‘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!)

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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’

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.

How Aboriginal women of the Tiwi Islands are reclaiming the knowledge of traditional healing practices

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Preparing for traditional healing smoking ceremony, Tiwi Islands

Last year, while working at Relationships Australia I was in the privileged position to be involved in a healing ceremony for a teenager who had recently returned to her community after many years away.  At that time, I had been working on the Tiwi Islands for six years and I had often wondered why the Tiwi people weren’t using more traditional ceremonial practices in their daily lives to heal the children, women and families that were accessing support through our counselling service.  Did they think that whitefellas had all the answers about how to solve the problems blackfellas experienced?  That Tiwi knowledge and traditional ways had nothing valuable to offer?    Had the women lost the knowledge about how to do these traditional healing ceremonies?   Or were they feeling disempowered due to lack of resources to offer it?   It is very much part of my belief system that Tiwi culture offers so much in terms of emotional and spiritual healing, and in fact, empowering Tiwi people to heal themselves and each other is really the only way to make long lasting change from the impacts of intergenerational trauma.  The traditional knowledge is there – I had heard it being talked about by old ladies for many years and I had seen a beautiful strong culture in action in various places – the art centres, out on bush camps, at footy games, at funerals and at Kulama ceremony time.   So why was it then that Tiwi people did not feel confident to speak up and advocate for people accessing our counselling services?  I imagined them saying strongly to me “What is needed here is to take this person out bush and do a smoking ceremony – that’s it, that will heal them”!   I would have been totally supportive of such an initiative.

Despite my approach to social work practice which explicitly values two way learning, I was never asked to support a traditional healing ceremony for any of our clients.   Until last year.  And even then, I had to drop a hint into the ear of my cultural mentor “What would you have done in the old days if someone came home after being away a really long time?”  I waited, then followed up with the more direct “Would you have done some healing on her?   Our client, having lived in foster care much of her life, didn’t know much about her family, didn’t know the language and appeared to be struggling a little with fitting in, a month or so after being reunited with much loved Aunts and grandmothers.   I could see the cogs ticking over in my cultural mentor’s mind, until a smile suddenly spread across her face.  She realised, as this girl’s grandmother, she could definitely round up all the women and take our teenager out bush for a proper Welcome-into-our-Tiwi-family healing ceremony.  So that’s what happened.

The word had spread gently but purposefully like a Dry Season burnoff through women’s channels in the community about what a difference this small gesture had made to the life of this teenager.  I saw the chameleon-like change with my own eyes – she came back from that healing time and place a totally different person.   The women were excited.   Shortly after this, when we were asked to make a presentation to the regular women’s group about the services that Relationships Australia offer, instead I suggested, we facilitate a conversation about the role of traditional healing in recovery from trauma.  So that’s what they did.  It is so important that Tiwi women feel empowered to continue to value their knowledge and traditional healing practices, so that they may offer it to others who are hurting, lost or traumatised by their past.  There are individuals and families that stand to benefit from these women’s healing hands, where Western counselling practices simply cannot go.

While I was able to bring a twist to the discussion by offering an opportunity for the women in the group to make a collage picture representing “What traditional Healing means to you?”, the Tiwi workers largely held the space on their own, with their awesome presence, age-old wisdom and loving devotion to each other.  What was an isolated event for a teenager has now turned into a conversation which aims to keep traditional healing alive, by reclaiming forgotten stories, educating the young people and more actions to go out bush with the holders of this ancient knowledge.

The Tiwi women kindly allowed us to record some of their stories, so it would not be forgotten.  Their hope is that their ‘Messages of Hope’ might assist other communities to bring back the traditional healing practices that have been passed down to them.

Because you know what?   Sometimes we just have to give people a little push to remember the value of what once was.

Please watch their story and feel free to leave a message to send back to them.