In Depth

Nailing the cultural bridge

Aunty Rose Elu is an elder from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait

When Aunty Rose Elu was sent to Melbourne to pursue her higher education, a fellow student called her dirty because of the colour of her skin.

Advertisement

It was confusing for the young woman whose parents hadn’t warned her of the kind of place she was going to live or the prejudices she would face.

“I was sent away from home to go down there for my education in Melbourne,” says Aunty Rose, who was born on Saibai Island, a low-lying island in the top western Torres Strait, but moved to the tip of Australia as a child.

“One day, God will give you the time and space to tell the people about us, about our culture, about our identity.”

“I was in Melbourne for 17 years and when I arrived there I had a big Afro and this woman wanted to touch my hair. I kept pushing her away because in my culture you don’t touch hair and she was very angry with me. She eventually told me that I was dirty, and I thought, ‘well, why would she say that?’ She looked at me and pinched me on my skin and said ‘eergh!’

“I didn’t want to stay there, and I wanted to go home, but my mother and father told me they did that for us to learn that these are the obstacles and you will overcome them. One day, God will give you the time and space to tell the people about us, about our culture, about our identity.”

A world traveller and tireless campaigner on climate change – which is severely affecting her native island – she has presented papers at many forums and universities around the world, most recently at the UN in Paris.

It’s been a long journey, but those early experiences in Melbourne strengthened Aunty Rose in her inner being so that she was able to take the leadership path her mother and father foresaw for her.

Aunty Rose is one of the female Indigenous church leaders Eternity is highlighting to mark NAIDOC Week, celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This year’s celebrations from July 8-15 are based on the theme – Because of Her, We Can!

A world traveller and tireless campaigner on climate change – which is severely affecting her native island – she has presented papers at many forums and universities around the world, most recently at the UN in Paris. She is a vocal member of various committees of the Anglican Church in Brisbane, where she is based, and has campaigned successfully for the state government to recognise customary adoption practices from the Torres Strait. As well as a BA in anthropology and political science, and a theology diploma, Aunty Rose has a PhD in customary law from the University of Hawaii.

I like us to be understanding of one another, try and become one body in Christ.

But it is her work in various state government departments that has brought her most joy, because it fulfilled her father’s vision for her career path.

“When I joined the public service 20-odd years ago, I came to do cross-cultural women’s training for the public servants, and even today I am in advisory capacity, and the people in higher places ask me to go and talk on Torres Strait culture,” she says.

“I enjoyed it because that’s what I like, I like us to be understanding of one another, try and become one body in Christ.

“I’ve really enjoyed my life and I’m still enjoying it,” she says, referring to her current job as a counsellor and Indigenous adviser at Relationships Australia.

Aunty Rose says the vision and wisdom of her father, a chieftain from the Saibai Koedal clan, has guided her throughout her life.

“The main thing was in 1871 when the light came to our part of the world – that’s what they call it – I think that’s where the real reconciliation was. That was like the holy dove coming alive, bringing the gospel to our people.”

“He used to tell us when we were children, ‘there is a bridge and that bridge will never be finished, not in your time, probably not in your children’s time. This is a very long bridge and there’s not many nails that you fit into them holes.’ There are still people learning about that and it’s going to be a very long journey. I always go back to that, what he and my mother taught us.

“I’d like all of us to listen to one another and I would really want us not to be judgmental. I want us to listen carefully to one another and learn from one another,” she says.

“I’d like the Australian nation to know that we are a Melanesian race of people in Torres Strait, in Polynesia, and we have a different culture and a different tradition and a different heritage, language groups as well. All in all, I’d like the wider Australia to listen to one another and be part of that journey and try and understand and come to the common ground.”

Aunty Rose says she has never wavered in her Christian faith and the doctrine she was brought up in as a young person, but she has found a way to mesh that with her culture.

“Our people are spiritual people, we are seafaring people and our dreaming is from the sea and stars in the sky and the current and the waves in the sea. So we were brought up in the doctrine and rites of the Anglican church and discipline, but not losing the culture, of course, so that’s been instilled in me from the time when I was born and baptised.”

She is keen to point out that reconciliation came to the people of the Torres Strait before any change came to the Aboriginal people of Australia, partly because their history involved interaction with various early explorers but mainly through the coming of the gospel on July 1, 1871.

“The main thing was in 1871 when the light came to our part of the world – that’s what they call it – I think that’s where the real reconciliation was. That was like the holy dove coming alive, bringing the gospel to our people.”

Comments

More