‘The first step in re-establishing healthy communities is to acknowledge and understand the impact of the colonial legacy on the lives of Aboriginal people today and the various pathways necessary for healing from historical trauma, using both cultural and contemporary understandings and processes.’ Pat Dudgeon, Helen Milroy and Roz Walker, pp. 420
Yesterday, I posted a blog about my forthcoming digital book, written with John Stanton and entitled Connection: Aboriginal Child Artists Captivate Europe.
The book tells an enthralling and moving story about Carrolup Native Settlement that will captivate and inspire a wide audience. It is a story about traumatised Aboriginal children who rise above adversity to create beautiful landscape drawings, an inspirational teacher whose caring nature and inspiration facilitate the development of this art, but also lead to prolonged conflict in his life, and a 71-year old Englishwoman who becomes a successful ambassador for youngsters from a different culture on the other side of the world.
The Story is set against the backdrop of European colonisation of Australia; this colonisation had a devastating effect on Aboriginal peoples and their culture. At its heart, it is a Story about the removal of children from their families as part of a government’s racist policies. It is one of the most important Noongar Stories since colonisation.
The Story is one of Hope, Heart and Healing. It is an important story, not just for Noongar Aboriginal people, but for Indigenous peoples from around the world… and non-Indigenous peoples.
To explain why I say this, we must first consider what has happened to Aboriginal people in Australia (and Indigenous people in other countries colonised by Europeans).
As a result of the historical experiences of colonisation (and associated violence and control), forcible removal of children, and loss of culture and land, Aboriginal people of Australia have suffered a trauma that has been passed unwittingly down through the generations.
The consequences of this intergenerational, or historical, trauma include poor physical health, mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and abuse, self-harm and suicide. Today, the impact of intergenerational trauma is exacerbated by economic and social disadvantage, experiences of racism and paternalism, and ongoing grief resulting from multiple bereavements.
Society has failed to address these core issues and this has contributed to youth suicides, incarcerations and child removals amongst Aboriginal people reaching record levels today. The rates of incarceration and suicide amongst Aboriginal people in Western Australia are amongst the highest in the world.
How can we help Aboriginal people heal from trauma and its consequences? Experts have shown us that Empowerment and Connection are the foundation of such healing. People are empowered to heal by giving them hope (that healing is possible), understanding (of how healing can be achieved) and a sense of belonging.
People suffering from trauma and its consequences need to be connected to safe and empathic environments, where they feel accepted and supported (and loved), learn how to improve their health and wellbeing, and gain a positive identity.
Connecting Aboriginal people to their culture, land, spirituality, family, community and history is key to healing. Research in Indigenous communities in Canada has shown that suicide is non-existent, or rare, in communities connected to culture. Positive stories help create cultural pride, which in turn facilitates cultural connectedness.
Positive Stories about Aboriginal people and their culture also help counter the disempowering negative narratives and paternalistic actions of governments and wider society. They demonstrate to Aboriginal peoples the resilience they have shown in the face of considerable adversity since European colonisation.
Moreover, learning history from an Aboriginal perspective helps Aboriginal people understand why they have problems. It shows them that they retain the necessary agency to change their lives for the better. It helps them deal with shame and blame, factors that impact negatively on personal wellbeing.
Teacher Noel White was a man ahead of his time. His approach to education, using the arts to facilitate communication, learning and creativity was revolutionary for the time. He engaged the children in activities that facilitated their social and emotional development, as well as their physical development and skills, and he helped them create a strong sense of community, a community in which older children helped younger children.
Noel encouraged and inspired the children’s creativity—compare this with what is happening in many schools today, where activities that involve playfulness and human interaction, and creativity and curiosity, are being replaced by more and more boring lessons and exams and tests to assess the school’s performance [see, for example]
Noel White showed the essential elements underlying the healing of trauma (and its consequences) long before today’s researchers and practitioners outlined their ideas. He demonstrated the key importance of empowerment and connection, and of creating an environment of safety. He provided hope, and helped create in the children a sense of belonging, a sense of pride, and a strong identity.
By telling the Carrolup Story, we can enhance awareness of what is required to help people overcome trauma and its consequences.
Whilst healing comes from the individual, the process of healing is influenced by a person’s environment, e.g. by their family, community, government policies. Therefore, we aim to educate and inform non-Aboriginal people, to help wider society create safe and empathic environments in which healing can take place.
Our project will show the impact of prejudice and racism, and how they act as barriers to healing. By enhancing public awareness of the issues that have been faced by Aboriginal people, and celebrating their resilience and successes, we hope to reduce prejudice and racism in today’s world.
We believe that there is a great deal that non-Aboriginal people can learn from Aboriginal people and their culture. For example, there is much that Aboriginal people can teach wider society about protecting the environment. This is the most important issue facing mankind today. Western culture must listen to and learn from Indigenous cultures.
Moreover, the Indigenous holistic approach to social and emotional wellbeing is far richer than Western culture’s view of mental health. I say this as someone who has worked in the Western mental health field for over 40 years. There are good elements of the Western approach, so it is important to utilise both Western and cultural understandings and practices to facilitate healing.
It is time that many more Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people walked alongside each other on equal terms to help create a society where people have an improved wellness, are more respectful, caring and empathic towards their fellow man, and more protective of our planet.