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Respecting Australia’s First Peoples’ knowledges

Watch this video of Professor Gregory Phillips to understand why respecting First Peoples knowledges is so important when providing healthcare.
This is where I come from. It’s Bujimalla and Gregory River in Northwest Queensland. And I think some of you will be familiar with that map, which is the map of Aboriginal nations in Australia, each with their own language and governance system, and each with their own science, and each with their own understanding of the world and of sustainability. I was talking to a good friend of mine about 10 years ago who had done his PhD in physics. And we were talking about the fires that just happened here in Melbourne.
And I was saying, you know, this is the problem of Western culture, thinking that Aboriginal culture is somehow subservient or less than, and that people are not understanding that there’s a whole science that’s right for this land, and that if we understood that and respected it more, then we’d be able to manage the land better, and there wouldn’t be as many bushfires. There wouldn’t be as many floods and droughts. And he said, well, yeah, I understand that. But he says, I know that there was fire-stick farming and management of the land, he says, but that’s not because Aboriginal people knew how to do it. It’s just because that’s what they’d always done.
So, you know, he was a highly educated guy, but it’s an example of how sometimes we think– we’re acculturated into this belief that Western science is supreme and that it’s not culturally bound, and that it’s right for everybody, and that it’s normal. And as a lefty anthropologist, I have great pleasure in coming to medical research institutes and giving a different perspective. So that map is about all of that knowledge and science that is right for this land. And it’s not just right for Aboriginal people, it’s actually right for everybody. And our challenge now is to how to blend these two forms of knowledge in respectful ways.
Rather than what happens at the moment, mostly, is that Aboriginal knowledge is subsumed and consumed by the dominant thought system and knowledge system. And really, that’s a bit silly because, with great respect to Plato and Aristotle and Western thought, it’s really pretty young. It’s only 2,000 or 3,000 years old. Not that age is the marker of best quality alone, but you’d have to say there’s something about sustainability and surviving for 60,000 years through ice ages.

Did you know a sense of connection to the land is integral to Australia’s First Peoples’ health and wellbeing?

First Peoples believe in the interconnectedness of all things: family, community, country. As you have just heard in the video, working effectively with First Peoples in your clinical practice requires an appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancient knowledges and cultural perspective on health.

Discover more about this connection to the land by watching the following video and reflecting on the similarities and differences in the stories shared.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

First Peoples’ holistic view of health is reflected in the National Aboriginal Health Strategy’s (1989) definition of health.

‘Aboriginal health’ means not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but refers to the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole Community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential as a human being, thereby bringing about the total wellbeing of their Community. It is a whole-of-life view and includes the cyclical concept of life-death-life.

It is also the cornerstone of ‘Kanyini’, which is a worldview held by one particular Aboriginal tribe, not all tribes.

Kanyini is an Aboriginal word deriving from Central Australia. It is the principle of connectedness, through caring and responsibility and is an example of one philosophy that underpins a way of life for many Australian Aboriginal peoples.

Kanyini encompasses four concepts:

  1. Tjukurrpa – the creation period, sacred stories or dreamtime

  2. Kurunpa – the spirit, soul and psyche

  3. Walytja – family and kinship

  4. Ngura – land, home, place and mother

Caring for community within the kinship system

The kinship system is fundamental to First Peoples’ culture and may influence decision making in health, so it’s important for you to know more about it. Watch this short video for a great introduction.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Next, let’s find out what kinship, relationships and connection means to Indigenous people when they are providing healthcare.

Hear from Professor Roianne West

Remember, First Peoples is comprised of two distinct cultural groups; the Aboriginal Peoples and the Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Each group has their own culture, beliefs, languages and practices, passed down through each generation. These knowledges also impact each individual’s health and wellbeing and influence their views on healing.

Different views on health and healing

As a healthcare provider developing cultural capability, we encourage you to acknowledge First Peoples’ ancient, holistic healing practices. These continue to prove successful today.

Traditional health practices and medicine is deeply rooted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge. For example, the use of bush medicines is based on local, cultural knowledge. As opposed to western, science-based medicines, it draws on Indigenous traditions of knowing, being and doing. For this reason, it’s important to note that cultural health practices and medicines are considered traditional, not ‘alternative’ for Australia’s First Peoples.

Watch The Healing Touch: Indigenous healers getting results.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

How might respect for this knowledge enhance the way you work with Australia’s First Peoples in the future?

After 60,000 years, Australia’s First Peoples’ culture and sense of wellbeing was disrupted by colonisation. In the next step, we reflect on our shared history and how it continues to affect health and quality of life today.

Your task

Services that make up the healthcare system in Australia are dominated by tertiary hospitals, largely treating clients at the end stages of disease using principles of Western medicine. What may be the implications of treating clients who share different views of health than the dominant biomedical model? Let us know in the comments section below.


Australian Indigenous HealthInfo Net. Traditional Healing.

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Safer Healthcare for Australia's First Peoples

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