“The gifts of learning and healing – your way and my way” with Elaine Tiparui

When elders speak, we sit up and take notice.  My guest today on Talk the Walk is someone I have listened to throughout my working career on the Tiwi Islands.  In fact, I’m proud to call her my mentor.   Elaine Tiparui is an Elder of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island.  Elaine has a long history of helping her people, beginning with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in the 1980’s, training and working as an Aboriginal health worker and many years volunteering her time for non-government organisations delivering alcohol and drug programs, child and family counselling and support services.

I set out to explore two things in this conversation; firstly Elaine’s experience of working alongside non-indigenous social workers and counsellors and what advice she might have for new people entering remote communities, and secondly, Elaine’s knowledge in relation to the healing power of the bush.  I am a real advocate for social workers incorporating Indigenous knowledge and skills into social work interventions and therapeutic plans.  While I have been able to incorporate some of this knowledge into healing bush camps and individual client sessions, there is so much more potential with proper funding and support.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, reflecting on a ten year working relationship and the things we’ve learned from each other along the way.   It has been my biggest highlight and great privilege to co-create the Healing Our Children project with Elaine.  Communication with Aboriginal people whose first language is not English is never easy, so I’m grateful to Elaine for sticking with me during this conversation in my native tongue.  Apologies also for the cacophony of community sounds in the background!

In this episode, we explore:

  • Why Elaine chose to work alongside mainstream non-government organisations in her community
  • The history of the Wurrumiyanga community on the Tiwi Islands and Elaine’s experience of growing up in the Catholic Mission
  • What social workers and counsellors need to be mindful of when entering a remote community for the first time
  • the reciprocal benefits of co-working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge
  • Elaine’s gift of introducing new workers to the culture, healing traditions and a spiritual way of understanding the Tiwi people
  • Elaine’s view of the skills and knowledge of non-Indigenous workers as a gift of healing for the Tiwi people
  • Self determination and what this means for non-Indigenous workers coming into a remote community
  • How non-Indigenous workers can build trust and respect in a new community
  • Why ‘going out bush’ is the best form of intervention for many of the health and wellbeing issues affecting children, adults or families
  • Elaine teaching her grandson to find yams

    Elaine’s stories of healing children and families out bush through teaching, hunting and bush medicine

  • The gift of listening and feeling trees that Elaine inherited from her ancestors, and the messages trees are communicating to us
  • The healing power of the bush in healing, mourning and celebration ceremonies, and recovery from emotional hurt and mental health issues
  • Elaine’s story as a witness to a healing ceremony for a Tiwi girl who had been removed as a baby and reunited with Tiwi family; a collaboration between Child Protection, an NGO and the strong women

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

‘The Oldest Therapy in the World’ with Leonie Hunter

While I am gearing up to undertake the first Forest Therapy* course offered on Australian soil down in the Yarra Ranges this week, it seems the interest in ecotherapeutic approaches to health and wellbeing is growing rapidly.  While the Western world is just catching up with the scientific evidence to prove nature can heal us from the social ills of overconsumption and environmental degradation, Indigenous cultures across the world have always known of the healing power of nature.   For many years I’ve heard Elders from the Tiwi Islands prescribe ‘going out bush’ as the best treatment for mental health problems and young people who are going off the rails, rather than traditional talk therapies.  Leonie Hunter of the Tiwi islands is my guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week.   With knowledge and wisdom passed down to her from family and a passion for understanding mental health in the 21st century, Leonie unpacks what ‘nature as healer’ means to the oldest culture in the world.

In this week’s episode, we explore:

  • the history of how Tiwi people have been using nature in healing ways
  • what parts of nature are used in traditional healing methods
  • the power of listening to the external and internal
  • healing physical ailments and the emotional self with bush medicine
  • what excites Leonie most about using bush therapy
  • how Leonie came to learn cultural healing knowledge and skills in nature
  • Leonie’s encounter with respected Kakadu elder Bill Neidjie
  • Key messages from nature for our lives today
  • Leonie picking bush peanuts

    The effects of not looking after the environment and the impact of stress on Aboriginal people’s health

  • the benefits of nature for children and Leonie’s dream of developing healing camps for youth
  • Leonie’s personal experience of the healing power of nature
  • Nature as a helper in the grieving process
  • Adopting traditional healing methods in the health system
  • Tips for non-Indigenous social workers who want to help Aboriginal clients access traditional healing in their recovery

This interview was conducted in nature.  We don’t apologise for that, but the sound quality is affected by the wind in some areas (sorry!)

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

*Forest Therapy is a term coined by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy

Bill Neidjie – Author of ‘Story about Feeling’, ‘Gagudju Man’ and ‘Old Man’s Story’

‘Continuing the Bold and the Beautiful’ with Josephine Lee

The bold and beautiful Josephine Lee

Welcome back to Part 2 of my conversation with Josephine Lee, an inspiring Senior Aboriginal Social worker who has traversed all breadth of social work and currently finds herself supporting children, families and schools in remote parts of the NT.

We are often told that we can’t change the world, even though we enter social work to do just that.  After listening to this conversation with Josephine, you will walk away with renewed belief that change really IS possible!

Be prepared to be confronted and have your white middle class assumptions challenged, as we head into part two of my conversation with Josephine.

While it was an easy decision for me to interview Josephine surrounded by the beauty of nature, doing so means being open to the elements.  So I apologise for the sound quality at those times when the wind picked up.

This episode covers:

  • Why Josephine is very comfortable with who she is and what she has to offer the world
  • What it’s like to walk to two worlds and how it impacts on Josephine’s work
  • Racism in social work
  • Why politeness goes out the window so Josephine can be the best she can be as a human being
  • The importance of holding adults accountable for the harm they have caused
  • Strengthening the voices of compassion and human decency
  • How to be a change agent for the right reasons
  • How boldness can help us all shine in the world
  • Authentic warrior-like self care for practitioners with a trauma history
  • Establishing authentic connection in this risk-averse world
  • The gifts of ‘Kuleana’ from Hawaii and ‘Dadirri’ from Daly River for living and working authentically
  • Our responsibilities for ourselves, each other and the planet
  • Packing the essential sense of humour and relishing moments of joy
  • Reflections on suicide in Aboriginal communities and society’s response

We hope you enjoy this episode of ‘Talk the Walk’.  And if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.
Warning:  occasional explicit language.
Just click on the Play Button below and enjoy!  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.  Or subscribe by email via our Home Page.

Things to follow up after the podcast

In the song ‘What a Wonderful World’, Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole uses the word “Kuleana“.

Josephine says “Kuleana is the value of responsibility.  It drives self-motivation and self-reliance, for the desire to act comes from accepting our responsibility with deliberate intent and with diligence.  We want to be held accountable.  Responsibility seeks opportunity. Reciprocal relationship between the person who is responsible, and the thing which they are responsible for.”

About Desmond Tutu 

About Nelson Mandela

About Barack Obama 

A Truly Civil Society by Eva Cox, 1995 Boyer Lectures

Josephine saysThis book and many other writers that I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to or read in depth, raised further my awareness around “don’t forget that humans have constructed society”, the busyness, franticness and dehumanising processes. It can be deconstructed and reconstructed.”

Aboriginal Social Work writers that have influenced Josephine’s practice:

Connect with Josephine Lee on Linked In

‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ with Josephine Lee

The bold and beautiful, Josephine Lee

My guest on Episode 3 of ‘Talk the Walk’ is Josephine Lee. Josephine is a Gudjula woman from North Queensland whose social worker career spands almost 30 years.  Jo is committed to anti-oppressive, anti-racist, therapeutic and relationship-based practices as well as creative and hope-focused practices.
In true traditional style, this ended up feeling like a yarn around the campfire, than an interview.  Josephine takes us on a deep journey into her life growing up and how this has shaped the person she is today.  Her biggest influences on her social work practice is life itself.  This includes in her words

“moments of suffering that you think you cannot get through; moments of joy that you think you cannot believe has happened; good people; lessons learnt from bad; being given opportunities; being brave to take up the opportunities; forgiving yourself when you stuff up, learn and grow; kindness is a strength; beautiful art, music, writing, and so many things that have contributed to hope focussed approach; talk with belief, especially to those who have given up.”

It was truly a privilege to hear Josephine’s raw and honest account of the struggles in life and work.  Josephine is unashamedly and unapologetically frank in her assessment of the state of social work and humanity on the planet.  If you want to hear the brutal truth about what an Aboriginal social worker really thinks about our white middle class profession, but in a gentle kind way, then you’re in the right place.
This episode explores:
• What is hope-focused practice and how it differs from strengths based practice
• The impact of Aboriginal policy and racism on Jo’s family history which ultimately shapes her practice and her life
• Jo’s view of the world as a ‘social justice cake’
• The circumstances that led to Jo taking up social work as a career
• Jo’s reflection on her own personal experience of social workers involved in her childhood
• Lessons on responsibility and what social justice in action really means
• Special photos that have significance to Jo’s life and work (see below)
• Child removal as the impact of colonisation
• Cautions for social workers following the current trends in treatment without bringing a cultural lens and critical reflection
• The traps that white middle class social workers might fall into which leads to hopelessness and helplessness
• A blunt warning for social workers who don’t enter Aboriginal communities with respect
• What it means to walk alongside someone on a painful but healing journey of self discovery for deep nourishment and flourishment to happen
• The power of narrative therapy in working with Indigenous clients
• What is reflective social work practice REALLY
• Black empowerment theory and why it’s greater than feminist theory

“If you walk softly on this Mother Earth, you have tried your best to take care for her, and all life, and you did so with dignity and grace — that is a truly well-lived life.”Josephine Lee, July 2017

Josephine speaks about the following photographs in this interview.

Josephine’s maternal side of the family.

Josephine with her mother and siblings.

An artists interpretation of family surrounded by wild waters.

The picture a client identified as to what being happy with life looks like.

Please note, due to the length of this interview, it has been split into two parts.  Tune in next week to hear the final part of our conversation.
Warning: occasional explicit language.
Just click on the Play Button below and enjoy!  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.  Or subscribe by email via our Home Page.
Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Various Books by Christine Fejo King

About Wayne McCashen

‘Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities’ by African American social worker, Barbara Bryant Solomon

‘Black and White Working Together for Strong Community’ with Patricia Munkara

Patricia Munkara – an advocate for children in her community

My guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week is Patricia Munkara.  Patricia is a traditional woman from Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory whose first language is Tiwi.  In our conversation, Patricia takes us into her world – giving us some insight into what it is like for an Aboriginal worker living in their community to work alongside non-Indigenous social workers/counsellors, some of whom have been on fly-in fly-out arrangements. Bringing her passion for children’s safety and protection, Patricia has developed a reputation of being a trusted community member in her role of Aboriginal Support Worker with a mainstream non-government organisation.

This episode explores:

  • how Patricia has been a role model for others in her community
  • how Patricia has worked alongside the counsellor in the delivery of a culturally sensitive model of therapy
  • what a typical ‘two-way’ approach to counselling looks like; and the skills, knowledge and tools used
  • advantages of having an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal mix of counselling and support in the room with children
  • some of the challenges of the work
  • collaboration between the counsellor and Aboriginal Support Worker
  • the importance of valuing and including cultural practices, knowledge and values in the work
  • how employment and maintaining a status in the community as a carer for children has contributed to Patricia’s own health and wellbeing
  • a success story of reunification with a young Tiwi girl
  • the importance of flexibility in a challenging work environment
  • advice for new social workers in a remote community and what you can expect

As with any remote work, there were challenges with recording this episode.  We apologise for the varying quality of audio.  It’s something we are working on!
We hope you enjoy this episode.  If you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to check out after today’s episode:

Healing Our Children project

Healing Our Children on Facebook

Patricia’s 3 part series of child safety messages launched today!
‘Keeping Babies Safe from Harm’
‘Babies and Neglect’
‘Babies and Stress’

More about Patricia’s life and work on our blog

The Practice of Dadirri and my Work as a ‘Ranger’

germination-after-bushfire“Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.  We call on it and it calls to us.  This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for.  It is something like what you call contemplation.  Many Australians understand that Aboriginal people have a special respect for Nature.  The identity we have with the land is sacred and unique.”

These are the words of Miriam-Rose Ungurmurr first uttered in 1998 during the Pope’s visit to Australia and echoing in my mind on recent occasions.   Last weekend I had an opportunity to experience first hand, how it is we can tune into our true selves through the process of Dadirri. With other like-minded people, we gathered under the big shady tree overlooking the community oval at Daly River.  Miriam-Rose was there, as this is her home.  Also holding us in this space, was Judy Atkinson, another wise Indigenous soul, known for her trauma-informed work with communities.   My interest in attending this gathering is mostly about how I, as a non-Indigenous woman can walk alongside my Indigenous brothers and sisters on their healing journeys.  I have a strong sense of ‘we’re in this together’.

Miriam was quick to point out that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing.  It’s just that White fellas have not been given an opportunity to practice it.  There is certainly a lot being written in the Western world at the moment on mindfulness meditation and this is probably the closest thing there is to understanding the practice of dadirri.  Judy says mindful practice is “being put up as the mantra as the response to trauma”.  Dadirri goes deeper.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be connected spiritually to the country, being in nature and listening to the rhythm of the land.  While I won’t ever fully understand Aboriginal people’s unique sense of belonging, Miriam gave us some clues as to how this comes to be.  She asks us to sit in quiet still awareness and contemplate ‘Who are you’ and ‘how do you know who you are?’  This requires further and deeper reflection.  Who are you with?  Who are you connected to?  Who are your ancestors?  Where did your ancestors journey from to allow you to be in this place at this time?  This is something every human being can come to know if you find the stories and listen intentionally.  It is like finding and listening with purpose to the spring that is bubbling within each of us, a source of energy, of answers to life’s questions.  I couldn’t help but imagine that for someone who has experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma, this could be quite confronting.  Consider adult children who were removed from their families and don’t know who their family is, their language or their country.  This spring may be full of tears –  a well too deep to access.  For me in my white skin, going within, is much less threatening.  For I have had a privileged, safe and nurturing upbringing.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the level of despair, self destruction and pain amongst Aboriginal families and communities.  The science of epigenetics tells us that trauma is now altering the genetic material of children being born today.  And so even if the trauma did stop now (which it isn’t – families are still having their children removed from them at greater rates) how does one begin to even start the process of healing?  I saw this despair on the face of an Aboriginal woman in our gathering whose heart was crying out for help for the fifth generation of children being sexually abused in her community.  Can healing begin when the trauma is still happening?

Judy’s reflection advocated that becoming mindful and knowing who we truly are, allows us to have a clearer vision on how we can change the systems of injustice.  Judy’s notion of ‘community of care’ is like the tree we sit under that is connected underground through root systems to other trees.  These roots, although unseen are continuously connected through strong kinship systems and culture.  Not even a bushfire can destroy 40,000 years of these connections.

growth-after-bushfireMiriam went on to offer a reflection on the Pope’s words.

 “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 that tree we have endured the flames and we still have the power to be re-born.”

There was a sense of hope restored in the group.  Even though bushfire after devastating bushfire sweeps through the land, scorching the trees, this is always followed by refreshing wet season rains, new leaves, new growth.  Miriam says it’s a natural thing for trees to drop their leaves and the growth always comes back.  Her people always cry in excitement when the first rains arrive.  They cry for the people that have passed away in the previous year and their tears wash the bad things away.  The plants, the trees, the land is cleansed.  A new season is starting.  Hope returns.

So here were Miriam’s final words to us.  ‘The person you are now, is it really who you are?  Is this your true spirit doing what you’re doing now?  Is there something in you, that is really you?  If so, use this gift to help others.  Believe in yourself.  There is only one of you.  You are special.  ‘There are always dreams dreaming us’ says Judy.

The practice of dadirri helps me to tune in to my purpose in being here.  I am not the firefighter.  I am the ranger burning off and establishing fire breaks.  With more rangers in the world working from a harm prevention framework, we can minimise the number of devastating bushfires, knowing that nature will always be there to heal, regenerate and restore.

It’s about healing too, not just therapy

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

The past month has been a very exciting one as the Healing Our Children (HOC) program starts to finally spread its message across the Tiwi Islands.  For me, the program represents best culturally-safe, social work practice by combining scientific knowledge from the Western World with Aboriginal worldviews, cultural traditions and healing knowledge.  Neither is prefaced as being superior to the other, with both adding value to the theme of prevention and healing from trauma.  The resources we have developed represent four years of consultation with Elders about the best ways of engaging Aboriginal women in the communities we work.

The smoking ceremony is one traditional practice that is very important in Tiwi culture to promote healing.  That is why a healing activity or ceremony has been built into the groupwork program.   The smoking ceremony offers a space for mums and their children (if present) a place to heal and Elders to be empowered in leadership of this traditional practice.

On our first HOC bush camp, I had the opportunity to interview Molly Munkara, an Elder from Wurrumiyanga, to share insight into the spiritual significance of the smoking ceremony.

Molly Munkara

Molly Munkara

“Long time ago, Tiwi people used smoking ceremony as part of their ritual.  Healing is part of our traditional culture.  The smoking ceremony….it cleanses our mind…and heart.”

Molly says she was only 4 or 5 when she was taught about the smoking ceremony.

“We learnt that from our grandparents…our ancestors.  They handed down that smoking ceremony to our parents.  I was joining in, looking, participating in what they do.”

Molly shared the significance of the ceremony at sorry time.

“When a person passes away, it’s in-laws of the deceased person that prepares the smoking ceremony and the Elders too.  We have a meeting, discussion first.  And they talk to the families about it, when it is going to happen…

They send a message around the smoking ceremony is happening on that particular day.  And they gather round.  Families or anybody who have connected to that person’s life [can participate].”

On this night, I witnessed a smoking ceremony with a different purpose – healing of the self in mind, body and spirit.  The Elders began by calling out to the spirit ancestors for keeping us safe, instructions for the children on what to do, a song and prayer from the Catholic tradition.  After the leaves of the bloodwood tree were set alight, crackling under the heat, Elders used small bunches bathed in smoke to swipe the shoulders and head of those being blessed.

Bloodwood leaves for smoking

Bloodwood leaves for smoking

“We’re going to gather around the smoking ceremony to heal our spirit… purify our minds and cleanse our bad spirit away.  Bring the good spirit inside us.”

“A couple of ladies will do the smoking, they build up the fire and put their leaves in the drum, and then when they are ready, they will call.  We will walk through the smoke.”

I wondered allowed whether Molly had any particular thoughts in her mind during the ceremony.

“We think about things that are not right in our lives.  And we’ll throw that away with the smoke.   And then we think about new life after that, new beginnings.  What are we going to do that’s really good for us and our lives. We do get some [messages] from elders, what they want us to do.  Like get a better life.  Try not to fall into that same bad cycle, that goes around.  Try to get out of it.  And then start to form a new life, good life.  So we can be happy and in good health. Feeling great about myself.  We really need to love ourselves too.  And treat ourselves with respect.”

Preparing the fire

Preparing the fire

Molly reflected on how the smoking ceremony has been healing for her own life.

“The smoking ceremony has helped me a lot in my mind and heart, physically and emotionally.   [Physically], it helps you, in what you do [not with illness or disease].  Like going out with family, spending time with them, going out hunting with the Elders, gathering, singing and joining in any other activities.”

It’s an honour and privilege to be invited onto traditional country to not only allow us to run our program but also be invited to participate in traditional healing practices such as the smoking ceremony.

For anyone practising social work in Indigenous communities, I encourage you to think about the sort of traditional knowledge and practices that can be respectfully acknowledged and built into your program.  Too often I hear about cultural practices that are dying out or lost forever.  Many of these offer opportunities for Aboriginal people to help themselves.

Our work should be about healing too, not just therapy.

“Let’s Do Dadirri” – Using your Inner Wisdom on this rocky Journey called Life

IMG_2122How often do you stop and sit in quiet still awareness, open to listening to what your inner voice is saying to you?  For some, this might be too confronting, perhaps afraid of what they might hear.  However for the majority, it seems our busy world distracts us from this important human task.  Those who practice regular meditation will have some idea of what it is like to sit in quiet still awareness, and be open to receiving new insight into what the body and mind needs at any particular point in time.  For those with no time to do nothing – you could be missing out on so much more that life has to offer!

Before I moved to the Northern Territory, I had been told by two different employers that I should “stop and smell the roses occasionally”.  This is difficult to hear by one who is passionately driven in their work.   Then I came across the words of Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Aboriginal Elder from Nauiyu (Daly River) who talks about Dadirri like it is the essence of human life.

“Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’.

When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening.”

“In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting.”

These words really struck me.  And I have carried them with me from the moment I stepped onto Aboriginal land to work with the Tiwi people.  For the first four months, I hardly spoke a word. I sat around with women Elders drinking cups of tea and listened as they generously poured out their stories – about them, about their community, about their people, about their hopes and dreams, and about what they didn’t want whitefellas doing to them anymore.  I learnt a lot by keeping my mouth shut.

Since injuring my back in January this year, I have had a lot more hours lying around in quiet still awareness, listening to what my body needs.  This has tended to be more reliable than the advice from doctors, physios, chiros and even well intentioned friends.

Dadirri doesn’t have to take a long time out of your day or be some mindblowing, life course altering transformation.  For instance, today I stopped to contemplate an out-of-the-blue email from an interstate colleague I’ve never met face-to-face, suggesting I read a book called “Leadership Beyond Good Intentions”.  She courageously suggested that “this book might help you look after yourself…as you continue your social leadership journey.”  I didn’t even realise I was on a social leadership journey!  I wondered whether others would have laughed off this observation, made a polite response and hit Delete.  But her insight got me contemplating.  What can she see that I can’t?  Where am I being lead?  Well, there was only one way to find out.  I ordered the book.

Anyway, it was all this contemplation that led me to write this blog…..

What are the signposts in your life that you haven’t noticed because you’ve been too busy?
What do the sights, smells and sounds around you have you feeling and thinking?
What is that piece of music or the bird that pooped on your head, really saying!
Stop and take notice.  Chances are your thoughts will be a reflection of what is important to you, who you really are and what you need.   It’s your inner wisdom talking.

“[Dadirri] is in everyone. It is not just an Aboriginal thing.”—Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann

An Aboriginal Perspective of Grieving and Healing from Loss

P1040238

Pukumani ceremony burial poles of the Tiwi people.

One of the saddest things about working in remote communities of Northern Australia is the constant and ongoing presence of grief as families mourn the loss of loved ones. To have four funerals a month seems the norm. If this occurred in a small white community of 1,500 people, this would be considered outrageous! But in Aboriginal communities, it is the reality of their lives.
If you are Aboriginal, you can expect to die 10 to 12 years earlier than non-Aboriginal people. But the gap widens to 14 years if you are Aboriginal, male and live in the Northern Territory. This is worse than many third world countries!
Topping the biggest killers list are heart disease, cancers and injuries. The NT can also lay claim to the highest suicide rate in Australia – 20 deaths per 100,000 – because one third of its population is comprised of Aboriginal people.   The majority of these suicides involve Aboriginal children and young men.
So you’re starting to get the picture. Aboriginal people are grieving the loss of loved ones every day! Healing is an ongoing process where no end point is ever reached.

As I interviewed Shane Kerinauia this week, his home community of Pirlangimpi were awaiting the outcome of a young man missing for six days. It now appears he was taken by a crocodile. I can’t imagine how a small community of 400 deals with this!  But they will. They will cry together. They will seek comfort in each other. And they will continue on, because that is just what they do.  For Shane, our guest blogger, he often thinks about the 3 really close school mates he lost at a young age and more recently, a cousin in a car accident. One thing that helps ease the pain is thinking about good memories.
“I keep thinking about the old school days. We used to share stories and talk about playing sports. I used to go around to his place, to his brothers and he used to come over to my place.   We used to share things. We used to talk about his AFL footy star. We used to bag each other out or make a bet. If your team wins, I buy you a drink. I feel like he’s still alive again. I will still have the good memories for the rest of my life.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle the cultural obligations that come with attending ceremonies, with personal responsibilities such as holding down a job.
“I missed his funeral because I had to work. It’s hard. I haven’t seen his family yet. It’s the feelings that will come. I feel shame, not confronting them. I want to leave that shame to rest. Not to think about it too much. I am comfortable with taking the time I need. You can go and visit the family later and it’s okay.”

Shane talks about the good ways of coping with difficult feelings.
“Last month or too, I’ve been down a lot. I’ve got other mates I can go and yarn to. My mate is feeling down as well. We have a conversation, reminiscing together about the school days. [We’re] mates sharing the tears together. Hugs and crying help too. I talk to my partner about the feelings in my head and she gives me a hug. I’ve been talking to my mum too. I share my feelings with lots of different people. It’s not Tiwi way, to drink, get drunk and then cry. I don’t believe in that.”

Shane says an important part of the healing process for Tiwi people is about giving the person a proper ceremony.
“I believe in getting together and grieve proper way. Before they bury the person, family get together and do a healing. Singing, sharing things to each other, just having a laugh, sharing food together, BBQ, good memories.   We listen to the Elders. They tell us you gotta be strong. Don’t let that memory affect you….. When a person dies, other people that have died come along, just to let us know they’re here with us, to take the person away with them. It’s a comforting thing. We sit down quiet.   Next day we have smoking ceremony. It’s very important for us to have this ceremony, to smoke the spirit away. If we don’t smoke the house, the spirit is still living there.“

Tiwi people have a special spiritual connection to those that have gone before them.
“Sometimes when we feel the energy of a person, it’s a comforting thing. Once when I was at the pool, I could feel [my partners dad] there, telling me to go back to work. It was nice to hear. Everytime I am there, I can hear him. Sometimes I get goosebumps. It puts a smile on [my partners] face. It’s like he’s watching over me. I feel comfortable with it. Safe. He gives me a message. “

And Shane’s final words about healing from loss?
“Be strong. Be yourself. I am strong for my family. My relatives are the most important thing in my life. I just want to do things I want to do. Fishing and hunting and camping. Go and visit families and friends. If my daughter even has to go through what I’ve been through, I’ll be able to support her.”

The strong spirit and resilience of Aboriginal people’s lives in coping with loss shines through in Shane’s story and so many people like him. I thank him for his willingness to share his story.

ShaneShane Kerinaiua is currently employed at CatholicCare NT with The Strong Men’s Program. He won the Aust-Swim Water Safety National Award in 2011. He holds the record for the most goals kicked in a year in the Tiwi Football League.