Aunty Elly Chatfield: finding place in community

Grace. Humility. Wisdom. Community. Responsibility. Service.

You don’t just become an Aboriginal Elder by reaching a certain age.

Gamilaroi woman Aunty Elly Chatfield says that recognition is bestowed – never sought – on mature people aged at least 50 for service to the community and family.

Being an Elder and referred to as Aunty or Uncle in the community means having knowledge and wisdom and accepting the responsibility of humble leadership, of gently guiding younger people and living by example.

That looks different for everyone.

Some people are born into roles they take over from their parents. Others find a new path.

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Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

A child of the Stolen Generations when she was taken with her three siblings from their family at 13 months old, it took Aunty Elly many years to find her place in community.

That place was supporting Elders on Dharug and Gundungurra Country through Blue Mountains Aboriginal Cultural and Resource Centre, organising weekly welfare phone calls to them, lunches and leading an annual group holiday.

“I said to one of the Aunties: `But I'm not an Aunty’, and she said: `It's not up to you. It's not even your business. What is your business, is what your next steps will be as an Aunty’.

“The weight just got heavy.

“But that's ok because it becomes part of who you are. Anyway, that person that people come to has always been who I am.”

Having always had at least one support person at every stage of her own life, “I don't want to think anybody's left by the wayside because I just went on”.

Being an Elder is about learning and sharing knowledge.

It’s about taking your time to weigh up decisions, waiting for right moments, acting decisively and without rushing.

It’s about humility and wisdom, although “I’m still looking for it to be honest”.

“We can’t possibly know everything, so I think the only wise thing I could say is we're wise in specialist things and maybe only for a season.

“We all make mistakes. Wisdom is not making those mistakes again.”

While others might look up to her, Aunty Elly is inspired by her two children who have always been a stable source of pride. Also, by Archibald Prize winning artist Blak Douglas, who mentored them from childhood to adulthood.

“Both my dads were the warriors who made me who I am. I am here in this wholeness with many holes because of them. They instilled integrity and dignity and the importance of having that.”

In return, Aunty Elly has passed on knowledge and helped younger generations.

“It's just something that happens. It's not something you think about. You answer a question or a call because it's in front of you.”

A renowned artist who is inspired by her connection to land and sense of belonging, a poet and actor (Australia 2008 and Smoke Between Trees 2019), Aunty Elly was named 2022 Blue Mountains Local Woman of the Year.

She has been writing her memoir for several years, and the process and effects of healing that the research has had on her will form the subject material of her Masters degree, which will roll into a PhD.

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