“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 confronting world of working with Aboriginal Youth in Detention’ with Daniel Hastwell

Photos courtesy of ABC

I still can’t get this image out of my head.  A youth detained at the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre is forcibly restrained and hooded.   As Australians watched on in disbelief at the shocking Four Corners footage in July 2016, our Prime Minister quickly responded, setting up a Royal Commission to investigate practices inside the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention facilities and child protection system.

As part of a suite of supports put in place for young people and families making submissions to the Royal Commission, Relationships Australia was funded to provide counselling services.   One of those to join the team, moving from Adelaide to Darwin was Daniel Hastwell.
In Epsiode 13 of ‘Talk the Walk’, you’ll get an inside look at what it’s really like to work alongside a Royal Commission using a trauma informed approach to counselling.
With over 90% of youth in detention being Aboriginal, this has got to be one of the toughest and most important jobs in the country at the moment.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Daniel’s reaction to the Four Corners report which sparked the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory
  • Daniel Hastwell – Counsellor, Royal Commission Support Service

    Daniel’s previous experience working alongside Aboriginal consultants with Aboriginal families in child protection and hospital social work

  • What sparked Daniel to up and leave Adelaide for the Northern Territory
  • Daniel’s interest in culture and it’s connection to personal values of respect for the land
  • A day in the life of a Royal Commission Support Service counsellor
  • What it’s like to work with traumatised young Aboriginal men and youth
  • Using personal disclosure to build a relationship of trust and the challenges of engagement
  • celebrating the small moments and stories of success
  • outcomes for people who have shared their story with the Royal Commission
  • the hopes that clients have expressed for change within the system and Daniel’s hopes for the Recommendations due in November
  • The need for early intervention and prevention support services for young people

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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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

Contact Daniel Hastwell via daniel(at)ra-nt.org.au

‘Acknowledging the suitcases that Aboriginal women carry’ with Anni Hine Moana

Anni Hine Moana, my guest this week on ‘Talk the Walk’ has over 40 years of experience from counselling in alcohol, drugs, gambling and mental health to supervision, lecturing and curriculum development.  This is a fascinating conversation with a researcher whose passion is to see tangible outcomes for Aboriginal people accessing appropriate counselling services.

Anni completed a Masters of Counselling in 2011 exploring the case for the inclusion of Narrative Therapy in counselling for Indigenous AOD clients.  Anni is now undertaking her phD on the ‘relationship between the self-conscious emotion of shame and alcohol, experienced by Australian Aboriginal women living in urban and regional areas’.  In this episode, Anni talks about her early research findings and the implications for social workers and other allied health professionals in their clinical work.

In episode 12 of ‘Talk the Walk’, we explore:

  • Anni’s emerging themes of the impact of shame and the ‘white gaze’ on Aboriginal women’s lived experience
  • How shame presents itself in the counselling room
  • The one basic skill every therapist can do to be respectful and develop a meaningful therapeutic relationship with Aboriginal women
  • The relationship between Aboriginal women’s shame and alcohol use; and the stigma associated with drinking
  • How Anni’s Maori culture has influenced her research; and the connection to experiences of shame within her own family
  • Key findings from Anni’s research and support for a narrative therapeutic approach to practice
  • The importance of listening for the ‘injustice part’ of women’s stories, the effects of racism on Aboriginal women’s lives and the role for counsellors in naming this
  • looking at your own ‘history book’
  • Challenges Anni has found in her work and research, how this impacts on her and what inspires her about the future

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

‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’ by Patrick Wolfe

Stan Grants speech on racism and the Australian dream

Tree of Life by Ncazelo Ncube

Aborginal Narrative Practice: Honouring Storylines of Pride, Strength and Creativity by Barbara Wingard, Carolnanha Johnson and Tileah Drahm-Butler

David Denborough

Aunty Barb Wingard

Jane Lester

Violet Bacon

Maya Angelou

Ben Harper singing ‘I’ll rise’

Our Own History Book: Exploring culturally acceptable responses to Australian Aboriginal women who have experience of feelings of shame and are seeking counselling for problems with alcohol’ by Anni Hine Moana

Re-storying alcohol use amongst Aboriginal Australians. by Anni Hine Moana

Follow Anni Hine Moana on academia.com or email at annihinemoana(at)gmail(dot)com

‘The Reconciliation Dance’ with Pamela Trotman

Get your dancing shoes on as we head into Episode 7 of Talk the Walk with Pamela Trotman.
Pamela has been dancing around Reconciliation circles since the 1976 Referendum, granting Aboriginal people the vote and removing the White Australia policy.   Pamela’s whole life has been about appreciating the diversity around her, since the days of growing up in Gunnedah and hanging out with the kids in the ‘blacks camp’.  Starting out as a young, twenty-something social worker in Redfern, Pamela’s career spans 50 years in child protection, mental health and policy working in a variety of non-government organisations in NSW and the Northern Territory.  She has authored and presented on the areas of Aboriginal affairs and trauma, both nationally and internationally.
Come join us on the dance floor as Pamela reflects on five decades of the most memorable steps, lessons from mentors and learnings for life.

In this episode of ‘Talk the Walk’, we explore:

  • Pamela’s early days working in Redfern at a time of great political activism
  • How our white privilege has us acting and behaving in ways that are racist
  • How Pamela came to view her own culture of English aristocracy through the eyes of Aboriginal people to become an effective social worker
  • Reconciliation being a journey of white recognising their internalised dominance and black recognising their internalised oppression
  • Memories of Pamela’s childhood growing up in a segregated town and being one of few who ventured into the blacks camp
  • The influence of family values and class privilege on Pamela’s life and work
  • How Aboriginal people are treated as second class workers in our organisations
  • The normalisation and legitimisation of internalised dominance and internalised oppression
  • Pamela’s time with the AASW working on the Indigenous Portfolio and setting up the first Indigenous committee
  • The Social work profession as a reflection of society whose heart has hardened in recent times
  • reflections on the NT Emergency Intervention
  • how social workers can reflect on their own internalised dominance
  • the principles of peace and non-violence that have shaped Pamela’s life and work
  • Pamela’s biggest challenge and what it means to be a human
  • Why Pamela loves living and working in Darwin
  • The healing powers of the Reconciliation dances, a metaphor for living one’s life and work
  • The Dance Creation Story and its influence on Pamela’s social work practice
  • An inspiring story of the impact of Pamela’s work discovered 45 years later
  • The role of mirror neurons in empathy and understanding the woundedness of the other
  • Acting with integrity

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below.
Subscribe to episodes of ‘Talk the Walk’ by email via our Home Page.  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.

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

‘ The Locals, Identity, Place and Belonging in Australia and Beyond’ by Robert Garbutt

‘Heterosexism:  Addressing internalized dominance’ by Robin DiAngelo

About Paulo Freire  

‘Transcending Internalised Dominance’ by Pamela Trotman in ‘Reconciliation and Australian Social Work’ edited by Dr Christine Fejo-King and Jan Poona

About Mahatma Ghandi

‘The healing powers of the reconciliation dances’ by Pamela Trotman in Reconciliation and Aboriginal Health, edited by Dr Christine Fejo-King, Dr Aleeta Fejo and Jan Poona

‘Mirror Mirror, our brains are hard-wired for empathy’ by Babette Rothschild

‘Trauma and Recovery’ by Judith Herman

‘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

A Shout Out from the Treetops for Australia’s generosity

Lucy shouting from the treetops in Tassie – April 2017.

I want to shout from the treetops.  Yippee!   I am overwhelmed by the level of interest and demand for our therapeutic children’s picture book, ‘The Life of Tree’.  We’ve even had media requests from the most unexpected places.

I’m also here to shout out to those generous people who gave to our crowdfunding campaign.  We raised almost $2500 which is allowing us to send a whopping 99 free books out to remote women’s refuges across Australia.  So far I’ve posted 47 books to every remote emergency accommodation shelter in the Northern Territory and Western Australia , directly targeting Aboriginal children escaping domestic and family violence in their communities.

As promised, here is our Shout Out to the donors on Chuffed who wanted to know where their book ended up.  But thank you to all 63 individuals and organisations who kindly donated.

Wadeye – Toni Woods

Photo: Glenn Campbell, Crinkling News, March 2017.

Yuendemu – Jennifer Treyfrey-Bath

Angurugu – Christine Sellman

Raminginging – Annette Bex

Maningrida – Jean John

Peppimenarti – Judy Byrne

Wurrumiyanga – Anne Davis

Kalkarindji – Shaun Pearce

Lajamanu – Bridget Verrier

Ti Tree – Verity Kowal

Wugularr – Erin McKeegar

Ngukurr – Barry Sullivan

Ntaria – Jana Norman

Yarralin – Simon Faulkner

Our hope is that ‘The Life of Tree’ will be read to children by support workers in these refuges, to help them talk about and make sense of the trauma they have experienced.   We also have hopes that refuge staff will engage in strength-building conversations that acknowledge the skills, abilities and knowledge that children have in surviving and coping with storms in their lives.  We can’t wait to hear how these books are received in the refuges.
In the meantime, we are starting to hear some great stories about how other people are using the book in their communities.  After buying 10 copies for their school, Gunbalanya community is incorporating the use of ‘The Life of Tree’ into their school curriculum.  Cops For Kids, a charity in South Australia are funding 20 books in schools in the APY Lands.  Our book is being snapped up by a diverse range of services from rehabilitation, community health, mental health and Aboriginal health, to legal, counselling, foster care, disability and child care services.  We are posting from Tasmania to Darwin, Perth to Alice Springs.

We continue to get messages of thanks for the free books and appreciation for our work.  This means so much to Christine and I.

Perhaps we’ll write and paint some more one day if it helps those who have experienced trauma…. but for now, we’ll keep shouting!  Yippee!

Externalising the ‘Storms of Life’: Creating Movement Towards Healing

Top End storm over Fogg Dam. Image by I. Morris.

Top End storm over Fogg Dam.  Image by I. Morris.

What I love about using art in therapeutic groupwork with Aboriginal women is giving them an opportunity to do some gentle inner reflection during the creation process, without causing retraumatisation.  The idea from narrative therapy of being positioned on the riverbank to look at a problem, rather than feeling tossed around in the river, influenced the development of an activity we’ve called the ‘the storms of life’.  This exercise was developed with an Elder with the intention of allowing women who have experienced violence or other trauma, to observe their problem moving away from them and letting go of whatever may be holding them back.

Any kids of art materials can be used such as paint, pastels, pencils or collage bits and pieces.  The women are instructed to close or lower their eyes and imagine they are sitting on a beach, with water lapping at their feet and the sound of waves and a gentle breeze.  They are safe and comfortable in this place.  They do not have to leave this place of safety.  They are encouraged to picture a storm in the distance over the horizon, slowly moving away from them.  This storm holds memories of those things that have happened in the past, that still cause uncomfortable or painful feelings for them.  After a few minutes when the women have a clear picture in their mind, they are encouraged to draw what they see.  It is important the women stick with the metaphor and do not draw the bad things that have happened.  You may like to encourage the women to think about colour; if it is dark or light, loud or soft, heavy or light; and the presence, intensity and distance of clouds, lightning, rain or wind.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

I usually give women a good 20 to 30 minutes to draw or create.  There is never any pressure for women to share their drawing however some choose to do so.  This has been a powerful affirmation with others in the group as witnesses, of women’s intentions to make one small change for themselves or their children.

The fire is a strong symbol of healing, as a gathering place for sorting out problems, sharing stories and offering support to each other.  Tiwi Elders have also used fire as a way of ridding bad spirits.  When we have run this activity on healing bush camps, the women have been keen to burn their drawings as a way of letting go of bad feelings.

It has been interesting to observe the sense of movement that is created on paper through the externalisation of ‘the storms of life’.  This movement has transferred to women as a collective following their traditional instincts of letting go of bad spirits, creating a profound sense of healing.

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.

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice

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Using bear cards to give children a voice in the ‘third person’

One of the things I have been most passionate about in my work with children and their families is being able to give children a voice.  Sometimes this can be very challenging.  Children can be left silenced by their experience, especially in situations of domestic and family violence.  Feelings like shame, sadness, anger, guilt, despair and fear prevent children from being able to find words.

As a counsellor in remote communities, it would be very easy to become complacent and dismiss the effects of violence as normalised behaviours in children; because violence is something many children may witness and learn to live with.  But it is certainly not normal and violence shouldn’t be tolerated.  It is my experience on the Tiwi Islands working alongside local people that children, especially boys, are too scared to talk about the violence occurring in their families.  It could cause further shame for them or expose them to further punishment or abuse if they speak out.

So the challenge is….how do you allow children to have a voice without exposing them to further shame or trauma?  Of course, one does not necessarily have to speak about the details of a bad memory in order to begin the process of healing.  In fact, neuroscience suggests that sometimes it is physically impossible to recall all the details of a traumatic event anyway, due to the brains response to toxic stress and its effect on memory.  Some children may not be consciously aware of what has happened to them even though the body remembers.
The goal then is to help children integrate and transform their trauma experience without having to recall any facts.  The child will be able to relate to feelings, thoughts, sensations in the body and compulsions to behave in particular ways, even if they do not link this to any past hurts.

One way I have tried to assist integration and help children to make sense of their experience is encouraging the use of ‘third person’ voice.  Play using miniature animals or puppets, drawing or play-doh creates all sorts of opportunities for imagined creatures to tell a story.  For me, the bear cards have been a great resource in shifting children into this safe space; to explore what might have happened for bear to have an angry, scared or sad face, what is happening in his body and what he is driven to do.  The process also fits really well with the idea of ‘externalisation’ in narrative therapy, allowing the child to see that a problem sits outside of themselves, rather than taking up permanent residence inside them.  I have written elsewhere about the use of masks in therapy to assist with externalisation of feelings which are impacting in negative ways on children.

Another indirect way of assisting communication in therapy is through the use of metaphor.  In my experience running group-work programs on Aboriginal family bush camps, I’ve discovered the power of using the tree metaphor to assist people to share their strengths, abilities and skills for getting through hard times.

It is through my discovery of the power of metaphor for communication and the challenge of working with Aboriginal boys, that inspired me to write a children’s therapeutic picture book.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses the tree metaphor to explore the issues of domestic and family violence.  My hope was that by reading this story, Aboriginal boys in particular, might be invited into a safe conversation about their feelings, thoughts and actions in their own lives.

Over the past six months I have been mentoring Yolngu artist and friend, Christine Burrawanga, to create the images for the story.  This is a story that is very close to Christine’s heart and so her strong culture, passion and enthusiasm to make a difference for her people has really shaped the book.

Our hope is that ‘The Life of Tree’ is a key to opening the door to the voices of children which have been locked away by the experience of violence.  Healing from the trauma of violence can be a long journey.  But if that door is opened ever so slightly as a child, perhaps the emotional burden they are carrying, will be lightened just a little bit.

Read Part II – Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice.

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.