‘Unspoken Words’ : Creative Letters to Elders of my Past and Present by Annette Dudley

My name is Annette Dudley.  Through my Dudley and Yow Yeh bloodlines, my Ancestors connect me to the Torres Strait Islands – Murray Island, Vanuatu – Tanna Island and The Bailai Nation of the Gladstone area, in Central Queensland, Australia. I would firstly like to acknowledge Elders past, present and future of the Traditional Custodians of the land that I live and work on, the Darumbal Nation, the Bailai Nation, the Ghungalu Nation, the Wadja Nation and the Woppaburra Nation. I would also like to acknowledge the Elders who have taken me under their wing and guided me, supporting me to do the work that I am honoured to do.

I have had the privilege of working in various roles based in Rockhampton which allowed me to make connections with people from all walks of life, young and old.  My passion is working with Elders, Stolen Generation, Women and Youth.  I feel honoured and privileged to be allowed to work in Rockhampton and the surrounding areas including Yeppoon, Mt Morgan, Gladstone, Woorabinda (Australian Aboriginal Community est. 1926 / 1927).

In this video I describe a project entitled, ‘Unspoken Words’: Creative Letters to Elders of my Past and Present.  It is about writing letters to significant Elders who have influenced me on my life journey, one in particular was my Great Grandfather Lomas William Yow Yeh (from my Mother’s side), who was Blackbirded* from Tanna Island in Vanuatu.  In my letters, I use externalizing and re-membering questions, highlight sparkling moments, and find ways to connect history, people and events across time – moving between the present, the past and future dreams and goals. My letters in this project were also influenced by a lot of the “Sorry Business” (funerals / deaths) that were happening in Rockhampton and Woorabinda as well as within my own family. These times got me thinking about eulogies and what it would mean to people if they were acknowledged for their life journey and the impacts that they had on people’s lives whilst they were alive by people simply writing them a letter.

I wrote various letters acknowledging the legacy that people have left with me and what they will leave for future generations to come. I am trying to honour and respect their embedded footprints in the sands of time of my life journey.

The next step of this journey is to support the younger generations to write letters to their Elders, those who are alive and perhaps those who are no longer alive.

Annette can be contacted c/o Dulwich Centre. She will also welcome your comments, reflections, ideas in the forum below.

* Blackbirding is a term used to describe the is the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers. For more information, click here

Published on January 29, 2016

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Jodie Brown

    Hello Annette
    Thank you for presenting this for us all – to learn of your grateful heart, share a part of your precious family story and exemplify some NT skills. I loved your letters and how you wrote them, and loved the wonderful example of externalising the stress present in your life and how you spoke of it and to it. I watched this today as part of a NT short course through the AASW, your presentation being one of the extra links attached to the power points presented by David D. Also, Annette thank you for being a woman not afraid to be vulnerable but also step-up to your strength, community and gift for sharing. As this is 5 years after you presented, I hope you are travelling well on your path, still shining your wisdom and heart.
    In gratitude

  2. James Te Huia

    Kia ora Annette
    I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we live today, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this land. ‘
    I have lived on this land for 8 years and am humbled to be able to hear your journey in using Writing. I did resonate with the words and where they connected in your life. I can also see how this will help me with my work in Community Youth Programs and Therapy.
    Thank you

  3. Annette Dudley

    Evening David,

    Thank you for your inspirational words. I feel very privileged that you have read my letters and provided positive feedback to me. I find this very helpful and I will keep writing, thank you for your words of encouragement. I would love to stay in touch and learn about your journey. I would love to share with you where my writing takes me, if you would be interested?

    Thank you again and yarn soon
    Stay Strong, Stay Safe and Stay Deadly

  4. David Epston

    Dear Annette:
    I wish I was the first to reply to your Friday Afternoon. However, you had already sent me a copy of the letter to Uncle Bill and Aunt Rosie. So I had already come to appreciate your literariness(if I can call it that), reading it aloud to myself and hearing it in my mind’s ear. Like Troy, I can see why your teacher acknowledged you as a writer and like others, would like to second that. There is no doubt in my mind that he had ‘seen’ something in you that may have taken until now to find such a profound expression and flourish even moreso in the future of your practice. And like someone else commented in the above, letters such as yours are so rare in a world of text messages that I expect they will shine in ways like never before. What do I hope for in your letter writing future? I hope that you will write as you write without compunction. I recall how I saw before my very eyes the smoke of Uncle Bill’s cigarette “swirling as if it was dancing on your clothes”….’the flame of hope”, ‘the umbrellas of love’….There is no need for you to copy
    Annette; you can originate images, metaphors and expressions such as ‘your name will reverberate through many generations to come’. And when you do, I am sure the rest of us will save them and import them in to our own letters. Not everyone is such a natural writer as you so obviously are! It is no surprise to me that Aunty Rosie should cherish your letter to both her and Uncle Bill and seek to frame it near her bed so it can be read and re-read. I am sure the ‘test’ of a great narrative letter is that it is sufficient to be read again and again, much like a great song or poem can be listened to again and again without the reader/listener ever tiring of it or feeling they have exhausted the possibilities of meaning that inhere. I hope you will trust your own literariness more and some day, anyone reading a letter of yours will immediately know you wrote it because no one could write it quite you do.

    Kind regards, David.

  5. David Newman

    Dear Annette,

    What a beautiful presentation. I was so moved to hear of your work, your writings; especially as I thought about the sorry business you and others in your community were dealing with last year.

    I found your words evocative; I could almost hold an image of your great grandfather’s qualities trickling down through the future generations, of the first arrival of uncle, of the care aunty and uncle showed when they spoke and so much more. I so appreciated hearing of your letter placed beside the bed. This makes me think I want to ask people I work with ‘where do you think you might store this letter?’ And your plans for next steps sound quite wonderful.

    I am also so drawn to letter writing. Although the young folks I work with do sometimes tease me that I ask them to write letters too often, your presentation and words have brought further motivation to keep at this and to use creativity the way I see in your work! Maybe we could exchange notes about our discoveries…?

    With respect and care,

    David Newman

    1. Barbara Wingard

      Dear Annette, what a beautiful presentation, it left me feeling so proud of you, you looked fantastic sounded great and just so respectful of every one.
      Your letters were so acknowledging of the Elders and how they have contributed in many ways within their life time, I know how they would have just loved you reading it to them so meaningful.
      You have so much to offer others your ability to understand and have the passion and love for others.
      Congratulations sweetheart, feeling really blessed that I have been a small part of your life.

      1. Annette Dudley

        Hello beautiful gorgeous Aunty Barb,

        Thank you so much for your kind words of wisdom over the time that I have had the honour of knowing you. I am in awe of you as a strong role model for many generations, your community, your family, your friends and the Dulwich staff and students. You inspire me to achieve and to learn. You have a special place in my heart and I will remember for the rest of my life the day that I had the honour of meeting you. To hear you speak about what is important to you in all aspects of your life was an amazing yarn to hear and then to see you stand in front of an international audience and proudly stand strong and speak so beautifully was an amazing moment in my time line of life.

        Thank you so much Aunty Barb, you have brought tears to my eyes.

        Keep in touch.

        Love and miss you xo

        In unity,


    2. Annette Dudley

      Hi David,

      Thank you so much for your wonderful kind words. I love hearing about how my letters make opportunities for people. I am so honoured that my words in my letter allowed you to travel with me on my journeys in my letters, that is exciting.

      I would love to hear from you about ways in which we can exchange notes about our discoveries.

      I am also more than happy to send you a copy of a letter if this helps in anyway?

      Call or email me anytime, I look forward to our future conversations.

      In unity,


  6. Ana

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful presentation, you certainly have the gift of letter writing. I was specifically touched to hear your ‘words, thoughts, hopes, beliefs and dreams’ as you question, talk to your elders in your letters. This is a great work and I believe every person who has past members in the family, particularly our ancestors, elders ask these many questions all the time so this is very therapeutic and healing to anyone who would wish to ‘write’ and talk to them also. We can all relate. To reach out and encourage youth about ‘letter writing’ in this way is such a deadly positive goal which I am sure you will achieve and an awesome legacy to leave for them to carry on. You are a wonderful, humble woman and again, thanks for sharing.

    1. Annette Dudley

      Hey Ana,

      Thank you so much for your kinds words. I am happy that my letters are easy to relate to in terms of connections with Elders. I found writing these letters a healing experience which helped me. Thank you again for such beautiful words.

      In unity,


  7. Keri Murray

    Thank you Annette for sharing your letters… I am particularly drawn to your plan of connecting youth with their elders through oral and written means. I think this is because I dream of the effects that could have come from these practices earlier in my life, for myself and the elders that have been so important to me in my life… particularly my grandmother and my grandfather, and a previous grade school principal. It gets me wondering how these practices can be sustaining and enlivening of families and communities. It gets me wondering how those I work with might engage in these practices that may offer islands and shores and bridges of reprieve from the streams of stress and other problems like isolation and loneliness. I was so drawn to your imagery and metaphor.

    1. Annette Dudley

      Hi Keri,

      How are you darl? You are very welcome, I love that my letters open doors of ideas / possibilities for people to utilise in their context for their community. I would love to hear more about how these practices may offer islands and shores and bridges of reprieve from the streams of stress and other problems life isolation and loneliness.

      Looking forward to future conversations.

      In unity,


  8. Linda Moxley-Haegert

    Dear Annette – what a wonderful idea, writing a letter to our ancestors, those who we met only from the stories. Once I was learning re-membering conversations from Michael White and one of the questions was, who do you think would be proud that you are doing this work and attending this conference. I immediately answered, my mother’s father – I never met him as he died when my mother was 13. My mother was taught by him to learn, to study, to try to understand and help those who are in need. She taught those things to me. I will write to him telling him that I am following his lead. My Irish ancestors were forced to leave Ireland due to famine and mistreatment by colonization. They taught me to try to stand away from those who would mistreat and work that such mistreatment does not continue to occur. I know that these amazing ancestors jumped ship in Newfoundland to hide in the interior (against the law of those days to winter in Newfoundland, it was to be used only to take the fish from the natives who lived there). They joined the natives to keep the land free from these colonizers. They did not completely succeed but we can all continue to try. You have taught me to use letters to honour the resistance and resilience of your Elders. And you tell how they passed on their special knowledges, their values and hopes and dreams to you. It will help us remember what was passed on to us and perhaps help us to help others to do the same.

  9. Margaret Hornagold

    Oh, Annette. How truly beautiful and moving. It is incredible that you have resurrected the power of letter writing in a digital world. I think back to the times when we worked together and marvel at how far you have come and there is more ahead. I look forward to working with you in healing young people and their families through the letters from each to the other. Love you and bless you.

    1. Annette Dudley

      Hey Aunty Marg,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me coming from you. I admire you so much and I think of you as so much more than my first boss. You were a part of my journey when I first started in youth work and I want to sincerely thank you for your acts of kindness and the many times that you have shared words of wisdom with me.

      You are an amazing strong woman and I am very thankful to know you.

      In unity,


  10. Troy Holland

    Dear Annette,

    What an extraordinary privilege to witness your presentation for the second time. What stood out for me most this time was the ways in which, throughout your letters and presentation, you have honoured and respected the stories of resilience and survival of your Elders. To me this was reflected both through your acknowledgement of the Elders’ stories and through the reflection of the passing on of these values and knowledges in your personal story of responding to ‘Streams of Stress’. It was lovely to hear how these values and knowledges were shared through oral storytelling to your Elders from their parents, from your Elders to you, and now from you to your children. I also appreciated how you have added written documents to these oral histories. I remember the Uncle you wrote to in your letter telling me once how crucial the written word was in re-writing histories. He said ‘If it’s not written down, people won’t believe it.’ The lesson I took from him was that he valued both oral and written histories. Oral histories were culturally significant and resonant for Uncle and written histories were required to challenge and augment dominant ideas of history. I believe Uncle would be very proud that you have honoured both oral and written histories in your presentation. I am excited too that you will make the link through written documents between the next generations and their Elders. It inspires me to think about how the written documents we create in our work can honour and be shared across and back and forth between multiple generations and re-membered for future generations. And it makes me also think more about how stories of my Ancestors could be written and shared across generations.

    I’d also like to thank the respected person who recognised your strength in writing letters and to thank you Annette for sharing this strength with us. The descriptiveness and imagery of your letter writing had me experiencing the sensations you wrote so beautifully and made me feel like I was there. Thank you Annette.

    With love and respect

    1. Annette Dudley

      Hi Troy,

      With love and respect, thank you so much. Reading your beautiful comment brought it home to me about how strong words and actions can be. I have had the honour and privilege of walking my journey guided by Elders in my family and Elders within the many communities that I have lived and worked in. I have been privileged by receiving so many gifts that I will treasure and take care of, that I will pass on to future generations.

      It makes me happy and content to know that people can hear my presentation and take something from it that works for them and their community.

      I have enjoyed working with you in the healing space and I look forward to working with you on many more projects in the future.

      In unity,


  11. Gipsy Hosking

    Hi Annette,

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful and thoughtful presentation with us.

    The letter to the Streams of Stress particularly resonated with me and I loved how you set out to investigate your foe and find out what makes it tick!

    Thanks again

    1. Annette Dudley

      Hi Gipsy

      Thank you and I am happy to know that my letter Streams of Stress resonated with you. I would love to hear more about how you handled your Streams of Stress. If you would like a copy to use in your context I would be more than happy to send one through. Thank you for your lovely comment.

      In unity,


Leave a Reply