Indigenous Teachings – Timeless Traditions

Patricia Ellis has devoted her life to teaching Aboriginal language and culture. Not only helping Indigenous Australians reconnect to their heritage, but also teaching non- Indigenous people ways to develop a deeper connection to Country and a genuine respect for the oldest culture on earth.
Trish works to empower Indigenous people with knowledge of important traditions. Photo By Toby Whitelaw

Patricia Ellis has devoted her life to teaching Aboriginal language and culture. Not only helping Indigenous Australians reconnect to their heritage, but also teaching non- Indigenous people ways to develop a deeper connection to Country and a genuine respect for the oldest culture on earth.

For Aunty Trish, as she’s often respectfully referred to, teaching culture and language is about uniting Indigenous people, empowering them to connect with traditions that have been lost since colonisation. After 30 years working in Aboriginal-identified roles for government, schools, TAFEs and the private sector, she established Minga Aboriginal Cultural Services in 2017 to respectfully share the rich diversity of Indigenous culture and heritage.

As well as running tours, she hosts workshops in bushfoods and medicines, Dreamtime stories, fire making, cultural awareness, smoking ceremonies, tool making, as well as wood, grass, stone and shell technology. Her sessions are primarily for Indigenous people to come together and relearn culture, but she also includes those closely related to or working with Indigenous people, as well as making them available to non-Indigenous people.

‘It’s not just about skills,’ she says. ‘It’s about attitudes and understanding, about developing a connection not just with Country but also with others in our community.’

People For The Planet

Indigenous people are and have been living sustainably in the environment for tens of thousands of years, maintaining resources and traditions as a way of ensuring there was balance; a thoughtful harmony based on skills and shared knowledge handed down orally through the generations. By teaching others how to connect with Country, and the skills and knowledge to live more in harmony with nature, Trish is helping to protect the planet.

‘The only way we can make a difference is to look after the planet,’ says Trish. ‘We need it here for our children and our children’s children. We need to join the fight, to look after the planet. One people, one planet.

‘We have Dreamtime stories that connect you to Country and tell you how to move around Country respectfully. And we have Dreamtime stories that teach you the laws and what happens when you break certain laws.

‘A lot of people think that Dreamtime stories are just there for your entertainment, to make you feel good before you go to sleep. But there are about 60 lessons that can be taken out of just one Dreamtime story that goes over people’s heads if they don’t know what the significance is.’

Passing On Knowledge

From a modern-day permaculture perspective, the lessons we can learn from Indigenous culture are immeasurable. Starting with simple observation.

‘We were taught as kids to take notice of different signs,’ says Trish. ‘We were taught when the water’s really, really rough, it’s a good time to fish for mullet. We know that when the first black wattle flowers come out, that’s when black fish come out; when you see spider webs blowing in the breeze, that’s when the swans lay their eggs.’

The earth’s behaviours haven’t changed, but the knowledge hasn’t always been passed on and many traditions have been forgotten, some even lost.

‘There’s still a lot of knowledge around,’ says Trish. ‘There are people who still make boomerangs, still make spears and still make clubs. I can make fishing line out of bark, I can fashion a hook out of pipi and abalone shells and I know the glue that we use to hold it together.’

Rediscovering Language

One of the greatest losses of culture has been the disappearance of language. The language of Trish’s people is Dhurga (pronounced dur-ra-ga), one of the four languages of the Yuin Nation of the south coast of New South Wales, and she’s working hard to help bring it back.

‘It is so important to know your own language to really connect to culture,’ says Trish. ‘English doesn’t have the adequate words to describe something in Language.’

Trish’s sister Kerry Boyenga and brother Waine Donovan initiated a language program in Broulee Primary School, which saw children being taught Dhurga instead of German. Trish then went on to teach Aboriginal Language Certificate 1 TAFE courses, which enable Indigenous graduates to go into schools and teach the Dhurga language.

It’s a language not spoken fluently. Developed from a collection of words, it has been brought back to life over time and it’s now being spoken in sentences.


Clockwise from top: She connects community to Country through culture; Engaging and educating non-Indigenous Australian nurtures respect for culture; Kerry Boyenga (left), Trish and Waine Donovan at the lauch of the dictionary; Trish has taught for four decades.

Resourceful Records

Last year, with the help of many people within the local and broader community, Trish wrote and published The Dhurga Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar. The 128- page resource was developed for the area’s Indigenous community to learn the traditional language, but also to ensure it’s never lost again. A remarkable achievement, when the Dhurga language first began to be taught, they started with around 30 words. Today, after years of research and work, the dictionary contains 730 words.

The language reflects the culture and allows speakers to form a higher sense of community and belonging. The language around family members, for example, reveals the close nature of familial ties. The word mama(ng) can be used for both ‘mother’ and ‘mother’s sister’, which reveals the closeness of family relationships.

Time For Change

Trish’s work is reconnecting people with traditions and empowering a community to build resilience through shared knowledge. And while she has facilitated many important reconnections in terms of skills, traditions, language and communities, there’s still a long way to go.

‘Change is happening,’ she says. ‘I’m 64 years old and I have been doing this since my early 20s. I’ve worked with my community, for my community, all my life.

‘I believe the only way we are going to change things is to share what we know with non-Aboriginal people so that they have a better understanding and can become ambassadors. I want everybody to be treated with respect and for there to be equal opportunities for everybody’.

Connecting to Country

Last issue, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr explained the benefits of Dadirri, or deep listening. Trish teaches us how to do it.

‘You don’t have to be on Country to do Dadirri, you just need a quiet spot,’ she says. ‘It’s about connecting to Country, connecting your soul. Find a quiet spot and sit comfortably.

‘Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Hold it in and let it out and feel the tension leave as you let it out. Then just listen. Try and identify at least five different sounds. Any sounds around you; birds, wind, an aeroplane, animals, waves splashing, whatever you can hear.

‘Try and identify as many smells as you can. It might be salt or grass, the earth or a fragrance from a tree. It’s about getting your senses in tune with your environment.

‘Then just sit and look up at the sky and think about what you can feel on your skin, or your face. If you are sitting in the sun you will feel the sun, if there’s a breeze, you’ll feel a breeze.

‘Now sit there and take all that in. Then do the deep breathing again for a little while, and then listen again, and listen past the sounds that you heard the first time.

‘That’s getting in touch with your surroundings and connecting to Country.’