Just one day left to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Cassie and other Aboriginal Support Workers use various ‘talking tools’ in their work to assist clients accessing the community Safe House.

A month ago I set out with a goal of getting my new book out to as many remote communities as I could, so that Aboriginal children might be better placed to speak up about their experience of domestic and family violence.

This week, as I revisited my hopes and intentions to achieve this goal, I wondered whether Aboriginal Support Workers in Safe Houses across the Northern Territory would also be able to see the benefits of using this simple resource with their clients.

This week I tracked down one such worker in Cassie Daniels who works at Milikapiti Safe House on the Tiwi Islands. Sharing a digital copy of ‘The Life of Tree’ with her, I was delighted to hear of her excitement that this resource would be heading her way very soon.

Cassie revealed that it had really got her thinking about how this book might be used to assist children and families that stay at the Safe House.  As well as with individual clients, Cassie sees the potential for using the story with weekly women’s groups and at community events that focus on family and domestic violence.  She says

I love the pictures.  It’s easy to see the pictures and talk about them relating to their self experience”.

In considering how Safe House workers might put extra supports in place for children who have been exposed to domestic or family violence, Cassie goes on to say that this book will be a source of reassurance.

Older women in the community who have the wisdom and knowledge of history that’s in line with this book [will] give hope to children who are experiencing storms at home; [knowing] that they do have roots that are strong in their identity [and] through other family to help.”

If you would like to empower other Aboriginal women in their communities to help children talk about their experience of domestic and family violence and get the help they need to stay safe, then head over to our crowdfunding page.

There’s just 24 hours to go to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’.

Thanks for your support.

If you know how to ‘Walk the Talk’ then let’s ‘Talk the Walk’

Walking the Talk on a Bathurst Island beach

In Wiktionary, to ‘walk the talk’ means ‘to perform actions consistent with one’s claims’.  I first came across this term in Reconciliation circles.  It implied that if you really wanted to make a difference in the lives of Aboriginal people, then don’t just talk the rhetoric; you have to get off your backside and walk with them in the fight for justice and recognition.  To me, it is also important to walk alongside, not in front and not behind.

So how do we walk alongside in solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, when practising social work, a profession which has a history of baggage like removing children from families?  This was a question I was trying to answer when I graduated with my Social Work degree.

At that time, working with Indigenous people seemed like a daunting task.  I remember feeling so inspired and passionate about living out my social work values of human rights and social justice, that I upped and moved my young family from big city life to the remote North.  To be honest, it was scarey, I didn’t know where to start and I had no real mentors to show me the way.   Like many others, I was thrown in the deep end, flying out to remote communities, with nothing but a listening ear to offer.  For two years, I felt like I was in a big bucket of water, with just my mouth sticking out, gasping for air, just surviving.  I continually questioned ‘am I doing this right’?  Am I making a difference?  Or am I contributing to the problem?

Most of us come with good intentions, bringing all of our head, heart and hand to the work, but how do we do it in a way that is decolonising and authentic.  What does best practice social work in Australia’s indigenous communities actually look like on the ground?

‘Talk the Walk’ will feature interviews with those who have trod a well-known path.

This is the question I hope to explore in a new podcast, I’ll be developing and launching in the coming months.  Don’t throw out your textbooks, but I believe there is real value in hearing stories of experience, straight from the mouths of those covered in dirt, sweat and dust.  “Talk the Walk” will feature interviews with those working in the field as well as traditional voices with words of wisdom for the whitefellas in white Toyotas.

My hope is that “Talk the Walk” will be a valuable resource for graduating social work students preparing for the journey ahead, and a watering hole for the rest of us who continue to learn every day!

If you or someone you know would make a great interview, please drop me a line through our Contact Us page.  They could be a social worker, community development worker, counsellor or other allied health professional, or an Elder or Indigenous community member.

Yes, I can see the irony here.  A podcast is all about talking.  So my thinking is that, the podcast is a learning tool to help all of us get off our butts and do the walking.

So if you know how to walk the talk, tell me your story.   Let’s ‘Talk the Walk’ together.

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.

The Power of Story in Standing up to Violence: A Child’s Perspective

Patricia readingIn Aboriginal culture, storytelling is a way of connecting with the relationship system, an ancient tradition that has been practiced throughout the generations.  Often it is Elders telling their grandchildren stories about their ancestors, that have great significance for their future lives.

In Western cultures it could be adults reading fairy tales or adventure stories to children at bedtime.

Children are great story tellers too.

If we take the time to stop and listen carefully, they have great adventures to tell.  Children are active little people, learning new skills and taking on knowledge from role models around them.  These things help them grow and develop, and come in handy when times get tough.

When children are living with violence in their families, they are drawing on the skills, knowledge and strengths they have learnt, to help them cope, keep themselves safe and stay strong.  They are standing up to violence!
Children who live with violence in their families and communities, come from all parts of Australia and many different cultural backgrounds.

When I was working as a children’s counsellor in remote Aboriginal communities between 2009 and 2013, I heard many stories of violence and trauma and helped the children document their strengths and abilities in surviving these hard times.  I recently reconnected with one of these boys whom I supported for several years and is now in high school.  He and his Aunty gave me permission to share publicly one of the stories he wrote, in the hope that it might help other children who are also experiencing violence or abuse.

Feel free to download and share this story with any children you may be working with.
A story about Anger

You or your client may also like to send a story back to us (email lucy@metaphoricallyspeaking.com.au).  I am happy to send on messages to the author of this story.  Here are some questions that might guide your message.

  • As you listened to the story, were there any words that caught your attention? Which ones?
  • When you heard these words, what pictures came to your mind about the person and what is important to them (eg. their hopes, dreams, values and beliefs)?   Can you describe that picture?
  • What is it about your own life that helped you connect with these words and pictures?
  • How might you think and act differently, after having heard this story?

We hope by sharing this story, that other voices of children living with violence are heard loud and strong.

I have a dream that we might be able to gather a whole collection of children’s stories of experiences of trauma and resilience.  And that this might be shared with the adults who have used violence or abuse in their relationships.

This may be just the tool needed to help those languishing in our prisons to think about the impact of their behavior on their loved ones and the possibility of a different way of living.

How a Life of Devotion to Kinship Care saved Patricia from Death by Heart Disease

Patricia works as a Child and Family Support Worker at Relationships Australia NT

Patricia works as a Child and Family Support Worker at Relationships Australia NT

It was a total accident that Patricia Munkara came to be employed at Relationships Australia as an Aboriginal Child and Family Support Worker.  Another Patricia in the community had applied for the job and when I went knocking on doors trying to find her, I ended up going to the wrong house.  Or the right house depending on how you look at it.  It was Patricia Munkara that ended up with the job.  And I am so grateful she did.  Now five years later, Patricia has also joined the Healing Our Children project.

There are many things that I admire about Patricia, not least of which was her decision to adopt her grandson six years ago and raise him as her own.  This required Patricia to turn her back on a life of gambling, smoking and family unrest.

“He [Patrick] was like an underweight baby, 6 months old, and he was all covered in sores.  We didn’t have welfare that time.  But luckily I talked to my niece about me and my partner, giving him to us.  ‘We can grow him up’ I said.  He [Patrick] made me change.”

“I used to gamble, get involved in fighting and violence, arguing with other family.  When Patrick came into my care, I learnt bit by bit…. to look after him”

“It changed my life you know, doing good things for him.”

“I want to teach him growing up, take him to school everyday, make sure I keep him healthy.  When he is sick I take him to clinic straight away.”

Patricia had clear hopes and dreams for Patrick including teaching him to be independent, work for himself and look after himself.

“Mum was a rolemodel.  She taught me everything.  How to be independent myself.  ‘Look after yourself’ my mum said, ‘maybe in the future you’ll have your brothers grandchildren or children [to look after]’.  And that’s true, her word.  She taught me how to hunt when there’s no food…She said ’You might go hunting for your brothers kids or grandchildren’.  Now I’m doing that.”

“My mum was an adopted kid too.  That’s what I’m doing now.  Me and Rosita (my sister) growing up kids”. 

“I don’t want him (Patrick) when he finish up school to walk around like bludger, doing bad things.  Instead [he do] good things.”

One of Patricia’s other strength is her faith and culture.  This is something that was also passed down from her mum and dad.

“I had to pray, go to church.  I remember crying for my mum and dad when they used to go to church.  I used to run behind them when they leave me home.”

“I always be with my dad when he do that kulama ceremony…. He taught me hunting, where my country is, from each place.  I still remember going to our country.  Our dad took us there when I was a little girl.  And we’re teaching our children now.”

Patricia working in the Healing Our Children project.

Patricia working in the Healing Our Children project.


Patricia says one of the big motivations for her to become a carer was her knowledge that Patrick was going to grow up without the love of a father.  This is where Andrew, her partner comes in as a strong male role model.

“… other kids are bullying and teaching him wrong things, behaviour like swearing and backtalk.  I don’t like it… He’s got that cheeky attitude because of those other friends.  So Andrew said ‘OK, bring him here [to Raminginging].  [It’s] my turn, I’m gonna teach him now.  Andrew gonna grow him up and make him man.  So he learn ‘lore’ and he understand behaviour.”

“Andrew will make sure he is [learning about] healthy weight and eating.  Andrew teach him about hunting and bush tucker.“

Life hasn’t been easy for Patricia.  She has suffered from rheumatic heart disease, the number one killer of young people on the Tiwi Islands.

 “I had twice heart surgery.  Before I went to Adelaide I was still crying for [Patrick].  The doctor told me that I had two choices.  Whether you gonna live or whether you gonna finish.  He said to me ‘I give you this pacemaker then you will last longer…and see your grandson growing’.  I said to the doctor ‘I don’t want to die, leave my grandson’.  I want to raise him up, see him grow, have a little family of his own.”

Patricia with Patrick (right) and his younger brother Albert.

Patricia with Patrick (right) and his younger brother Albert.

So strong is her faith, love and devotion to Patrick, Patricia has even cheated death, to make sure she is around to finish what she started.

“Yeah, Jesus and Mary, they were calling out to me and waking me up.  I can remember how I slept, and I was finish, my heart was stopped…When I heard that voice, it was calling out to me get up, get up.  I opened my eyes and I saw that bright light.  I was in a strange room.  I was nearly finish, three days finish, in intensive care… All them nurses, doctors and everything, they had put it [defribulator] on my chest.  It wasn’t them that bought me back to life, because I seen that bright light.  He [Jesus] was still there standing beside me.  He said ‘you not dead, you still alive’.  He said, ‘I know what you worrying for…[you are] too much worrying for Patrick and you didn’t want to leave him behind”.

Patricia also believes in the power of culture for healing, something she learned from her father.

“Our doctor told my mum and dad ‘your child got asthma’.  My dad used to go hunting every day and when I finished school I always see long bum, mangrove worm, mud muscles cooking.  I used to eat that after school.  When Kulama ceremony came, my dad gave me that potato to eat, that chilli potato cured my asthma…. Following week I went to check with doctor, no more puffer for me.  And when they found out, they sent me for x ray, they thought I had lung problem but nothing.  No more short of breath, nothing.”

Patricia is one of the strongest people I know when it comes to tough love and protecting herself from the stress of family humbug.  The warning signs of feeling weak and low blood pressure means she takes some time out for herself.

“I help myself.  I stay home, watch TV.  Sit outside for fresh air or listen to music.  Or go for a walk to the airport and come back.  When night-time come….sometimes say a little bit of prayer then sleep.”

Thinking about the impact that Patricia has had on Patrick’s life, she recalls Patrick telling her recently

“Amawu [grandma], I can remember everything you taught me, I’m still growing and I’m still gonna learn more from you.  And I’m gonna teach my little brother.” 

For Patricia the impact on her is profoundly simple “He has given me new life.”

But the last word should go to Patrick. When I asked him what was the best thing about his grandma he replied

“Amawu tells me go to school and learn everyday.’

Patricia is now considering having another two children come into her kinship care.  Despite being on the Disability Pension, Patricia chooses to work because she is passionate about protecting children in her community and supporting women who are struggling. It’s a privilege to work alongside such an inspirational strong woman.

A Narrative Approach to Working with Women who have Experienced Violent Relationships and others on the Journey of Life.

Narrative therapy is all about re-authoring lives or giving voice to the alternative stories rather than the problem-dominated one.  One of the tools for doing this is seeing life as a journey.  David Denborough (2014) so eloquently revisits Michael White’s (1995) original idea of viewing life as a ‘migration of identity’ in his new book “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives’.   I love this book because it sets out really simple ways we can help ourselves and others to rewrite and reclaim the stories of our lives from trauma or abuse to one of survival and strength.  These documents can then be used to help others who are still on the journey and hitting hard times!

Denborough explores how the journey for a woman leaving a violent relationship can be a difficult one particularly at the point of separation when expectations of finding a sense of wellbeing again can soon plummet into feelings of confusion, insecurity and personal failure.  However, mapping the journey of experiences of despair and wellbeing over time can help women see that a ‘trough’ is just one step on the ‘migration of identity’.  Women can come to appreciate that these feelings are actually an indication of progress and a sign of their commitment to wanting a better life for themselves, rather than slipping backward. It also opens the way for conversations about how to equip oneself to avoid a ‘backlash’, when a women feels vulnerable to plunging back into the despair that tries to take over her life once again. (For more information on creating Migration of Identity Maps see Denborough, 2014, p. 126-7).

One of the other ways of using the Journey of Life metaphor is by drawing the journey as a path or road (Denborough p.132-7).  I think this is a great model when working with Aboriginal people who usually like to draw and appreciate visual storytelling methods. To test this out, I recently sat down with Christine and we created a journey map of her life together using a piece of A4 paper, some textas and pastels.

At the end of the process, this is what it looked like.
IMG_2433

The process is quite lengthy but very important for drawing out thick rich descriptions of the positive events, skills, knowledge and future aspirations of the storyteller.  It begins by taking a large sheet of paper and drawing a winding road from one side to the other.  In the middle, a circle is drawn.  On the left is the ‘Road already travelled’ and the right is ‘the path yet to come’. Beginning on the starting point, stories are recorded in pictures and/or words about ‘Where you have come from’, ‘Favourite places travelled’, ‘Milestones achieved’ and ‘Obstacles overcome’. Here Christine drew a tree to represent her and her children that were hit by lightning.  She recalled her strong mum, Aunty and Grandmother telling her “If you’re gonna stay here, you and the kids will lose your life”.  They all supported her to go the women’s shelter and move away.  This was a major Obstacle Overcome, which after a 4 year wait, resulted in the Milestone of getting her own home.  The middle circle is for recording the ‘Circle of Support’ and above this, a compass of ‘Values, beliefs and principles’ that have guided them on the journey.  Important to Christine is to “not lose my traditional footstep. I want to hold onto my culture and teach it to my kids”.  On the top of the page, a ‘Survival kit’ can be drawn documenting what things they have turned to for strength in hard times. Christine shared “I think about the kids and what’s the next step for them and me.  I paint to make myself busy and keep my mind off things.  The pictures I paint tell stories reminding me about the good things”.

Part 2 is about looking forward.  In a similar way, visual stories are recorded about ‘Where you are heading’, ‘Places you wish to see’, ‘things you wish to make happen’, ‘gifts you wish to give others’, ‘obstacles to overcome’ and even a favourite ‘travelling song’ that will help you on the journey. Christine was clear about the goals she had for her children to finish school, find a job and make a life for themselves.   She has had these hopes ever since they were hit by the lightning obstacle and experienced worry for the children.  “I realised what was happening and took action”.

Part 3 encourages the storyteller to look down at their journey like an eagle would if flying over. This externalising viewpoint allows them to think about ‘Good memories’, ‘Name your journey’ and think about ‘a message to others’.  Christine’s Journey of Life map is now a useful tool for her to talk with other women about lessons learned to get through hard times.  During our Journey conversation Christine stated she wants to “tell stories of what has happened to me (the hard times) so that it helps others…. including young people who are suffering” and to “help others identify the strengths they have to get through hard times.  I try to help my daughter and other family who are stuck in these situations. I tell them you have to help yourself.”

References:

Denborough, D. 2014 “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience”, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

White, M. (1995)  Re-authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays, Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

“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

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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.

A reflection on Western and Aboriginal World Views in Counselling and Social Work Practice

Nami and Lucy

Caught in a wet season storm at Yirrkala Women’s Centre.

I have the most beautiful memories of my work out at NE Arnhemland. I was amazed by how much I achieved in such a short time, given that I did not have relationships in the communities of Nhulunbuy or Yirrkala. The most special part was finding Nami White who I ended up employing to work with me in the Children’s Counselling program. In 2010 she invited me to go to her outstation at Buymarr for three days. I used the time out bush to document how Nami and I were operating in the space where two worldviews meet and I recently stumbled upon my writings. At the time I really appreciated being able to reflect on my social work practice in this way.   I hope it inspires you to do the same.

A MODEL OF PRACTICE: WORKING TOGETHER FOR HEALING

This document brings together ideas from Nami White and Lucy Van Sambeek who work under the SAAP Children’s Project for Relationships Australia. It aims to show how Yolngu and Western worldviews are working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.

This document was created from a conversation which occurred while camping at Buymarr, an outstation where Nami often visits and stays with family when she needs some time away from her community of Yirrkala. On this trip, Nami brought her grandson to provide him with an opportunity for counselling and traditional healing to address some of the difficulties he is experiencing in his life.

This process has given us new insight into each other’s world view and an appreciation for what we each bring to the work, what we are doing and how we are doing it. Perhaps these ideas might be of use one day to other workers who are trying to marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.

Knowledge

Together we bring a wide variety of knowledge to the work, derived from formal education, life experience, observation and history. We have a shared understanding about the nature of domestic and family violence. Lucy says that:

  • Men are more likely to be perpetrators of violence than women
  • Children are the silent sufferers
  • Drugs and alcohol affect people’s behaviour but is not a cause of violence. We know this because not all drunks are violent
  • Children are affected by being a witnesses to violence
  • Sometimes it is difficult to see the effects of violence in children. The quiet child is not necessarily seen as a child of concern.
  • Parents may not recognise the effects violence has on their children
  • Trauma from domestic violence can have life long effects
Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami brings knowledge about domestic violence and family violence watching children and parents in her own community and family. She worked for many years in the voluntary-based women’s night patrol, walking on foot around the community looking out for children. Nami can recognise those children that are quiet and frightened, “don’t want to mix with other children”, and “can’t be who they want to be”. Some children want to be with others but are prevented from doing so by adults who act protectively to keep them away from other children, for fear of getting into a fight. Children take a long time to talk up about their situation with someone they trust – this could be out of fear or shame. They may not want to get into trouble.

Children can take sides with their mother or father depending on what they have been led to believe by the perpetrator. When violence is happening children react different ways, some may try to protect their mother, try to stop the fight and disarm weapons while others may run or hide.

Shame can prevent women from speaking up about domestic violence. Shame can stop men from admitting fault or taking responsibility for their behaviour.   Women are likely to stay in a relationship which is violent as leaving the relationship could bring shame to her and the family. However, if the fear is strong enough women have been known to leave their partners, children and community as they feel they have no choice. They are often seen as the ones to blame.

The Western world would say that formal theories shape our understanding of observations such as these. This includes knowledge about family systems, social learning, behaviour, a holistic view of health, the cycle of violence and trauma responses. Nami also brings knowledge gained from her experiencing of living with a violent and jealous husband. She also knows what it is like to live in a gentle and loving relationship. Living with violence has given her insight into what causes violence, what it feels like to live with violence and what signs to look out for in other women. Nami has seen men become physically sick from perpetrating violence, as a result of the bottling up of guilt and shame. Serious sickness can become a precursor for a change of behaviour in the perpetrator.

Nami has also had two fathers as positive role models who have taught her to be on the look-out for warning signs. Her fathers used to tell Nami stories about times they intervened in family disputes often putting themselves in the face of danger. Their message to her was to practice the same ways, stand up strong to help Yolngu people and live by the lore. With the support of her father, Nami once confronted a hostile man saying “I’m not afraid if you hit me or hurt me”. He taught Nami how to love the enemy. This old man was a respected Elder who knew how to operate in the world of Balanda and Yolngu.

As a girl, Nami also learned about how to live a good life and how to treat other people through women’s ceremonies. We also bring knowledge about recent histories events in Nhulunbuy and surrounding Aboriginal communities, and how these have impacted on the spirit and behaviour of Yolngu people. Nami says the introduction of alcohol has had devastating effects, creating divisions within families, and between the generations, through the perpetration of violence. Elders are sick and tired of the violence caused by alcohol in their communities.

With the introduction of mining in the area, came a system of royalties paid to traditional owners of the land and their families. However, Nami sees that the system is not equal and fair, with the most powerful and greedy landowners, handing out the money as they see fit. The impact of this, filters down to families where disputes over royalty handouts not paid, erupt into bouts of drinking and violence. Traditional values about caring for the land have been replaced with concerns about power and money.

Values and Beliefs

Social justice and human rights are foundational social work values that underpin our work with children and families. Lucy says this is pertinent when working with Aboriginal communities, who continue to suffer from the effects of discriminatory policies and practices from governments. Finding ways of working which reclaim the dignity, respect and self-determination of individuals, families and communities is of utmost importance.

Together we believe:

  • All people including children have a right to feel safe
  • All people have a right to be treated fairly and with respect
  • All people should have an opportunity to make decisions that affect their own lives
  • Violence against any person, particularly woman and children is unacceptable
  • That there is always hope and therefore change is possible.

Nami believes that role modelling her values and beliefs through her behaviour can show people alternative ways of living and being to violence. For Nami this means being gentle, kind and caring, sharing with others; treating others how she wants to be treated; showing respect, and following lore and cultural beliefs. These values have developed over a lifetime but were significantly shaped at the death of her son during alcohol-fuelled violence.   Rather than take revenge against the other family, Nami chose to act with forgiveness and found a non-violent path through prayer. Her commitment to Christian values, gives Nami the strength to “love the enemy”. Nami’s father was also a significant role model who had “love for everyone”. Although her heart has been broken many times, Nami knows that she is a stronger woman today for surviving difficult times in her life. Her drive to help her own people by living out her values is significantly shaped by her life experience.

Skills

Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

It may seem like a basic counselling skill, but attentive listening is so important in this work. Aboriginal people have been ignored for so long, that it would be unjust and disrespectful to continue to impose Western solutions to Aboriginal problems without listening to their own expressed needs, hopes and dreams for change. Lucy’s strengths are also in asking the right questions in ways which are appropriate for Aboriginal communication styles, developing trust and rapport by focusing on building relationships, finding creative and safe ways for people to tell their stories, identifying people’s strengths and supports, linking people in to other services or workers, and having genuine positive regard for people with an open mind and non-judgemental attitude.

Nami feels that she is often at the forefront of family and community disputes as a mediator. Her skills are in using her “voice” in “strong hard ways” so that people get the message that violence won’t be tolerated. She reminds people fighting of their kinship ties and the responsibility this brings. She also knows when it’s the right time to walk away, in order to prevent getting caught up in violence acts herself.

In our counselling work, Nami is instrumental in gaining the trust of children and putting adults at ease, by communicating in her first language about our roles and the work we do. She is a translator and cultural guide for Lucy. Nami knows when it is the right time to talk about difficult issues with children and when it would be inappropriate, by reading intuit body language that looks quite unremarkable to Lucy. Nami’s intuition tells her when a child could become upset, angry or re-traumatised.  Such information is vital for the counsellor.