Indigenous Trauma and Healing

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, Senior Australian of the Year, 2021

This section of the website focuses on the healing of trauma and historical trauma, in particular in relation to Indigenous peoples.  I will write a series of articles, which will appear in the order they are written (oldest first), in an attempt to take the reader on a journey into this fascinating field.

In this first article, I will describe how I became inspired in this field and summarise some of the activities in which I have been engaged, including developing the educational initiative Sharing Culture and the education, storytelling and healing online resource The Carrolup Story.

In my early days after moving to Australia, I observed a good deal of racism towards Aboriginal people. I found it difficult to come to terms with this racism. I decided to read about Aboriginal peoples—there are many different nations of Aboriginal people in Australia—and learn more about their culture and history. I soon learnt how the colonisation of Australia by the British led to starvation, violence, disease, abduction and the exploitation of Aboriginal people, along with the taking of their land and efforts to suppress their culture.

Government policies were put in place which eventually controlled every aspect of the lives of Aboriginal peoples. This included a policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families. This policy was introduced by State and Federal Government Acts in order to assimilate Aboriginal children into the white-dominated society of Australia. In essence, to help ‘make’ these children ’white’. Children taken from their families as a result of this policy are now known as the ‘Stolen Generations’. I knew little about the Stolen Generations when I started living in Australia.

One book I read, Trauma Trails, Recreating Songlines: The transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia by Judy Atkinson, had a strong impact on me. [Judy is a Jiman (Central West Queensland) and Bundjalung (Northern New South Wales) woman, with Anglo-Celtic and German heritage]. Judy described how the various negative elements of the colonisation process created trauma amongst Aboriginal people. This trauma, if unhealed, could become cumulative in its impacts on individuals and families, and even whole communities. It could be expressed in dysfunctional and sometimes violent behaviours, and these dysfunctional behaviours were re-traumatising in themselves. 

The trauma arising from colonisation has been unwittingly passed down the generations. This transgenerational trauma—sometimes called intergenerational or historical trauma—still has a profound impact today. 

Judy also described how some Aboriginal people had come to use alcohol and drugs to dampen the pain experienced in their lives, and how this often led to addiction to such substances and problems arising from this addiction. I learnt how historical trauma and the responses that occur to this trauma have been experienced by Indigenous people in other countries, such as the First Nations People of Canada, the Maori of New Zealand and Native Americans in the USA.

Judy’s book not only helped me gain important insights into trauma, but also into the healing of trauma. Judy’s research and workshops involved listening to Aboriginal people about their trauma and healing. From these ‘stories of pain, stories of healing’, she was able to develop key insights into the healing process which she outlined in her book.

I was fascinated by this research and was so stimulated that I decided to develop an educational website, Sharing Culture, that was focused on the healing of historical trauma and its consequences. These consequences include poor physical health, mental health problems, emotional distress, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, self-harm and suicide.

I also started reading work by key researchers/clinicians in the trauma healing field, such as Bruce Perry, Bessel van der Kolk, Judith Herman and Gabor Maté. I also continued reading about Indigenous healing and cultures from around the world, and realised that there was much that Western culture could learn from Indigenous peoples. 

I developed Sharing Culture to help Aboriginal people heal from historical trauma and its consequences. These consequences include poor physical health, mental health problems, emotional distress, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, self-harm and suicide.

In developing Sharing Culture, I emphasised a strengths-based, solution-focused approach that celebrates success and cultivates positivity, acceptance and cultural pride. The initiative was supported by an international network of over 30 Advisors/Healers, the vast majority of whom are world-leading experts in their respective fields.

Sharing Culture uses Indigenous voices to help educate us about historical trauma and how it impacts on Indigenous people. It proves an opportunity for the reader learn about Indigenous healing and culture, as well as read or watch Healing Stories. I regularly blogged on the website for the several years.

Given the healing power of story, I started to look for Aboriginal stories of healing when I developed Sharing Culture. I soon found an enthralling and inspirational story, one that was almost from my own back yard. A story of trauma and healing amongst Aboriginal children of the South West part of Western Australia. The story of the Aboriginal child artists of Carrolup.

I spent the next four years researching and writing this fascinating story. During that time, I met Social Anthropologist John Stanton, Director of the Director of the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at The University of Western Australia for 38 years, and we started working together. John, who has become a close friend, had been involved with the Carrolup Story for over 40 years.

John and I were of the shared opinion that telling the story of the Aboriginal child artists of Carrolup would facilitate healing of trauma and its consequences amongst Aboriginal people, in part through creating cultural pride and, in turn, connection to culture. Research has shown that connection to culture is a major factor in facilitating healing amongst Indigenous peoples.

In November 2018, we launched The Carrolup Story, a Storytelling, Education and Healing online resource developed in collaboration with my old friend Ash Whitney. In June 2020, I published the eBook Connection: Aboriginal Child Artists Captivate Europe

The next post in this section of Recovery Stories will focus on an inspirational TEDx talk given by Judy Atkinson. The following post will describe 12 Principles of Indigenous Healing, which are not only of relevance to Aboriginal peoples but also to non-Aboriginal peoples. I will then go on to describe the impact of British colonisation on Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

> The Value of Deep Listening: The Aboriginal Gift to the Nation—Judy Atkinson