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Learning from the traditional healers of the Central Desert lands

One of the highlights of the recent Australian Palliative Care Conference was learning about the work of Maringka Burton and Ilawanti Ken, who are Ngangkari – traditional Aboriginal healers with a “lifelong vocation”.

Jennifer Doggett writes:

Some of the most eagerly anticipated sessions at the Palliative Care Conference were the presentations by Maringka Burton and Ilawanti Ken, who are Ngangkari from the Central Desert lands of South Australia and the Northern Territory.

In these communities, there is a culturally based view of causation and recovery from physical and mental illness, which attributes many illness and emotional states to harmful elements in the spiritual world. Ngangkari are highly valued for their unique ability to protect and heal individuals and communities from this harm.

Maringka and Ilawanti spoke in their native Pitjantjatjara language through an interpreter Linda Rive.  They began by describing their homelands in northern South Australia where they and all their people live. They said there were happy and proud to have come such a long way to Canberra to talk about their roles as Ngangkari.

They described their tiny office in Alice Springs where their coordinator works as having a “lot of love”, which spreads out to all their people in the surrounding area.  They stressed the importance of their work to their local communities and their strong commitment to treating anyone who asks them for treatment, including both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Maringka and Ilawanti described how they received the knowledge and gift of healing from their grandparents. They also inherited special tools that they use to heal people. These tools cannot be seen but lie inside their bodies and are only present when someone needs to be healed.

Ngangkari use a variety of techniques in their work, including touching people with their hands. This touching allows their hands to open and the tools for healing to come out of their bodies.

They also use their breath to heal people through various blowing techniques. These are particularly useful for people with mental health and emotional problems.

Many Ngangkari are skilled in bush medicine and use this in addition to other healing techniques. Ilawanti said that she finds that older people respond particularly well to bush medicine, and that a treatment for an older person can often involve taking them for a walk in the bush and finding healing plants for them to use as medicine.

Maringka and Ilawanti described how they mostly work on the lands where they and their people live, both outside but also in people’s homes and in clinics.

They are often asked to visit the hospital in Alice Springs where they are very well known and respected. In fact, they were asked to open the new Emergency Department of the hospital earlier this year.

At the Conference, Maringka and Ilawanti sang the traditional song that they performed for the opening of the Emergency Department about a Bandicoot woman bringing her sick baby to a special place to be healed.

Working together

Maringka and Ilawanti work in conjunction with doctors and other health workers in their communities.  They often get requests from doctors and nurses to see patients or are asked directly by the patients themselves and their families.

Many of the people they visit in hospital are on dialysis, which is a difficult process, both physically and emotionally. The Ngangkari described how they provide hands-on treatment for the physical pains of dialysis patients, as well as blowing treatment for their worry and anxiety.

Maringka and Ilawanti believe that both Western and Aboriginal practitioners have different but equally valuable skills and knowledge.

However, they reminded delegates that Western medicine has only been part of their peoples’ lives for a small proportion of their history and that until Europeans arrived in Australia, the Ngangkari were the entire health system for Indigenous people across Australia. The good health of the Aboriginal population when Europeans arrived is attributed by them to the work done by Ngangkari.

Maringka and Ilawanti described how they work in conjunction with the local community-based clinics. Maringka said:

“People come to the clinic to see the doctor and to see us if they haven’t already seen us in the camps.  Sometimes we need to encourage people to go to the clinic because people might be scared to go.  We tell them ‘no, you have to go to the clinic’ and then they are not scared any more. Once they have been to the clinic we can help them as well. We tell them to take their medicine and treat them to make the medicine work better.”

As is the case with many other health professions, the Ngangkari workforce is ageing and succession planning is critical to ensure there are sufficient healers to treat the next generation.  Maringka and Ilawanti both have grandchildren who are interested in becoming Ngangkari and they are teaching them and passing on their gifts and skills.

They described how happy it made them to know they can hand on their ancient tradition of Ngangkari in this way. “It’s time now we are getting older to hand our magical tools on.  We feel proud and excited to see young people we have taught treating another young person,” Maringka said.

Ilawanti described the challenge of self-care as a professional healer.  She said that in her community there were only two main Ngangkari and there is a high level of demand for their work. She said:

“We see people every day. People come to see us for all sorts of things, sometimes a general feeling of sickness or pain, or just because they are miserable.  All those things we work on every single day. We give help immediately. I have been a Ngangkari all my life and will never stop – it is a lifelong vocation.”

Maringka described her favourite work as treating little children because she gets such fabulous results from them.  She said little children respond really well to her treatment, although they don’t always enjoy being touched when they are sick.

“We explain to them that they will feel better afterwards and sometimes get their parents to explain this too. It also gets them used to the idea that Ngangkari will be around all their lives,” she said.

Maringka and Ilawanti concluded their presentation by reminding the audience of the importance of Ngangkari and their healing traditions to their people and culture.

“It’s always been important that there are Ngangkari in every community. It’s important in the past, it’s important now and it will also be important in the future. We will always need Ngangkari on our lands,” Maringka said.

• Maringka Burton and Ilawanti Ken work as part of the Ngangkari Project which is run by the Ngaanyatjarra Yangkunytjatjara Pitjantjatjara Women’s Council. This project has been running since 1998 and is currently funded by Country Health SA and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation.

• For previous Croakey coverage of the 12th Australian Palliative Care Conference, see here. 

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