Before the coming of White fella to this country, Aboriginal people did pretty well in the health department—particularly on the coastal fringes of this continent and its islands. Just about all reports mentioning the Aboriginal people in the very early period of contact (with the exception of Dampier’s) suggested a robust and healthy people with almost no reports of physiological problems or deformations that might suggest a wretched people struggling to exist. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests a healthy people with long life and a phenomenally wide and healthy diet. At that time of initial contact by white people, Europeans were dying in their millions of epidemic diseases and life expectancy of Europeans was not too flash.
My great-grandfather was there to guide me through the first nine years of my life. He was born into tribal life and was in his teens when he first saw a White fella. And although we don’t know his exact age when he died, we know he was certainly over one hundred years old (probably by two or three years). Sure, he was a traditional doctor of Aboriginal medicine; but physicians are generally not the healthiest people in most communities.
So, why is it that Aboriginal people are not living as long today? Why is it that Aboriginal people are dying about seventeen years younger than white Australians, and why are we suffering from diseases eliminated from the wider Australian communities?
The answer is simple—and complex. Firstly, you cannot just spend money on health and expect people will become well. Buying doctors and nurses and medical infrastructure and equipment doesn’t translate to health. Taking people from one culture and plonking them in another is going to create health problems—not cure them. How do you think you would fair if an alien culture came to you and denied you the familiarity of your wide and varied diet and replaced it with just a few (rather unhealthy) alternatives; then made it difficult for you to acquire that new diet? How many generations do you think it takes to develop the ability to eat some of this new food without suffering side effects from the diet? More importantly, would you want to go on living when all that you held as being sacred and natural and the way it has always been, is changed forever to something you simply don’t understand? How would these cultural and lifestyle and spiritual changes affect your will to live?
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who developed something called the Hierarchy, or Pyramid, of Needs. He believed that we had to attempt to climb this pyramid in order to be self actualized. Forget the self actualizing stuff and look at the hierarchy purely from the point of view of physical medicine, and this is the model on which medicine and health is built. Much of his pyramid is seen as pretty obvious and common sense: of course we need air to breathe, water to drink, a functional temperature in our environment, food and the ability to eliminate the waste of our bodies. But this is not the most fundamental set of needs as Maslow suggests: Maslow is wrong. The most fundamental need is the desire—the will—to live. Take old Albert, for example; Albert’s wife Elsie passed away a fortnight ago. Albert and Elsie had been married for sixty-two years and they loved each other very much. Now Elsie has died, Albert has become very sick. He had been very healthy; his doctor had said just a month ago that Albert would probably live to break the century, but here he is just a month later so ill he will probably die within the next month. Ask the doctor what is wrong with Albert, and the doctor can only say that he is dying of a broken heart. Albert has air, water, a functional temperature in his environment, food and the ability to eliminate the waste of his body; he also has rest and shelter and protection and his family love him and still feel they need his wisdom. What Albert doesn’t have is Elsie: neither does he have a real reason to live without her. Maslow was wrong: first and foremost we need a reason to live. And this reason to live comes from the very core of our being where our spirituality comes from. Love is a spiritual thing—well, it is a holistic thing—but you can see now why people are prepared to strap on a bomb and walk into a market place and blow themselves and others to pieces just because of their spirituality.
Maslow is wrong. This is important, because it is one of the very fundamental problems behind Aboriginal health today. For every Aboriginal person in Australia there is something deep inside themselves, at some time in their life, that asks them “What is an Aboriginal person?”, and “Am I still Aboriginal?” Because being Aboriginal is bloody hard when you are told what an Aboriginal person is—and it doesn’t quite fit you—yet you know that, somewhere you are Aboriginal. And if you can’t find that identity, you have a problem with your spirituality (and when I talk about spirituality, I don’t mean religion!). For me, my skin isn’t quite dark enough, for my brother (whose skin was quite black) it was that he didn’t have enough culture and language. For some people it isn’t a question of am I Aboriginal, rather it is why can’t I speak my language: walk my walk. It is, I believe, vital for each and every one of us to have the right, freedom and opportunity to hear the voices of our ancestors, our dreams, our beliefs and wisdom; and not be forced to fit the history, dreams, and beliefs of some other culture.
Governments have spent a fortune on medical superstructure for Aboriginal people that often fails to reach the grassroots people where they live. And, we still live in a nation that has an assimilation policy: the governments—the nation—is in perpetual motion attempting to turn Aboriginal people into European Australians. We want to be Aboriginal Australians. And what an Aboriginal Australian identifies as being is different for every single Aboriginal person in the country (just like it is for Australians when they define themselves). You can’t be well when you don’t have your culture or your language or the important parts of your traditions: these things help make you whole—they give you identity—they are a fundamental part of your spirituality.
No, I’m afraid that the Australian government is proposing to do what governments have been doing for years as far as Aboriginal health is concerned: throw good money after bad. It is time this nation tossed away this notion of assimilating blacks into Australian society, and perhaps took a look at how Australians could assimilate themselves into Aboriginal culture; or at least, allow Aboriginal people the educative and political and economic ability to define what it is to be Aboriginal and to achieve the goal of being Aboriginal, in order that we can then become Aboriginal Australians.
Kakkib li’Dthia Warrawee’a is a Doctor of Ya-idt’midtung Medicine and Spiritual Teacher/Philosopher.
The image published with this article is a painting by artist Judy Prosser: www.judyprosser.com.au.