12 Principles of Indigenous Healing

When I first became interested in Indigenous healing a number of years ago, I did a great deal of reading about the healing of trauma and intergenerational trauma. I summarised what I considered to be 12 principles of healing, which are relevant to Aboriginal people here in Australia and other Indigenous peoples around the world. I first posted about these principles on Sharing Culture in 2014 and then on The Carrolup Story in 2018.

1. The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be recognised and respected
Recognition of, and respect for, the Human Rights of Indigenous peoples is fundamental to improving their health and wellbeing. Society must ensure that Indigenous peoples have full and effective participation in decisions that directly or indirectly affect their lives.

The wellbeing of Indigenous peoples is tied to their collective rights, such as rights to land and cultural practices, and maintenance and application of traditional knowledge. Self-determination is the key foundation of Indigenous healing.

2. Help people understand the nature of the problem
We must understand how Indigenous peoples’ problems have arisen if we are to facilitate healing.

We must show how intergenerational trauma and its consequences, arising from the process of colonisation, have impacted negatively on Indigenous peoples’ health and wellbeing. This intergenerational trauma is exacerbated by ongoing social and economic disadvantage, racism and paternalism, and the failure of government healthcare systems to address trauma directly.

Learning history from an Indigenous perspective—and about the impact of intergenerational trauma and its consequences—helps Indigenous people understand why they have problems. It shows them that they retain the necessary agency to change their lives for the better. It helps them deal with shame and blame, factors that impact negatively on social and emotional wellbeing.

3. Focus on solutions, strengths, positive narratives and celebrating success
Whilst we must highlight the nature of the problems experienced by Indigenous peoples, our focus should be on finding solutions. We must also focus on the strengths and assets of Indigenous peoples, rather than their weaknesses and deficits (as much of society does today).

We must create positive narratives about Indigenous peoples and their culture, in order to counter the disempowering negative narratives and paternalistic actions of governments and wider society. We must celebrate the successes of Indigenous peoples in order to facilitate healing.

4. Healing trauma
We must emphasise the necessity of healing trauma and its consequences directly, rather than managing its symptoms by medication, as is generally the case today. Medication does not heal trauma—it generally causes more health issues and disempowers Indigenous people further.

Society has the knowledge—from both Indigenous and western cultures—to help people heal from trauma and its consequences. We must educate people about what trauma does at a biological, psychological and social level, and demonstrate how these changes can be reversed.

5. Empowerment and connection 
It is essential to create a powerful voice of healing (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) that empowers and connects people. Empowerment and connection are the foundation of healing from trauma and its consequences.

We must empower people to heal by giving them hope (that healing is possible), understanding (of how healing can be achieved) and a sense of belonging.

We must connect people to safe and empathic environments, where they feel accepted and supported, learn how to improve their health and wellbeing, and gain a positive identity. We must also connect Indigenous peoples to their culture, land, spirituality, family, community and history, as this is key to healing.

6. Tell Healing Stories
Many Indigenous people have healed from trauma and its consequences, showing the necessary coping mechanisms, skills and knowledge, to rise above adversity. Their personal narratives are of considerable value, since they inspire other people and help them understand how they too can overcome their problems.

People in the early stages of healing identify with and trust the experiences of someone who is further along in their journey. Who better to help us than someone who has ‘been there’?

7. Storytelling
Storytelling is a healing ritual amongst Indigenous people. In a culturally safe environment (e.g. healing circle), Indigenous people can share experiences by telling their Story (which is often a Trauma Story), help each other come to terms with the emotional pain caused by what has happened to them in their past, and make sense of their Personal Story in relationship to the collective, Communal Story.  During this process, Indigenous people can work through multiple levels of loss and grief.

8. Facilitate self-healing and self-care
Healing comes from the person, not from treatment or a professional. Indigenous peoples must develop self-awareness, self-regulation, self-expression and self-care skills to facilitate their journey to wellness.

Education resources must be developed that facilitate these processes and help people deal with shame and negative thinking; learn about mindfulness, self-compassion and forgiveness; and develop resilience. They must help Indigenous people understand the nature of society’s treatment and support systems, and how they can navigate their way around these systems.

9. Highlight Indigenous worldview and Indigenous Healing initiatives
We must highlight the holistic view of Indigenous health that incorporates the physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, social and environmental. The Indigenous worldview of social and emotional wellbeing is far richer than western culture’s view of mental health.

We must also highlight successful Indigenous healing initiatives so that the approaches they use are more widely adopted. We must help people understand traditional healing approaches, Indigenous spirituality, and the importance of connections to culture and land.

10. Create cultural pride and cultural connectedness
We must create cultural pride in order to facilitate cultural connectedness, which in turn enhances wellbeing and facilitates healing. We can do this by celebrating Indigenous art, music, ceremony, dance, theatre, history, land, food, language, stories and spirituality.

We must show how Indigenous peoples are far more protective of their environment and planet than are non-Indigenous peoples. This approach not only facilitates cultural connectedness, but also enhances understanding of Indigenous culture in wider society.

11. Whole community healing 
We must advocate the Native American ‘Healing Forest’ approach, which emphasises the importance of actively healing the whole community and its institutions at the same time that individuals work on their own healing. What is the point of someone learning to overcome their problem in a treatment centre, only to return to the same ‘sick’ environment in which their problem developed?

Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples must work together to create safe healing environments for all. We must enhance understanding of Indigenous healing across wider society, including in education, health, social care and criminal justice settings, and create advocacy campaigns to catalyse grassroots activity and create change at a government level.

12. Create networks of hope and healing—and create historical (or intergenerational) healing
By spreading healing messages in innovative ways and harnessing the considerable latent energy that exists at grassroots levels, we can create a ripple effect of hope and healing. Eventually, healing will become contagious, as has happened with other social movements. It can pass down generations, as has trauma.