight for his country and change things by recognition being given to Aboriginal people. The only way he could legally be accepted was to sign up as a black American, and so he did. And in 1919 he did two years overseas and came home with medals. The other soldiers knew he was an Aboriginal, they all knew who each other were, they were mates, they were all mates. My Father was in the signal corps.   

Joy Wandin Murphy, Wurundjeri.

The Land

We had big rain, plenty of water laying around. A lot of people think we got no water out here, but we got plenty. We drink out of that sink hole in the desert, drink that nice fresh water, and that’s what we’re fighting for, the land. We’ve been everywhere—Sydney, Melbourne—we talk about our land. And they want to bring the nation’s nuclear waste site here. That dump’s going to affect the water, and we don’t want that. We want our water. We don’t want the dump here. Don’t dig up uranium, leave it in the ground. It’s poison to us for a long time, uranium. The old people, Grandmother, Grandfather, they told us and they know. They know it’s in the ground—the Aboriginal people—know all about it. It was buried in the ground safe. Now it’s all dug up, and when it rains it spreads out everywhere, and it’s ruining everything.

Emily Munyungka Austin, Kupa Piti Kungka Tjilpi Tjuta.


Most of the forest around here and in our country has got hollow trees that have been burnt out. We believe that the hollows of these trees hold our people, the old people that have passed on. If you’re in the forest late at night, that’s when the Mumair or the Woodachi wander around looking for a person to go into. Half an hour before sunset you get out of these areas and home and get away from the forces of these spirits.  

Wonidgie, Wayne Webb, We-Dandi and Bibbulman Clans, Noongar people.



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