Aboriginal health and Aboriginal land

A media release from the “Desert knowledge Co-operative Research Centre”

Health, happiness from the deserts
August 10, 2008

There is mounting scientific evidence that keeping the connection that Aboriginal people have with their traditional country strong can make an important contribution in the fight against the epidemic of chronic disease and social dislocation.

DKCRC leader of the Livelihoods inLandTM research project Dr Jocelyn Davies told the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in the Northern Territory today that research is revealing that ‘caring for country’ has a critical – and quantifiable – role to play in improving the health and wellbeing of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

“It all begins with the desert Aboriginal world view, which holds that everything comes from the land – all laws, ties of kinship, ceremony, food, work, activity and good health,” she explains.

“If you move people away from their land in an attempt to deliver better health and other services, paradoxically you may sever the link that gives them both physical and psychological health.”

A groundbreaking study of Warlpiri people’s worldview – Ngurra-kurlu – by Steven Jampijinpa Patrick of Lajamanu, Miles Holmes of University of Queensland and Lance Box shows why these relationships to country are so important for contemporary life and livelihoods. It highlights their critical role in the inherent motivation and sense of identify, confidence and wellbeing of desert people.

DKCRC facilitated publication of the study to support Steven’s recognition as a desert philosopher and his work in educating others about this Warlpiri world view.

Ngurra-kurlu explores how an understanding of the five elements of Warlpiri culture – land, law, language, ceremony and kinship – is of central importance in building a better future for Warlpiri people and for other Australians.

In Australia’s deserts Aboriginal people make up most of the population outside the larger towns. There are hundreds of very small settlements, many with populations of less than 50 people where populations are growing much more rapidly than the national average.

“Aboriginal elders and leaders set up these small settlements because it was important to their wellbeing and health to move out of the centralised settlements where government policy had encouraged or forced them to live and to move back to living on or close to their traditional lands and exercise their customary responsibilities to care for that country,” Dr Davies says.

A crucial part of caring for country is looking after and teaching the people who must in turn look after the land. In an Aboriginal world view adequately caring for country also involves actions such as understanding the principles of land tenure, learning the environmental knowledge that is in ceremony and song, and adhering to the kinship rules that keep society stable.

“The more Aboriginal people are involved, on their own terms, in caring for country, the less likely they are to develop chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease. The health impacts derive partly from improved diet and fitness but are also due to the psychological and social effects of caring for country,” she explains. “There is now growing evidence to show that this is the case.”

For young Aboriginal people in particular, visits to traditional lands and learning opportunities ‘on country’ with their elders are emerging as a way to transform social-ecological dislocation into healthier lifestyles. This comes through strongly from other research that Dr Michael LaFlamme is undertaking in the Livelihoods inLandTM project, with other researchers and community members, and also with Warlpiri Media and RIRDC support.

“We are finding the chance to learn from elders on country and to combine this with new skills and ‘cool’ multimedia technologies is transforming the identities and the confidence of young people – as well as motivating them to go on learning.

“Positive spinoffs for the health, knowledge and behaviour in young people are being reported to us by Aboriginal participants, local agency staff and are also evident from our own observations,” Dr LaFlamme said.

These findings mean that Australia as a whole, like Aboriginal people themselves, can view health and happiness as a significant amenity value that comes from the three-quarters of the continent which is regarded as desert. They show that Aboriginal caring for country does not just produce private benefit to Aboriginal people, such as from hunting – it also can generate substantial benefit to the public and taxpayers through positive outcomes for health and wellbeing, Dr Davies says.

In explaining the Warlpiri world view, the groundbreaking Ngurra-kurlu paper by Patrick, Homes and Box explores how the relationships in this world view can be a foundation for new futures for Warlpiri people and also will have meaning for other Aboriginal people. It makes the point that Ngurra-kurlu is not simply about the past – but also, very much, the future.

During the research Warlpiri elders repeatedly made the point that the structures and
philosophies within Ngurra-kurlu can be of benefit to all Australians, not just Warlpiri. For example, Warlpiri songs could teach people in mainstream Australia about the environment; ceremony could show new principles of dispute resolution; language can provide new words to describe the environment; skin could provide models for community living.

“As a nation preoccupied with ‘fixing’ Aboriginal problems it is important to remember that information and help can flow two ways,” the authors say.

“When a person (takes in) the principles of ngurra-kurlu they become like a shield for their people and their country. That is, their strength of character metaphorically covers people and country and protects them from damage, in the same way a shield protects a fighter from attack. This is the protection of ngurra-kurlu for people and country.”

Ngurra-kurlu report (pdf)

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