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Beware the wisdom of the elders – age may have wearied us


TUMBY BAY – Last week I received a telephone call from a Butchulla acquaintance in Hervey Bay, Queensland - one of a number of people I worked with while researching indigenous heritage on Fraser Island.

He insists on calling me ‘uncle’, which is a term of respect in modern Aboriginal communities. It sits somewhere between acknowledging my advanced age and acknowledging my alleged knowledge and wisdom.

Over here in South Australia, many Western desert people I meet address me as ‘tjilpi’, which is the equivalent of ‘lapun igat save’ in Tok Pisin.

It acknowledges my grey hair and understanding of their country and culture, which I acquired while traipsing around the desert with their grandparents in the 1970s and 1980s.

This status as a venerable elder is all very well but I’m afraid it doesn’t sit very comfortably on my shoulders.

I tend to know a lot about some remarkably inconsequential things but not too much about more practical matters.

And the older I get the more I realise how much I don’t know.

I’m constantly discovering things that must have been obvious to other people for decades before my late epiphanies.

There are, of course, things that I actually do know due to my age and experience. Curiously, these are the things that nobody asks me about and which they ignore when I tell them.

I also know something about things that people shouldn’t bother worrying about but insist on doing so. When I tell them they shouldn’t be concerned they also ignore me.

Since being involved with PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize I seem to have developed a reputation of sorts concerning literature. Poor deluded people ask for my opinion on such matters.

My alleged expertise is a myth and I find references to it somewhat embarrassing. It is again simply a result of me doing something for a long time.

You might think I’m just fishing for compliments but it’s much more serious than that.

What I’m saying is that, just because someone has been around for a long time and has got grey hair, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are an expert on anything.

It is quite the opposite in many cases. Some people actually get dumber with age.

Sometimes blindly taking advice from an elder can be dangerous. Witness all the old men (and women) who have sent their young people into unnecessary and bloody wars.

You can and should respect an elder for having survived so long but you should take their advice with caution.

What worked 60 years ago may not work today.

One of the things that continually surprises and delights me is the wisdom of youth. There are some very smart young people out there, especially in Papua New Guinea, and they are worth listening to.

It is entirely possible that they might know much more about how and what to do than all of us uncles, aunties, bubus, tjilpis and lapuns put together.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I worked with tribal people in Central Australia in the late 1970s when I was in my thirties Curtis and white hair was definitely an advantage.

Unfortunately I didn't start to sprout white follicles, top or bottom, until my late sixties when they aren't much use.

Curtis Jones

I'm only 46 yet somehow I've ended up being able to cultivate an impressively sized and appropriately grey lapun gras wisket.

While the hair on my head is yet dark and thick, this beard - and a flair for gravitas, combined with a (ever increasingly hard to maintain) muscular athleticism - has earned me the the moniker of strongpla lapun.

Perceptions, in the land of a thousand contradictions, can be everything and while I don't feel I fully deserve the label, I certainly work it as hard as I can.

It does make it easy to gain and retain the attention of the youngpla men na meri that I train.

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