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Articles    H3'ed 3/18/13

Day 8 of Australia 2013: Bairnsdale

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Today we made our way to Bairnsdale in East Gippsland for a conference on narrative healing for aboriginal health workers.   Our venue was AdvanceTAFE, a multi-colored technical college.   Our host was Wayne Thorpe, the Koorie Cultural Officer, for the institute.   Readers of my blogs on Australia will remember Wayne from previous years' culture camps.   Wayne has been working with aboriginal youth and organizing dance troups and teaching the Gunnai language.   He is very familiar with the traditional ceremonies and songs and the history of the Gunnai people.   Prior to the workshop the three of us (Rocky, Tony (our in-country host), and I had done a tobacco prayer ceremony to pray for the work that was to take place and for connections to be made that would further the work to bring culture into medicine.


We gathered in a circle and heard about the problems in the community.   Like most communities, there was alcohol and drug misuse and domestic violence.   One health worker talked about the problem of traumatic brain injuries and how the individually oriented medical system did nothing to address the needs of families to integrate a possibly permanently changed member back into their folds.   Wayne talked about the lack of places and opportunities to gather for culture.   He had changed that for aboriginal students at the college, but that didn't help the larger community.


We struggled with terminology.   I mentioned that I used to use the term Euro-American non-indigenous industrialized culture, but that didn't work so well, since it was too long and I had come to realize that the same stories to which I objected could be found in China, Africa, and elsewhere.   A health worker present suggested capitalist culture and that seemed to work for us.   So we compared capitalist culture to our notions of pre-modern aboriginal culture and to post-modern, post-industrial aboriginal culture.   We talked about the ways that the stories of the Europeans who made first contact with the Gunnai people in 1798 when five unruly prisoners were put ashore in their territory.   Second contact came in 1799 when whalers appeared to abduct and rape their women, hence the start of the missing women problem.   This practice continued until at least 1836.   During the period from 1800 to 1854 outright warfare existed between the European settlers and the Gunnai.   The battle was uneven.   Ten thousand Gunnai people would eventually fall to 279.   European weapons and diseases were more lethal.   Shocking massacres occurred in reprisal for even the mere killing of a cow by Gunnai people for food.   By the 1860's, two missions had been established for Gunnai people with similar policies to Canada's reserves.   Gunnai needed permits to leave the mission.   They and their employers were punished for working off the mission.   Anyone of mixed blood was automatically considered white and was removed from the mission, thereby splitting up families and creating a group of people who had no way to suppot themselves and became the urban ghosts, the invisibles living homeless in cities and towns.   The results of this historical trauma and fragmentation were still being felt.  


Rocky and I shared some ideas that were working in North America and in some other parts of Australia.   We talked about the danger of internalizing the stories about aboriginal people being told by the conquerors.   Yet, if those were the only available stories, such internalization was inevitable.   No competing stories could be found.   The task was to showcase the competing cultural stories that celebrate aboriginal people and their culture.   This is done through supporting cultural elders to share knowledge in exciting ways with others.   In many North American communities there are multiple opportunities each week to participate in ceremony (for example, the purification ceremony or the inipi).   Regular talking circles take place.   Larger ceremonies that can involve the entire community exist.   These include the sun dance, the ghost dance, the green corn ceremony, the harvest ceremony, and, of course, vary by the tribe.   We talked about a man we met north of Seattle, Ray, who had started a canoe family that had grown and grown.   People in this group built their own canoes and paddles in a traditional way and, during the summer, canoed up and down the West Coast, camping, learning the traditional songs, and relating.   This presented a romantic and challenging alternative to alcohol and drugs for youth.   At the particular casino-hotel where the conference occurred, local art was everywhere and also showed cultural elders at work.   The casino broadcast continual language lessons on their tribal television station.   On another channel one could see continuous programming about their culture and heritage.


We talked about the importance of having whole community ceremonies for the good of the people and explained the role of sun dance in this process.


The health workers began to brainstorm about how they could create regular gatherings in which people could tell their stories.   One complained that their men's gatherings were all very negative gripe sessions.   How could they change that?   We answered that, in the talking circle format, when it's your turn, you can pose a question to change the tone.   If everyone is telling negative stories, you can ask if anyone has any positive stories, however minor.   You can challenge people to tell a good story.   You can set an example by telling a positive story and this changes the tone and the mood.  


The group brought up the problem of the person who won't get help.   What does the family do?   I told the story about the time when I asked a man to bring everyone who knew him to the next appointment.   He brought 57 people, probably as a get back at me gesture.   To his chagrin, the group settled down and did some good work around figuring out how to help him get better and get off opiates.   He stormed out of the appointment but over 20 people kept meeting on a regular basis to figure out how to help him and over a year, without ever returning, he got off opiates and got back to work full-time.


We finished with a pipe ceremony after which Rocky presented our host, Wayne, with a Yaqui deer-eye necklace for protection and we said our good-byes.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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