Aboriginal Medicine Men and Women

The term Aboriginal Medicine Men has something of the flavour of witch doctor about it; yet it is, as Professor A.P. Elkin (anthropologist) put it, a position of elevated education and social standing: Aboriginal Men of High Degree. Medicine is not the sole province of men in Aboriginal society; though it must be said that there was a gender delineation as will be explained further in this brief article. There is one more important explanation and qualification I would wish to express before continuing with this article: it is all too easy for Australians to treat Aboriginal culture as a pre-historic artifact—or at best something dated to the time of early white contact. The role of Aboriginal Medicine practitioners continues in some Aboriginal communities (though unfortunately, not all) to this day; but the role has changed much as has time, the implementation of an assimilation policy, Australian law, and the availability of a truly Aboriginal education program.
This continent is large—twice the size of the European Union—and Australians seem to have some trouble understanding that over such a large region there would be considerable variety of culture and social practice. Within Europe there is considerable social variation—even today—and so there is in Aboriginal Australia. Medicine, climate, social structure, geology, ecology, and so much more, is dictated by the geological location of the region. For example, there is no potential to develop a medicine as practiced on the coastal fringes, in the desert and far from the sea. And it would hardly be necessary to develop the medicines as practiced in Australia’s high country in tropical Far North Queensland.
Add to these variances, the simple fact that the passage of time brings with it a changed perspective and technology that in turn progresses our practice of medicine. So it is with Aboriginal medicine: it has grown and changed, even over the past two hundred years. And yet, it is still Aboriginal medicine, and is still practiced by Aboriginal Medicine Men and Women.
When I, as an Aboriginal Medicine Man, am approached by people wanting to know about our medicines, there is a prejudice towards the perception that Aboriginal medicine is the use of herbs. And this is wrong. And when I say that this perception is wrong, I am perceived as being wrong; yet I am an Aboriginal Medicine Man. Surely what I define as my medicine is Aboriginal medicine.
Aboriginal people generally moved around in small family or community groups of between a dozen and twenty or so people. These groups moved about mostly as isolated groups, coalescing into larger groups from time to time. The larger groups were made up of a body of loosely associated peoples that were dialectically the same, and a number of the dialectic groups made up a nation. Sometimes these nations were termed ‘tribes’.
The nations formed into confederations (usually about four nations to a confederation) and this confederation of nations spoke one language. There were about two hundred and sixty-odd languages in Australia: about seven hundred nations.
Aboriginal medicine traditionally had two phases/modes of practice: the first phase or stage was when the sick or injured person went to an elder within their own small group who had general medical knowledge. This elder was usually a woman. She would apply basic medical knowledge: common sense, first-aid, sometimes herbal help, sometimes basic counseling or advice. Quite often, this elder was very well trained and in a modern-day setting would be seen as a nurse-practitioner. She would also be a midwife.
When an individual sought the help of the medical-elder, the elder was mostly able to remedy the problem; but the problem was not considered cured until they had seen the doctor.
Doctors were rare on the ground. It takes a lot of time to study to be a doctor. Most language groups would only have about six or eight doctors (some considerably less, and in some areas several more). That is about two doctors per nation (probably no more than about two thousand doctors for the entire continent and its islands). That might seem few, but the overall population wasn’t high and in fact on a per-capita basis it was very probably as good or better than the number of doctors per 1,000 Australians. OK, so since each group couldn’t have its own doctor, and since it was important to have access to a fully trained doctor, doctors (especially in the regions of higher populations) remained in one location. It would be useless having to travel across vast areas of country searching for a doctor who could be anywhere; doctors remained in permanent or semi-permanent camps. These places were “hospital” sites and the aged, and infirm would stay in these locations with the doctor. Youths (at a given stage of training) would spend time at the “hospital” camp and learn from the elderly and infirm, and help out with duties and day to day tasks. So the "hospitals" would also be "schools".
Every so often a young woman would be found to have a ‘natural’ aptitude for medicine and she would stay on helping and learning from the doctor so that she might go back to her own community and be further apprenticed to the medical elder and ultimately become the local medical elder.
Doctors were picked from birth and their training started at that time and continued throughout their life. Most regions held that only men could be doctors (not all regions). It makes sense for women to deal with the first stages of medical help. Women (generally) use a relationship logic that is best suited to the day-to-day management of health in the community. When the patient finally gets to see the doctor it is likely that their malady is better (though not necessarily so) but there is a need to determine what caused the sickness in the first place, and then to put that right so that it doesn’t happen again to any other member of that, or any other, community. This latter stage requires the linear logic paths typical of males.
It all sounds a little sexist, eh? Well, maybe. But there is much more to it. Women feel more comfortable with women midwives, and so many other reasons surround the usual (though flexible) system practiced by Aboriginal peoples.
OK, so where do—or don’t—herbs and such come in? Well, as I said earlier; herbs really don’t, other than as a minor adjunct or tool. The principals of medicine had to be, firstly, that the medicine was a preventative medicine. It makes more sense to keep people well rather than make them well after they get sick. But, and here we have our second point, we need to accept that accidents happen and so it is important to have a two stage health system: get them well enough to travel, then carry or help them to a facility that can properly care for them in the longer term. The third point: find out what went wrong with the wellness system and fix it so that it doesn’t happen again. And the fourth point: medicine is a physical, psychological, socio-environmental, and spiritual system. You can’t leave out any part of this holistic picture—lest it become ‘unholistic’. The Aboriginal concept of holism isn’t that something is interconnected: it is that everything is one.
I listen to people in the rest of the world telling me that Mind, Body and Spirit is holistic and I can see why you have wars and social conflict and have stuffed up the environment so much: socio-environmental well-being is an important part of the holistic equation that has become somewhat lost to modern humanity.
Most people generally ask, at this point, then why is there so much in the way of health problems in Aboriginal communities today? And the answer to that is quite simple; a paternalistic assimilation policy (still active) makes it difficult to train new practitioners in the old values; and that same assimilation policy is destructive to the spiritual, social, environmental and psychological structures of Aboriginal communities. We have had our own belief systems taken away and replaced with Christianity or whatever; our social structures and land have been taken away and we have been told to adopt a totally alien way of living in a totally alien environment; and we carry the scars of a couple of hundred years of violent abuse at the hand of governments and others.
Sending troops into the communities isn’t going to fix the problem—though it is a welcome band-aid. But like the traditional medicine; after the band-aid has done its job, we need a doctor to put it right so that it is properly cured and unlikely to recur. I’m a doctor; this is my prescription; now we need you to help ensure things are put right. We need to help restore certain traditional values in Aboriginal societies; then we need to protect those values and ensure their perpetuation. Monash University Faculty of Medicine has employed me to help give authority to my voice and other Aboriginal voices across Australia; but Australians have got to be prepared to listen.
We have not had time to cover more than a very few thought provoking points about the practice of medicine, past and present, by Aboriginal people. To understand Aboriginal medicine, one has to step outside of the paradigms of Western and Eastern medicines and philosophies, and into a paradigm that Australians—even after two hundred years—have yet to comprehend. Perhaps the time has come for Australians to heed the wisdom of one of their own (medical) elders, Hippocrates: Foolish is the Doctor Who Despises the Knowledge Acquired by the Ancients.

Kakkib li’Dthia Warrawee’a is a Doctor of Ya-idt’midtung Medicine and Spiritual Teacher/Philosopher.

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