Indigenous Healing and Sharing Culture

images-1“We are like the tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burnt, but inside the tree, the sap is still flowing and under the ground, the roots are still strong. Like the tree, we have endured the flames and yet we still have the power to be reborn.” Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann

This section of the website provides an introduction to Indigenous Healing, which is part of the Sharing Culture initiative I have developed with filmmaker Michael Liu of Shocktreatmint Films.

In these pages, I introduce the problems faced by Indigenous peoples of colonised nations such as Australia, America, Canada and New Zealand, and describe how these problems can be overcome. I will develop these pages as time permits, so please bear with me. 

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Historical Trauma

australia-aboriginals-chained-1906Historical, or intergenerational, trauma amongst Indigenous peoples is the trauma that has arisen as a result of the historical experiences of colonisation (and associated violence and control), forcible removal of children, and loss of culture.

As it was not addressed at the time, this trauma (and associated grief) have been passed down unwittingly through the generations by peoples’ behaviours and thought patterns.

Today, this trauma is exacerbated by economic and social disadvantage, racism and paternalism, and ongoing grief resulting from multiple bereavements. The failure of governments to tackle historical trauma directly – they just try to manage the symptoms of trauma – is further complicating matters.

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The Impact of Colonisation

Unknown-2The impact of colonisation on Indigenous peoples has been similar in a number of countries, including Australia, Canada, America and New Zealand. In her book Trauma Trails: Recreating Songlines, Professor Judy Atkinson describes how the control of Indigenous peoples by the coloniser was facilitated by three main types of power abuse or violence – overt physical violence, covert structural violence, and psychosocial domination.

Overt physical violence
In Australia, the arrival of the prison hulks at Sydney Cove in 1788 set in motion a series of disasters that propagated trauma upon trauma upon trauma. These disasters impacted upon Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people who had lived on the continent for somewhere between 50 – 70,000 years.

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The Stolen Generation

Unknown-10From 1909 until the late 1960s, many Aboriginal children in Australia were removed from their families, the so-called Stolen Generations.

The sending of Aboriginal children to missions and to live with white families meant a great deal of emotional distress, as well as the loss of cultural and spiritual knowledge and Aboriginal identity. This policy was also part of a practice to assimilate Aboriginal people into the predominant white culture and breed out their colour.

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How Trauma Flows Through the Generations

3693808“Our first generations were killed and imprisoned, and females sexually misused. Our second generations turned to alcohol or drugs as their cultural and spiritual identity was damaged; in our third generations we had spousal assault and societal trauma.

In our fourth generations the abuse moves from spousal abuse to child abuse or both. In the fifth generations, the cycle repeats as trauma begats violence, begats trauma. And in our sixth generations the grown children of the conquerors begin to live in fear of the grown children of the conquered.” Judy Atkinson

The title of Judy Atkinson’s book is particularly well-chosen – trauma leaves trails across the generations. In the quote above, Judy briefly summarises the violence that has been experienced by Aboriginal people, violence that has produced trauma which has become cumulative and more complex across generations. This trauma has impacted upon individuals, families and communities.

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Professor Judy Atkinson on Historical Trauma

Judy Atkinson talks about trauma and historical trauma at the SNAICC (The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care) conference in 2013. Please watch from 18’09” until 28’14”. The whole talk is worth a viewing.

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Judy Atkinson: Reflecting on Historical Trauma and its Consequences

“I can talk for ever on this. I have been standing up and talking about this for 25 years. In Queensland, out at the Cape communities, in the Kimberleys, through the Territory, in South Australia, in New South Wales. Transgenerational trauma … it’s like nobody wants to hear.”

Judy touches on a variety of issues relating to transgenerational, or historical, trauma during this selected part of her talk (from 10’41” until 20’15”). A variety of other important matters are discussed in the rest of the talk.

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Joe Solanto: Intergenerational Trauma Amongst First Nations People of Canada

In these two film clips, Dr. Joe Solanto discusses what trauma is and how the experiences of colonisation for First Nations peoples in Canada” qualify” as trauma. He describes how trauma is transmitted across generations. Crime and other social problems are understandable responses to trauma.

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Don Coyhis: What the Boarding Schools Did to Our Community

Don Coyhis, Founder of the Wellbriety Movement in America, describes Native Indian culture and communities before the issues that arose from intergenerational trauma. This trauma arose partly through the government-led introduction of boarding schools cross America to to which Indian children were sent.

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Shocking History Impacts on the Health and Wellbeing of Indigenous People

Professor Marion Kickett relates how she and the other Noongar children in York, Western Australia, were not allowed to swim in a particular area of the river. When she was fifteen, her father described how he and his friends were similarly told by their parents not to swim in that location. He also related the shocking story of The Sandy.

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Society is Failing to Tackle Historical Trauma

images-2“The bureaucratic interventions of the state – the processes of law, social welfare, and health care – have not addressed the core issue of human traumatisation. These issues, in many cases, compounded the trauma by creating and increasing dependency on the state, which, while intensifying the feelings of victimisation, also enforces the beliefs of being powerless to change destructive circumstances.” Judy Atkinson

If we are to help Indigenous people improve their health and wellbeing, we have to tackle core underlying problems such as historical trauma. However, our health care systems do not address historical trauma – they just manage its symptoms, e.g. by prescribing medications to ‘treat’ emotional distress.

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Severe Dysfunction in Some Levels of Government

If we are to help Indigenous people improve their health and well-being, then we must understand the nature of the problems. Sadly, parts of government do not have that understanding, as illustrated by Professor Judy Atkinson. (View from 9’20” until 17’39”)

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Youth Suicide & Self-harm: Indigenous Voices, Part 1

This ‘Culture is Life’ Campaign video highlights the problem of youth suicide amongst Indigenous people of Australia. Youth suicide is a problem amongst Indigenous peoples of other colonised nations.

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Youth Suicide & Self-harm: Indigenous Voices, Part 2

“Culture has become life-giving medicine for our people, closing the wounds of the past and standing us strong to face the future.

Our Elders have been fundamental in this process. They are our wisdom keepers. They have seen the changes, so dramatically incurred in their lifetime. They are the vital bridge between the modern world and Aboriginal culture. They are the leaders of our communities, to whom we continue to rely on for guidance and counseling.

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Gerry Georgatos on Suicide Amongst Indigenous People of Australia

Gerry Georgatos is an investigative journalist who I greatly admire. Here are links to some of his articles on suicide in the independent online news site The Stringer. But first, an Indigenous voice from one of his articles:

“To read about this painful crisis, to recognise the layers of disconnection, the internal anguish, community sorrow, pain, trauma, suffering is like a microcosm of the inherent legacy of pain, torment, and suffering that our people are immersed in.

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Gabor Maté: The Roots of Addiction

It is critical to understand that although addiction is a problem it is also an attempt to solve a graver problem that is, unbearable psychic pain. To understand addiction we need to understand human pain and that takes us to focus on childhood experiences.

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Gabor Maté: Our Strange Indifference to Aboriginal Addiction

Unknown-8“Addicts are made, not born, and the most common precursors are early childhood privation, neglect and abuse. For several generations, Canada’s native children have been far more likely to suffer grinding penury, abuse and childhood substance addictions than non-natives.” Gabor Maté

Marlene, a 46-year old native woman, sat in my office last week, slumped on her chair, blinking away her tears. I’d just shared the news that her most recent blood test confirmed she had “seroconverted” to HIV, become infected with the AIDS virus.

Although an injection drug user, Marlene had always been careful to use clean needles. Her route of infection was sexual contact – with the resigned naiveté characteristic of so many aboriginal women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, she had trusted a man, himself a drug addict, who assured her that he was a safe partner.

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Judith Herman: Trauma and Recovery

511+Nl1uNdL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_1. Principles of recovery (healing)
‘The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.

Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connection with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological facilities that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic operations of trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.

Just as these capabilities are formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.

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The Nature of Indigenous Healing

4323131_orig“Indigenous concepts of healing are based on addressing the relationship between the spiritual, emotional and physical in a holistic manner. An essential element of Indigenous healing is recognising the interconnections between, and effects of, violence, social and economic disadvantage, racism and dispossession from land and culture on Indigenous peoples, families and communities.”  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2004, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

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Describing Healing: Professor Helen Milroy

3652715I came across a beautiful description of healing in the Forward of the fascinating book Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari. I quote this description here, although I have altered the paragraphs

“Healing is part of life and continues through death and into life again. It occurs throughout a person’s life journey as well as across generations. It can be experienced in many forms such as mending a wound or recovery from illness.

Mostly, however, it is about renewal. Leaving behind those things that have wounded us and caused us pain. Moving forward in our journey with hope for the future, with renewed energy, strength and enthusiasm for life.

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