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Indigenous Australia

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Jones, Elsie Rose (1917–1996)

by Robert Lindsay

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Elsie Jones, n.d.

Elsie Jones, n.d.

Elsie Rose Jones, Aboriginal elder and respected teacher, who died at the age of about 80 in Wilcannia on March 6, was born on Albemarle station near Menindee. As she once told a biographer, 'My mother, Lena Cabbage, was a full-blooded Aborigine. Her tribe was the Bakandji, the Darling River tribe. Father’s name was Sidney Stewart Lawson. He was a white man, a Scotsman.'

Her parents worked in short-term station jobs. 'We moved a lot from station to station because the jobs cut out. Some of the times when we were moving, the stations were outback from the Darling River, and we had buggy and horses to move about with. If the jobs were along the river, then the horses were turned out, and we travelled up and down in rowing boats.'

They were often accompanied by her mother’s parents. She received very little schooling, but eagerly absorbed the old people’s dreaming stories and language. After her mother’s death, Sid Lawson stoutly refused the Aborigines Protection Board’s proposal to remove his children to La Perouse. Elsie married Bob Jones, a station worker, in Wilcannia in 1938, settling there to raise a family.

Though a generation younger than the last full-time Paakantji speakers, Mrs Jones kept up a lifelong interest in learning and maintaining the language, and in the past 30 years spent much time working with linguists and students of Aboriginal history. When L. A. Hercus’s definitive study, The Bagandji Language (1982) was published, she was the only surviving dedicatee. In a later book, Paakantyi Dictionary (1993), Dr Hercus singled out Mrs Jones’s 'brilliant knowledge of vocabulary' and the way 'she patiently guided me through many phonetic difficulties'. Elsie Jones was not merely a linguistic informant, but a tireless co-worker and teacher.

She made herself freely available to Wilcannia’s schoolchildren for visits to mythological sites and bush tucker excursions, and in 1984 was awarded a Medal in the Order of Australia for 'services to education, particularly in relation to Aboriginal culture.' In 1989, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, she published The Story of the Falling Star, about the origin of a rocky outcrop in the river 10 km north of Wilcannia.

A recognised traditional owner, she was consulted in the creation of Mungo and Mootwingee National Parks. One of her long-term goals was fulfilled in the last twelve months with the formation of the Paakantji Elders’ Council, which conducts regular regional meetings and provides for elders’ involvement in community decision-making.

Mrs Jones’s life story is featured in many books, including Bobbie Hardy’s Lament for the Barkindji (1976), Kevin Gilbert’s Living Black (1979) and Murray Walker’s Making Do (1982). Mrs Jones, a woman of great kindness and dignity, is survived by nine children, over 50 grandchildren and many more great-grandchildren.

Original Publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 1996, p 33

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Lindsay, 'Jones, Elsie Rose (1917–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 30 September 2020.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2012