Medical student Jaime Fox writes about her placement in Utopia (Northern Territories) and the importance of the homelands movement with Dr Jonathan Kingsley, providing some evidence on the importance of traditional land (known as Country). This discussion was sparked from a conversation held at the recent Doctors for the Environment Australia conference (iDEA2015) after Dr Kingsley presented on the significance of caring for Country and EcoHealth in tackling climate change. In light of national discussions around the closure of Aboriginal communities, they both felt passionate about sharing this story. Jaime writes:
Two years ago, I asked to be considered for an Indigenous community placement because I wanted to develop healthcare skills to address the many issues facing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, such as reduced life expectancy, otitis media, diabetes, and rheumatic heart disease. Early in my first placement it became clear to me that my time would be best spent learning from the community – about their diverse cultures, practices and knowledge.
Much is written about Indigenous problems, but there are many positive aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that are not shared with the average Australian (often precipitated through negative stereotypes and portrayals in the mainstream media). It is my belief that much can be learnt from communities such as Utopia (where I undertook my placement), who have striven to preserve their culture. Evidence supports this indicating improved morbidity and mortality outcomes when living on Aboriginal peoples’ homelands, like Utopia.
The traditional language Alyawarr is passed down the generations through a rich oral tradition, facilitated by community Elders. Family groups still live and learn through the knowledge of Elders – such Indigenous knowledge has been described as libraries of wisdom in a recent TED talk. This community still maintain traditional foods systems and ‘womens’ and ‘mens’ business, in which the Elders pass on necessary life skills to the youth to ensure that they are prepared for adulthood and their role in the community.
In mainstream Australian society we award economic progress and quantifiable measures of success. It does not so seem to be so here – character is most important: who a person is, and how they treat others. By everyone contributing and supporting each other it ensures success and sustainability, there is onus upon nurturing and passing on skills that can benefit the group as a whole. Those that have superior expertise are honoured by being enabled to cultivate others within the community. Children are happy and playful, childcare is a shared responsibility enjoyed by all. Everyone knows everyone else, and cares for individual community members as necessity dictates, no-one seems to be ‘too busy’. When a community member is sick, there is usually an entourage of concerned relatives, waiting to provide care and support for their loved ones.
Aboriginal culture is the oldest known culture, which has sustainably operated for over 70,000 years, living in harmony with their Country without exploitation. Aboriginal peoples connection to Country strengthens identity, sense of belonging and provides an inseparable spiritual bonds with their networks, kin and ancestors linking people to the past, present and future. This human-environment relationship is dynamic, deeply spiritual and a humanised body of knowledge. Aboriginal people cannot be separated from the non-human, society or culture, interlinking with every element of the environment. For this reason, Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians’ construction of the land is often different, affecting their beliefs and values towards it.
On completion of my third John Flynn placement in Utopia, I feel privileged to have been afforded such an experience. Over the past two years I have seen individuals grow and change, relationships develop, the clinic grow and prosper and the cycle of life in action. Often when you are in the one place you cannot see the impact you are having, but for an outsider such as myself, the snowball of positive change was obvious.
Jaime Fox is a medical student
Jonathan Kingsley, PhD is a Research Fellow, Indigenous Health Equity Unit,
Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health,