For this group of women, red ocher is the first step in healing.
It is rubbed on the patient’s disease to protect it before it begins to sing.
“They come to us ladies and we sing them this healing song,” said one of the women.
“We first put red ocher on them to protect them, because the women’s song is so loud.
“And after that, they feel really good. They feel settled and calm and everything.”
The women are part of Jalngangurru Healing, a trial program connecting Kimberley patients with male and female cultural healers.
It targets clients in Fitzroy Crossing, Derby and surrounding communities, supported by the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Center and Emama Nguda Aboriginal Corporation with federal funding.
The group of cultural healers, whose real names cannot be used for cultural reasons, saw much pain, both physical and spiritual, in those who sought their help.
“We see their eyes when they come to us. We see the eyes, and the eyes tell us the person is sick,” they said.
“When they come to see us, we ask them what’s wrong… talk and have fun.
“We make them feel calm. Make them feel loved.”
Jalngangurru Healing cultural healers treat a patient’s knee by rubbing it with red ocher and singing healing songs at Fitzroy Crossing. Source: AAP / Richard Wainwright
National need for ‘life-changing’ aid
The demand for healing services is skyrocketing across the country.
“It got active on social media and it got crazy,” Emama Nguda general manager Ben Burton told AAP at a healer camp in Fitzroy Crossing.
“There were people all over Australia messaging trying to get help…desperate people, suffering and suffering from mental health, loss after loss after loss and depression.
“All the feedback from people so far is that it’s been life changing.”
Referrals are sent to the program’s Healing Coordinator, who then liaises with the Cultural Advisors.
Elders decide if healing should be offered, who should be involved, and what services will be provided.
“Because they know the families, they know if we’re in the middle of something…we shouldn’t be,” Burton said.
“This is how we reduce the risks of our program. We rely on the expertise of our seniors.”
Heal the Kimberley
Traditional healing has long been practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Kimberley, but it is mainly accessed through family ties.
Making it more widely accessible through Jalngangurru Healing is seen as an important step towards addressing mental health, bereavement and trauma issues in the region.
“A lot of people lost that connection, because of missions and religion and a whole range of things. It was about leveling the playing field,” Burton said.
“For many people, sometimes the symptoms don’t fit mainstream psychology and medicine.
“Our cultural advisers are able to look at these things in a different way and work through these issues.”
The vast Kimberley region is home to around 30 language groups, with unique cultural practices and heritage dating back over 50,000 years.
Traditional healing has been used across the Kimberley for thousands of years, and many hope the practice can become widespread. Credit: Steve Waters/Getty Images
More recently, it has been plagued by social issues, including one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
A 2019 survey cited intergenerational trauma as a factor in the deaths of 13 young people over a three-and-a-half-year period.
Coroner Ros Fogliani found 12 of the youths, including a 10-year-old girl, dead by suicide. She made an open discovery in one case.
Ms Fogliani made 42 recommendations, including that there be funding for the development of cultural healing projects in the Kimberleys.
“Cultural healing programs are essential to maintaining the cultural continuity of Indigenous peoples, which is one of the protective factors that promotes self-continuity,” she wrote.
In a report last year outlining its progress, the state government said it accepted the coroner’s recommendation but took no action.
More funding needed
Jalngangurru Healing secured federal government funding through the WA Primary Health Alliance for the Kimberley Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Trial.
It was due to expire at the end of 2022 but has been extended until June 30 next year.
Program officials say that’s barely enough to pay healers, cover staff costs and run workshops, including transportation for elders and their caregivers.
“We just don’t have that certainty, so we still think we’re close to finishing and we have to find other funding,” said Tammy Solonec, coordinator of Jalngangurru Healing.
“Healers are not rich people. And you can’t expect people to work for free.
“The more this is funded, the more meaningful job opportunities we create for…Aboriginal people.
Tammy Solonec, Jalngangurru Healing Coordinator by the Fitzroy River in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Source: AAP / Richard Wainwright
The WA Primary Health Alliance is awaiting further guidance from the federal health department on funding targeted regional suicide prevention initiatives across the state.
“An evaluation report provided to the department showed that cultural elements, solutions and activities, such as Jalngangurru Healing, can be effective but take time to establish and reach the target community,” a spokeswoman said. .
“We are aware of the profound challenges facing communities in the Kimberley, particularly the trauma and grief over the tragic loss of so many young people.”
The healers hope to one day have their own building where they can work in privacy, similar to the Akeyulerre Center that houses Arrernte healers in Alice Springs.
Jalngangurru Healing is considering corporate and philanthropic contributions, having so far failed to secure funding from the WA Mental Health Commission.
“The WA government is committed to working in partnership with Indigenous-controlled organizations and communities to improve the lives and well-being of Indigenous peoples,” a state government spokeswoman said.
“Any request for funding through the Mental Health Commission would be considered on its merits and in accordance with the usual unsolicited bidding and funding request processes.”
The commission said it awarded grants earlier this year to 13 Indigenous community-controlled organizations and nonprofits for initiatives supporting the social and emotional well-being of Indigenous youth.
The next generation of healers
As the trial progresses, one of the main goals of Jalngangurru Healing is to safeguard and pass on cultural knowledge to future generations.
The coordinators fear overloading the small group of healers.
“Much of the knowledge belongs to the Elders,” said Ms. Solonec.
“We want to be able to do that succession planning and bring in the young people, but again, it’s more money, time and effort.”
For young people struggling with mental health issues, the program also offers the opportunity to better connect them to their culture.
A cultural healer from Jalngangurru Healing shows his hands in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Source: AAP / Richard Wainwright
This AAP article was made possible with support from the Meta Australian News Fund and the Walkley Foundation.