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Traditional Aboriginal healing and western medicine meet with Ngangkari project

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A hospital upgrade usually focuses on new equipment and revamped wards. But the $32 million upgrade of the Alice Springs Hospital, due for completion this year, included an unusual and culturally significant part of traditional Aboriginal healing.

A Ngangkari – an Anangu traditional healer – recently went through the entire hospital looking for lost spirits.

Ngangkari have received special tools and training from their grandparents, and attribute many illnesses and emotional states to harmful elements in the Anangu spiritual world.

The Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council employs 10 Ngangkari to work in communities in the region, and in hospitals, nursing homes, hostels, health services, and jails in regional centres.

“The hospital has been very supportive,” project manager Angela Lynch said.

“The goal is to make people better – the way you go about it doesn’t matter.

“Healing is a very strong part of Aboriginal tradition, and when the Ngangkari can explain better what they do, there will be more acceptance by western medical professionals.

“The younger doctors in particular are really interested in what the Ngangkari do, which has come about through people having a really good understanding of what traditional healing can offer.

“People are frightened to be in hospital, they are worried about having an operation – the Ngangkari can calm them. Ngangkari are peacemakers.”

AMA President Dr Michael Gannon, who visited the NPYWC during his April visit to the Northern Territory, said that traditional healing and western medicine were not necessarily exclusive.

“As doctors, we spend a lot of time warning people against non-medical treatments, but we also acknowledge the importance of spirituality and, although I don’t personally like the word, wellness.

“The concept of wellness has been hijacked to a degree. Wellness isn’t something that you buy in a bottle.

“Concepts of healing and wellness aren’t foreign to medicine, but so much of what we do is focused on intervention and science.

“Medicine needs to look at traditional healing methods sometimes, rather than reach for the script.”

The Ngangkari look for ways to complement and work with western medicine, rather than present themselves as the alternative, Ms Lynch said.

“A lot of the Ngangkari have chronic illnesses themselves, and they have enormous faith in western medicine to fix things they can’t, like dialysis, and the effects of petrol sniffing,” she said.

“They tell their patients that there are two paths, and you also need to go to the doctor. You need to stop smoking. Smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol are not good for your spirit.”

NPYWC chief executive officer Andrea Mason said that the level of trauma in Aboriginal communities was only now being recognised.

Family and domestic violence is a major factor in trauma, whether the person experiences it or witnesses it, she said.

“Psychological unwellness is a big factor in chronic disease,” Ms Mason said.

“Does one trigger the other, or do these factors work together?

“The rolling-in of the rhythm of western culture – going to school or work every day, driving not walking – this rhythm is a sandpaper to the Aboriginal culture.

“Once we begin treating the causes of trauma, the next step is saturation – to counter the level of trauma with the level of healing resources, and wrap people in healing.”

Ms Lynch said that one of the problems was the lack of a word for “depression” in Pitjantjatara.

“People don’t ask for help, and there is no help to give for suicide,” she said.

“We have started a new project to try to address this, with Ngangkari sitting down with families and psychiatrists in clinics to develop an understanding that incorporates both traditional and western views.”

The project has turned into an app, “Kulila!”, available for both iPhones and Androids, which translates different words for feelings from Pitjantjatara to English, and vice versa. Words like “kawa-kawa”, which means muddle-headed or mixed up, of “kulintja kurra”, meaning troubled mind.

It can be used in intensive care units and other medical settings to get some depth and understanding of how people are feeling.

“We also use mood cards to help people identify what’s going on in their lives,” Ms Lynch said.

“We’ve come to understand that a lot of behaviour is the result of trauma – seeing domestic violence, car accidents, etc.”

The Women’s Council has also put together a storybook for children, available from the Centre’s gift shop, which tells the lives of two children, Tjulpu and Walpa, whose lives take different paths based on early trauma.

The book was illustrated by a doctor at Alice Springs Hospital, and it is also being turned into a digital story.

The Centre also provides colouring books, and not just for children.

“When I first came to a meeting here, I saw that there were notepads and coloured pens on the tables in front of the women,” Ms Mason said.

“As the meeting went on, they all started to doodle. The more intense or confronting the conversation got, the more intense the doodling became. It’s a calming mechanism, so we’ve incorporated it into our regular activities.”

You can learn more about the activities of the NPYWC at https://www.npywc.org.au/.

MARIA HAWTHORNE

 

 

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