“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.
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.

‘Nature’s cure for all our ills’

Have you ever wondered what nature could offer you and your clients… especially those that are affected by chronic stress, mental health issues, physical pain, despair and heartache?

I have just completed an initial week’s training intensive to become a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.  I can attest to both the physical and mental health benefits that being in nature offers.   I had a heightened awareness that back and groin pain which has been niggling me for 12 months suddenly disappeared.   I noticed that stress that I had been carrying in my jaw and neck from my fast-paced, outcomes driven, work life floated away with the clouds that passed overhead.   I was connecting and communicating with beings from the more-than-human world in an intimate way, that I had never felt before.  I also discovered a tall tree overlooking a valley held a message of hope for my heart despairing at the state of our planet.  It was freeing for my mind, body and soul.  But don’t just take my word for it.

There is a lot of emerging evidence about the health effects of being in the forest.  Scientific research on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that simply being in the wilderness can increase immune function, reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase focus and concentration, improve rates of recovery from surgery and illness, increase energy and improve sleep.

How is that so?  Well, the same compound that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and pests is the same essential oil that improves our immune system.  They are called phytoncides and they produce cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body.

Guides-in-training and members of the public experience the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ on a Forest Therapy walk in the Redwoods of the Yarra Ranges (Sept 2017).   Photo: Jana Norman.

We always knew that being in nature felt good, didn’t we?   Now there is real evidence to prove that living a fast, active, technology dominant lifestyle is counterproductive and could potentially promote chronic physical and mental illness.  People on regular forest therapy walks are also reporting feeling happier, developing deeper more meaningful relationships, feeling more connected with the land and its species, having more energy and developing a more attuned intuition.

It seems as though the Western world, is just catching up to what Indigenous peoples have always known.  During my time on the Tiwi Islands, as both a drug and alcohol counsellor and children’s counsellor, Elders and other strong women repeatedly spoke about ‘going out bush’ as the best remedy for ‘wrong thinking’ and wayward behaviour.  Within my capacity and resources, I drew on the knowledge of these wiser ones to host healing camps out bush with families who were going through hard times and to reconnect children who were going off the rails with a traditional healing ceremony on country (or if that was not possible at least use the metaphors of the natural world in our therapeutic conversations).

What can ‘walking on country’ practised for thousands of years by Aboriginal people do for our health and wellbeing?

In Forest Therapy, the medicine we need is waiting to be discovered in nature and it is up to the client to do the hard work of discovering what the forest is telling them.  The Guide simply opens the door for people by offering them mindful invitations, being open to listening to the messages of support, encouragement, healing or survival that are communicated by all living things.  This concept sounds very familiar too, observed in the way Aboriginal women demonstrate their spiritual connection to the land.  I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the barking owl to be advised that (insert name) must have passed away.  I’ve been out hunting when a branch has fallen from a tree, a sign from the ancestors that there is a possum there to be caught for dinner.  I’ve watched women scouting the bush for ‘just the right vine’ which will yield a big, long, fat yam two feet underground, left wondering how do they know, when all vines look the same?  And I’ve heard numerous stories of miracle cures for persistent ailments using bush medicine, where modern medicine has failed.  The knowledge for living a good and healthy life is right there on country, if we are in tune.

Unfortunately, the government policies of today are forcing Aboriginal people off their country and into the towns to be closer to services, and along with this, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food options and other social issues like overcrowding and domestic violence.  We are seeing the health effects of this lifestyle for Aboriginal people and it’s not good.

As a social worker, this has got me thinking seriously about nature as a form of intervention for people who come to us for help.  The forest provides healing in gentle and profound ways, that we as humans cannot.  It requires a step away from evidence-based talk therapies from Western culture towards intuitive traditional healing practices and spiritual connections to nature that have been used for thousands of years.

If we don’t believe the anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people about the positive health effects of being connected to country, then we can at least take notice of the emerging evidence from shinrin yoku practices in Japan.
Nature has something for everyone.  Even those of us whose heart is aching for the destruction of nature itself.

‘The Oldest Therapy in the World’ with Leonie Hunter

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

In this week’s episode, we explore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to follow up after the episode

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

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

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

28052013357

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.