Culture is the life-giving medicine

In State Parliament in February, Josie Farrer spoke of suicide creating a ‘wave of grief’ throughout her electorate. It is, in fact, a wave that rolls across electorates: across the Kimberley, across the Tiwi Islands, across the communities of Cape York, and back again.

A new report, ‘The Elders Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm and Suicide’, profiles the perspectives of Elders and community leaders from northern Australia and aims to answer the questions: why is self-harm and suicide still happening? And, what is the solution?

KRED Enterprises CEO Wayne Bergmann, says one of the reasons government strategies haven’t solved the problem is because they’re based on quick-fix models implemented by outsiders and are subject to the ebbs and flows of funding.

“Aboriginal people need to be involved in solving our own problems. Bringing outsiders into the Kimberley will not create succession, the legacies of change that we need . . . There are a lot of people running around trying to do good, but it doesn’t create intergenerational change. We want to up-skill our own people.”

It’s a sentiment shared by other leaders in the Kimberley, including Fitzroy Crossing’s Dean Gooda.

Mr Gooda says, “We have always heard of policy development from the ground up, but in my 25 years working in this area with government and community, I have never seen this happen. I have never seen them take and implement what the community is asking for if it doesn’t fit into the funding guidelines . . . It is frustrating, because we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A number of leaders view this light as a reconnection to culture. Fitzroy Crossing elder Joe Brown says, “If they [young people] lose language and connection to culture they become a nobody inside and that’s enough to put anyone over the edge . . . We’re trying to bring them back, make them really strong.”

Many of the leaders agree that an effective way to do this is to take young people at risk back to country. The Yiriman Project, which kicked off in 2000, offers an on-country cultural program designed to heal through intergenerational knowledge sharing. Yiriman founder, John Watson, says young people often react strongly to the experience.

“Some come out clean, some of them understand what we’re talking about, some of them cry—it gets into them very deep.”

KRED’s Chairperson Anthony Watson is also a founder and Chairperson of the Yiriman Project. He acknowledges securing funding for the program is an ongoing challenge but says, “I’m dedicated toward the social and cultural programs in the community and helping youth bridge the gap.”

Professor Pat Dudgeon also acknowledges that culture is crucial for healing. She says, “Culture has become a life-giving medicine for our people, closing the wounds of the past and standing us strong to face the future.”

One of the biggest challenges for Indigenous young people is in learning to walk in two worlds, in finding a balance between earning a wage and maintaining traditional knowledge, values and cultural practices. The overwhelming consensus among leaders in this report suggests challenges such as this are best met not by fly-in-fly-out bureaucrats, or policy makers in Canberra, but by community leaders and Elders.

Mr Bergmann says, “That’s where the real answers lie, in empowering Aboriginal people to address community issues.”