Using Art to yarn about Aboriginal people’s Strong and Healthy picture of the future

This week Christine and I have been preparing for the CAAPS Open Day. CAAPS will be celebrating 30 years supporting Health and Wellbeing in the Northern Territory.

Christine creating her strong and healthy picture

One of the things we’ll be offering visitors is an opportunity to make some art. Art therapy is a non-threatening, creative and stimulating way to engage people in stories about their lives. This form of self expression doesn’t even needs words, as the story transforms itself from the person’s body, mind and spirit onto the blank paper.

While we are using this activity for a bit of fun, it also benefits people who are experiencing illness or pain or are seeking to make major changes towards a healthier lifestyle (such as giving up drinking or smoking). The process invites them to think about the things that will help them move towards healing and a healthy life, rather than dwelling in the symptoms they might be experiencing. This exercise was helpful to me recently in my awfully slow recovery from chronic back pain caused by a bulging disc. I suffered with chronic pain for four months. My ‘strong and healthy picture’ helped me to stay hopeful, patient and connected with the things that support me in good health, so that the negative thinking and pain didn’t pull me back down. It could have been very easy to slip into depression if I didn’t keep reminding myself that recovery was possible.

Drawing on Malchiodi’s ‘Symbol of Health’, we’ve called this exercise developing ‘A strong and healthy picture’. These words seem to resonate with Aboriginal folk. Christine and I took an hour and a half of relaxing time to draw and create our own picture using this process.

Step 1. Take a few minutes to think about what makes you feel strong and healthy in your mind, body and spirit. This might include:

  • People that support you
  • Activities that make you feel good
  • Places you like to go
  • Sports
  • Food you eat
  • What you do to make stress go away
  • Changes you have recently made in your life

Step 2.  Create your “strong and healthy picture” using the materials provided. (We had textas, pastels, magazine cuts/pictures, fabric, glue and scissors available).

Step 3.  Is there anything missing? Add the things you would like to have more of in the future.

Step 4.  Take your picture home and put it in a place to remind you about what keeps you strong and healthy and any future goals.

At the end of our creative session, I invited Christine to reflect on her picture.

What is your picture about?

It’s about the old man telling stories for kids and the land. About painting too. He teaches them how to make the camp fire. Doing dancing and singing. Catching kangaroo and yam.

How do all these things keep you strong and healthy? Why are they important to you?

It’s the way he teaches young people, to keep our knowledge strong. And telling us, how to hunt, how to do [culture things]. When you see the picture it’s going to tell you clearly how you’re to do things.

Where do you see yourself in the picture?

Here, where the land is. It keeps me strong in the nature. How we go to hunt. How we go to catch something to feed for ourselves. There’s a lot of things we can get from the sea – seafoods. Even something from the land, bush tucker.

How do you feel when you’re out there on country?

Good. I feel great. And it makes me get lots of ideas to think. If I go through the bushes and to the beach, ideas come to me.

Is it like ‘strong thinking’ out there?

Yes, feel strong in my mind.

If this picture could talk to you what would it say?

If family went to the beach for hunting or something, it will tell you everything you can get.

It would say “I’ve got all the food that you will need”?

Yo, yo.

Creating a positive picture of health and wellbeing can serve as a reminder during difficult times of where you want to be, so that you don’t slip back into bad habits or spiral into negative thinking and behaviour.

You don’t even need to be ill or suffering to benefit from this uplifting activity. Why not take an hour to indulge yourself this weekend? Find a spot where you can be alone, put on some relaxing music and get creative!


Lucy’s strong and healthy picture


5 Small Steps Towards Healing for Long-grassers* Longing to go Home

Last week I was stopped in the street by a young man, expecting tolong-grassers be asked for three dollars to catch a bus.  I know him from not that many years ago when working on the Tiwi Islands.   He held down a respected community job assisting people to access legal services and he appeared to have a good support network of likeminded young men.   I don’t know what bought him to Darwin, but now like many of his fellow kind, he finds himself stuck here, homeless in the long grass.  Despite accessing rehabilitation, he stood before me, the overpowering scent of alcohol on his breath and a bloody, egg shaped lump on his forehead.  I’d never seen him looking so dishevelled, desperate and lost.  Before he could ask me for the dough, concerned, I quickly interjected “what happened?  Are you OK?”.  He replied politely and articulately, he had been beaten by his partner and that he really should leave the relationship.  When I asked what stops him from leaving, he replied he couldn’t go back home because he wouldn’t be welcome there.   My heart sank in sadness.  He continued “you know I’m gay right?” and proceeded to tell me that he was worried about what the mob back home think about him.  I knew there were plenty of young men back home just like him and they have developed a really strong network with each other.  Attitudes are changing.  “What matters most is what is in here…” I said, resting my hand on his chest “what you think about yourself, not what others think about you”.  He looked hard and deep into my eyes, eventually brought our conversation to an end and turned to walk off.  I noticed he had not asked me for any money this time.  I wondered whether my offering was better than three dollars?  Might this small conversation of care and concern be enough for him to consider returning home?

With the prodigal son story in the back of my mind, I couldn’t imagine anyone returning home from their community after such a long time away would be ostracised, but instead welcomed home with open loving arms.  And I was right.  My guest bloggers this week – Elaine Tiparui, Cathy Stassi and Patricia Munkara – confirmed my hunch that family do worry and care about their lost loved ones living in the long grass and want them all to come back home.  It doesn’t matter what they have done or who they are.  They are still family.

Here are Elaine, Cathy and Patricia’s five tips for helping long-grassers take that first step in returning home.

1.  Tell them “Believe in Yourself”

Cathy says  “They’ve got to believe in themself.  They’ve got to say ‘I put trust in my family’.  It’s a big step, but they could say, ‘yes I need to go home’ and see if it’s going to work.  [They can] take pride in who they are.  Throw away the shame.   Go and deal with the problem.  Face it and I’m sure their family will have an open arm for them.”
We use tough love with our families.  When they take the first step and take responsibility for their actions, we will be there for them.

2.  Give some practical help

Patricia says “Some long grass people, they get phone calls from family, from us.  And then they want to go back home.”    So ask them for a phone number that a family member can ring them on and help them to reconnect.   Whenever Elaine sees a longgrasser in town, she sits down, talks with them, meets their friends and offers to buy some food instead of giving money which might be used for grog.  We can talk to them about what is happening and if they are in trouble help them to find a solution.  They might agree to come back home if they can see we care.
A few years ago concerned Tiwi Elders had a meeting in the long grass and they helped Tiwi people return home, with financial support from Larrakia Nation.  Elaine says “I tell them you have to look after yourself.  If you need to talk to me again, you come and see me and I’ll put you on the plane.”

3.  Help them reconnect with family

“Some of them haven’t been back since they were kids.  They might have grandkids they’ve never met.” says Cathy.  “The kids need to know who they are and he needs to learn where he stands with the kids.  The kids might be missing out on the knowledge that they’ve got.   They might need to connect with family that have passed away.  They should go and visit their grave.  And tell them, ‘I’m back home’”.
“When they say that’s my friends there” in the longgrass, Elaine is quick to remind them about their “grandchildren, mum, Auntie and sister” back home.

4.  Remind them of their country

There are old people that can take them out bush when they come back home.  “Eat some bush tucker, we say that to them” says Patricia.  “Get some fresh air, sea, water, food.  Go home, back to our country.  Try something new.   Instead of doing the same thing.  Because some have been away a long time.”  Elaine says “It’s up to them, not us, but we can heal them”.   They can throw all the bad stuff into the fire.

5.  Help them to see they are missed

For every Tiwi longgrasser living in Darwin, there is a family member back home that cares and worries about them.   Cathy says “They are being missed.  There’s always a safe place for them to go; a person there, to talk about the issue that they’re facing.”   Elaine says “no one judges them.”

We can all feel a bit helpless at times, when we see a homeless person on the street.  But you never know where a small conversation of care and concern will take them.  Do you know their story?  What thoughts and feelings might be stopping them from going home?  This may be the first small step on the road to healing for our long grassers.
If you or someone you know living in the long-grass needs support, we recommend Larrakia Nation to continue the conversation and help our mob get home.

Patricia       cathy      Elaine

(Strong Tiwi women: L to R)  Patricia Munkara lives and works in Wurrumiyanga.  Cathy Stassi lives and works in Pirlangimpi.  Elaine Tiparui is an Elder from Wurrumiyanga.  They all work as Child and Family Support Workers at Relationships Australia NT.

* According to Wikipedia, long-grasser is a contemporary word for a fringe dweller who camps “on the outskirts of Australian towns and cities, from which they have become excluded, generally through law or land alienation.”  It is especially relevant in “Northern Australia where year-long warm weather conditions allow itinerant Aborigines to live indefinitely on the outskirts of towns without official places of residence.”