Today I pay tribute to Uncle Les Elvin, who passed away unexpectedly on Sunday 16 August 2015, aged 77, not long after his seventy-seventh birthday. Uncle Les was an Aboriginal elder, an Wonnarua man, the first elder of the Aboriginal peoples recognised broadly and warmly in our community. He worked hard to bring people together and close the divide that unfortunately still exists between our Indigenous first Australians and those who came here later. Les was a Wonnarua man who was proud of his Indigenous heritage and was always willing to share his culture and heritage with everyone. Les is survived by his wife, Jan, his three children and his seven grandchildren.
Les was a well-respected Aboriginal elder, artist and teacher. In 2008 he won the Australian NAIDOC Aboriginal Artist of the Year award and has since designed a number of the Newcastle Knights Indigenous jerseys. In 2011 he became the fourth person and the first non-former mayor of Muswellbrook to receive the keys to the city. In 2012 he was named Cessnock city’s Citizen of the Year. In 2014 Les assisted the bid by Cessnock City Council for the Asian Cup by hand painting boomerangs, which were sent to all 16 countries taking part to welcome them and ask them to use Cessnock city as their base for the Asian Cup. Eventually Japan, perhaps Asia’s premier team, took up that offer. In June this year Les was awarded the major prize in the Weston Art Show.
Les was a humble and generous man who touched the lives of all he met. It was fantastic to see so many school students at his funeral. The visual presentation during the funeral service showed many photos of Les painting with young people. He managed to win the respect of the intellectual and he won the hearts of the young people. Somehow at the age of 77 he was never seen as old by these young people; he was seen as young, warm and generous. Les and Jan also opened their hearts and homes to many former inmates when they left jail. I was not aware of the amount of work that Les had been doing in the jail to try to help Indigenous prisoners get in touch with their Aboriginal heritage, to show them that they belong and have a place in society. He told them they should be proud of their history and should embrace it. When some of these inmates left jail they sometimes got in touch with Les, who helped them get back on their feet.
Interestingly, Les died of a heart attack at the opening of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council Conference held at Cessnock. He had just given a welcome to country to the delegates when he collapsed from a heart attack and died in front of them. With the indulgence of the House I would like to read into Hansard the last words that Uncle Les Elvin ever spoke, which was to welcome the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council to our area. He said:
- Good morning Anagunga welcome. My name is Les Elvin.
- William Jonas my Aboriginal grandfather was of the fresh water people from the Paterson, Allen and Williams river region known as the Gringai clan, part of the Wonnarua Nation.
- Firstly I would like to acknowledge the Wonnarua people as the traditional custodians of the land upon which this important event is being held. The words Wonnarua means hills and plains. To know the boundaries of our custodian land, these words of knowledge have been passed on through time, the land upon which the waters flow into the water ways of the Huma or Hunter River are the custodian land of the Wonnarua people.
- This time of the year we celebrate Naidoc. Naidoc [The] Theme for 2015, We Stand On Sacred Ground, Learn, Respect and Celebrate seems to be a fitting theme to this event. [this local land council event we are here to celebrate today].
- When we talk about our custodian land, we are talking about our sacred ground. For Aboriginal Australians, we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and we might mean more than just a place on the map. For us, country is a word for all values, places, resources, and stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features.
- I am a proud Wonnarua man who has lived in this area most of my life, and have seen many changes good and not so good, but today’s event I see as a strong step towards closing the gap. I would like to welcome all Aboriginal people from different custodian lands.
- I would like to welcome everyone to this event. It is the belief of the Wonnarua people that by giving welcome we are inviting you onto our custodian land.
- I would like to pay my respects to all elders past and present. In remembering the elders of the past it is our way of acknowledging and recognising Aboriginal people as the first Australians.
- On behalf of all Aboriginal people I would like to invite you to learn our culture, respect our culture and join in and help us celebrate our culture.
- On behalf of the Wonnarua Anagunga Welcome to our country.
Rest in peace.