Storms

Weathering the Storms of Life: An Exploration of Group Work with Tiwi Women

In March, I was invited back to the Tiwi Islands to co-facilitate a Tree of Life Workshop with Tiwi women, as part of a ‘Telling Story’ project funded by a small Suicide Prevention grant from the NT Government.

The Tree of Life is a popular methodology that has taken off globally amongst many different kinds of practitioners working in the therapeutic space.  It has very much shaped my social work practice framework and the way I incorporate use of metaphor from counselling and group work to strategic planning and evaluation.

Our workshop began with a discussion about what trees mean to the women.  We heard stories about the mango trees that were planted by the old people and that sitting under the mango trees brings feelings of connection to ancestors, which keeps women strong.  This connection is felt as a voice when the wind blows and the leaves start moving.  “We can sense the presence, their spirit is following us wherever we go.  We sense the presence of our mothers and fathers, there with us.”  The mangoes are like gifts from the old people that continue to feed the children and the future generations.

The narrative approach is about asking questions which explore the history of the knowledge, skills and values which people describe, to thicken the story and give a richer description.  As one woman described her connection to mangrove trees, we discovered she learnt to find mangrove worms to eat by going out with her grandmother and mother.  She learnt how to chop that tree by observing with her eyes and listening with her ears.  She discovered that the old logs were the better ones to  find mangrove worms and the importance of looking for tracks first.  She came to know the difference between mangrove worms and cheeky worms at an early age, by eating the wrong one.  Later on in our workshop, the same woman described how the chopping action had became a way of dealing with stress in adulthood.

The next step of the process is inviting the participants to draw a tree, perhaps one that has meaning for them.  We provided a variety of art materials such as textas, oil pastels and pencils, giving participants approximately 30 minutes to draw on an A2 size piece of good quality paper.  The drawing should include roots, a truck, branches, leaves and fruit (or nuts).  We then discuss the role and significance of each part of the tree and introduce the Tree of Life metaphor.

In exploring our roots which represents cultural heritage, we discovered stories of connection to country and culture, the significance of belonging to their skin groups and special places the women were connected to.  These roots shaped their identities as Tiwi women.  We unearthed a rich tradition of hearing “from our mothers and grandmothers, who we belong to.”  For two women, there was a reclaiming of identity with the red flower skin group, which existed before the great Tiwi wars.  We also heard a strong theme emerging about life-long learning, as if the roots of the trees were still growing and spreading.  “Sometimes learning doesn’t stop, from little ones to big ones.”  One of the women had been away from the community for a long time and had brought her children back to teach Tiwi culture.  Another spoke about learning to weave much later in life.  “It’s never too late to learn your culture”.  The women were invited to write some words on their roots about what history stories are most important to them.

Our conversation then moved to exploring the trunk of the tree representing people’s skills, abilities and values.  We noticed that some women found it difficult voicing these qualities, so we asked what important people in their lives might notice or appreciate about them in order to uncover hidden stories.  We heard stories about making art, collecting dyes for basket weaving, keeping children safe and looking after them, getting children to school every day, being a bridge between Tiwi and non-Indigenous people coming to the islands, and being the best damper maker in the family.  Many women inherited the skills of teaching and were committed to sharing their knowledge with the next generation.   Shared values of women supporting each other and keeping culture alive through dance, song and story were named, and how this contributes to their ‘trees’ staying strong.  Once again, the women documented which stories were significant to them on their tree drawing.

In exploring wishes and dreams for the future (or the strong branches reaching out), we heard shared dreams about changes for their community.  We heard hopes for Wurrumiyanga to be a better place to live, a safe place to live with no violence.  One woman dreamed about people in the community changing their attitudes, so that there is more respect, love and kindness.  She modelled this in her family through soft, gentle talk, not growling.  Others said they wanted young people to sit and learn from the Strong Elders, for kids to grow up and have a better life, to see them learn the skills of singing and dancing.  One woman wanted to talk stronger with kids when they are fighting, because she didn’t like seeing kids hurt each other, and then adults getting involved in the fighting.  There were grand hopes for a cultural centre to be built to preserve Tiwi culture, and smaller hopes for teaching basket weaving and armband making.  These wishes were linked to deeply held values of passing on strong culture to their children, so they can grow up to be the next generation of strong leaders.

Each of the women then shared personal hopes and dreams for their lives.  This included being a model, a teacher, a teachers assistant, hunters and fishers, supporters and helpers and being a better person.  Women’s hopes and dreams were recorded with photos, a moment captured in time to bring to life.

“I want to be a singer.  Nana has been teaching me singing since I was about 15 years old.  I want to teach kids how to sing when they grow up.  They will teach their kids in the future.”

“I’d like to play footy for a women’s AFL team, hopefully the Adelaide Crows.  I’ve had this dream since I was a teenager.  My grandfather saw my talent.  He’s passed away now.  But he would say “Play footy and be a good sportswoman, and be a part of it”.  I carry his voice with me.”\

Over 30 women attended the two day workshop.  This was a greater number of participants than expected, and posed a challenge for us, as facilitators, ensuring all voices are given an opportunity to be heard.  It also meant that time didn’t allow us to investigate the leaves (special people) and fruits (their gifts) as fully as we would have liked.  However, as you can see from the above quotes, this tended to occur naturally in our investigation of people’s stories.  The importance of knowing their roots, the history of their skills and abilities, and their hopes and dreams for the future, often uncovered people who were important to them and the legacies they had left.

In Day two of our workshop, we explored what it is like to be part of a Forest of Life.  The women voiced “We are all one family – we are all Tiwi” as well as recognised the unique stories and skingroups, values and beliefs, skills and abilities, hopes and dreams of each tree.  Standing back to visualise the forest of trees revealed the beauty that came from standing tall and proud, healthy and strong.  This was seen as a place where the women support each other, look out for each other, offer care, kindness, and protection.

Our final discussion around the Storms of Life unveiled the kinds of storms that women come up against.  This included domestic violence, fighting, arguing, jealousing, hate, family violence, gossip, swearing, hurt feelings, speaking bad way- especially on facebook, ignoring people, lateral violence, discriminating, putdowns, tantrums and losing family.  We explored the skills, strategies and knowledge women draw upon to stand strong in the face of these difficulties.  This knowledge was recorded in a document called ‘Weathering the Storms of Life’.   It is hoped that this document would help the women ride out future storms that might blow their way.

In the concluding moments of our workshop, the women spontaneously expressed a wish to send a message to their children about their hard won knowledge and skills regarding managing storms.   This is their message – Words for Our Children.

The women of Wurrimyanga, Tiwi Islands

Sometimes, the most powerful process to occur happens after the group work is finished, by inviting other communities or individuals to witness and respond to the stories that have been gathered.  Contributions from these ‘Outsider Witnesses’ can help the storytellers feel connected to others, reduce isolation, and assist them to take action in line with their intentions and commitments.  Having a group of outsiders listening and acknowledging people’s wisdom and knowledge, validates their story and identity claim (Carey & Russell).  The Telling Story Project team will be taking Tiwi messages back to other communities they work in, to exchange messages.

If you would like to be an Outsider Witness to the stories of the Tiwi women, I invite you to download and read ‘Weathering the Storms of Life’.  Use the four questions below to formulate your message and send it to us.  We will make sure your message gets sent back to the Tiwi women.

  1. Which words in this document capture your attention?
  2. What do you think these words suggest about what this person values, values, believes in, dreams about or is committed to?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with these words?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why their words meant something to you.
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this document?  What might be different in your life?

We look forward to hearing your story.
This video presentation offers a visual snapshot of our 2 day workshop.

If you would like to know more about using the Tree of Life methodology in your community, please contact us or Sudha Coutinho at the Telling Story project on sudhacoutinho@gmail.com.  We would be happy to work with you in capturing the wisdom and knowledge of your community or group, in riding out the Storms of Life.

This Telling Story project was funded through a NT Government Department of Health Alcohol Reform NGO Grant and auspiced by Relationships Australia, NT.

References and further reading:

Denborough, D. (2008), ‘The Tree of Life: Responding to vulnerable Children’ in ‘Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma’, Dulwich Centre Publications.

Carey, M. & Russell, S., (2003) ‘Outsider-witness practices: some answers to commonly asked questions’.

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Sharing Two World Views of Nature’s Healing Powers

I recently had the pleasure of presenting alongside an Indigenous colleague of mine to a group of health professionals.  We are a bit of an unlikely couple.  Leonie Hunter is a salt water and desert First Nation’s woman with a history of removal in her family.  I am a middle-class Australian with a heap of White privilege.  We view the world through different lenses, but what we share is an interest in the healing power of nature for health and wellbeing. 

Texture Gathering on our Nature and Forest Therapy walk.

In our recent workshop, we had the opportunity to talk about our own worldviews and knowledge systems, with each of us having an understanding and appreciation for the other. 

Leonie presented the case for connection to country being a critical component to improving Indigenous wellbeing.  The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing states that

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing.  Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.”

This is something Leonie knows well through her own embodied connection and the people in her family who are feeling the ongoing health effects of being displaced from their traditional lands and customs.  In our outdoor yarning circle she told many stories; what it is like to just feel the elements, gathering bush medicine to heal physical and emotional ailments, and receiving messages from the animals, birds and other beings.  Leonie was lucky enough to grow up listening to the stories of Senior Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, now passed. 

His words still resonate:

“Tree,
He watching you. 
You look at tree, 
He listen to you. 
He got no finger, 
He can’t speak, 
But that leaf,
He pumping, growing. 
Growing in the night, 
While you sleeping, 
You dream something. 
Tree and grass same thing. 
They grow with your body, 
With your feeling. 
If you feel sore, 
Headache, sore body, 
That means somebody killing tree or grass.  
You feel because your body in that tree or earth. 
Nobody can tell you, 
You got to feel it yourself.”

I, on the other hand, presented the evidence for nature connection for health and wellbeing from a Western scientific worldview.  There is a mountain of research supporting the benefits of green space and being in nature for physical, social, emotional and spiritual health.  My particular focus and interest is on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing).  The Japanese have discovered that phytonicides or the ‘aroma of the forest’ has positive physiological and psychological effects to reduce stress.  They found that a slow, relaxed forest therapy walk, lowered blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and improved heart rate variablilty.   Phytonicides were shown to boost the level of Natural Killer cells in our body, which boost our immune system and fight disease including cancer.  Doctors now offer ‘green prescriptions’ for their patients to go walking on a Certified Forest Therapy trail. 

Science is only really just proving what Indigenous people have intuitively known since time began.  The reciprocal relationship with nature is in their DNA.  In my worldview, they call this the biophilia hypothesis.  We evolved from nature, so we are nature.

In our afternoon session at Holmes Jungle Nature Park, I had the pleasure of co-guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk with Leonie.   Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) is inspired by the practice of Shinrin Yoku and developed in California by the ANFT.  Despite its Western roots, NFT allows those living in the fast-paced world of modern society an embodied experience of the healing power of ‘being’ on country. 

With the words of Bill Neidjie ringing in their ears, Leonie invited our participants to find a tree that is watching them and sit with the tree for a while to share stories.  As is so often the case, the trees always reach out to the right person.  There were two fallen trees for the person who had recently experienced a separation, a tree with two large branches growing upward showing the two possible directions in life for another, and a tree that was begging to be leant against with a message to slow down.  When given the opportunity to just ‘be’ without ‘doing’, to contemplate with our hearts not our minds, the medicine of the forest reveals itself.  Miriam Rose-Ungunmerr’s talks about this presence of sitting on country as the practice of ‘dadirri’.

I feel blessed and privileged to be working alongside people like Leonie, sharing and learning from each other, having healing conversations, developing new levels of understanding and respect.  Ecopsychology allows both worldviews to exist alongside each other at the same time, for all of it is truth.

This is my idea of Reconciliation in action.

‘Nature, Health & Wellbeing’ learning workshop, Darwin March 2019.