Published in Psychotherapy in Australia Vol 20 No 4 Aug 2014
I immigrated to Australia with my family twenty-four years ago. I suppose we were yet another of a long series
of Eurosettlers to arrive here, since James Cook’s first landing some 220 years earlier. Arriving in Brisbane, my
very first experience was unforgettable. We went to the bank in the middle of town to get some Aussie dollars.
There were three Indigenous Australians sitting on the bench outside the bank. When we came out, the police
were giving them ‘move on’ notices, saying they couldn’t sit there.
It just seemed the damnedest thing. They weren’t doing anything. Just sitting. But apparently, this was not allowed,
and not to be tolerated. Since then, my awareness has grown to understand that this is the least of what is not allowed or tolerated.
Things have changed, maybe even improved a little in some quarters, and not at all in others, but the International
community still sees Australia as an extremely racist country.
Indigenous communities are commonly in systemic breakdown caused by deeply entrenched social problems.
There, we find the highest rates of youth suicide, of incarceration, of mental hospital admissions, of deaths in custody, alcoholism, diabetes and other preventable illnesses, of low life expectancy, poor literacy rates — the listis massive. This is unforgivably shameful for a relatively prosperous, first world, highly developed country.
“Australia is the only developed country in the world that is repeatedly condemned for its abuse of its Indigenous
people,” John Pilger says in concluding his documentary lament ironically called ‘Utopia’.
Indigenous people are the original Australians. I understand there is some internal debate as to who qualifies as a truly original First Nations person. It should be obvious there is no race called Aboriginal that is homogeneous, but rather a highly diverse group, with complex social differences in culture, history, language and appearance. The original First Nations were many nations across the country.
I want to understand what it means to be Indigenous in Australia. I really want to ‘get it’. But there are far too many
well-meaning white Australians (yes, I’m Australian now) who want ‘to do the right thing’ for an oppressed people
designated as ‘the others’ and this attitude and practice inevitably becomes patronising, patriarchal and therefore,
demeaning — a perpetuation of the very thing that needs to be overturned for anything even vaguely approaching
‘reconciliation’ to be possible.
On that note, reconciliation is not possible without a treaty. The land of the First Nations has been taken away without a treaty, which has never happened. Such a treaty would, at very least, acknowledge that the relationship to land is central to what it means to be Indigenous in terms of emotional and spiritual health. Native title is a start but not exactly the same thing as recognising original ownership and ongoing custodianship.
Maybe it was because that first experience affected me that the following weekend I bought an artwork called ‘Citizenship’ by Sally Morgan even though its message horrified me — ‘In 1944 Aborigines were allowed to become ‘Australian citizens’. Aboriginal people called their citizenship papers ‘Dog Tags’. We had to be licensed to be called Australian.’
In twenty-four years, I have had one Aboriginal ‘patient’ in long-term therapy for over ten years, on and off. If there is a stereotype, she is far from fitting it. She is a sophisticated, urban professional, well-qualified with a high profile, and a significant salary who holds a position of influence and responsibility.
I have often wondered if I should have a more original approach to therapy for her and any other Indigenous client who might consult me. But would treating Indigenous clients any differently amount to a form of prejudice, in reverse? Yet, shouldn’t we take into account the unparalleled depth of abuse, trauma and mistreatment over precisely the past 220 years for this entire group?
I do treat trauma survivors somewhat differently. But Aboriginal trauma goes beyond the terrible traumas of many
others. It is pervasive, extreme, intergenerational and ongoing. I mean: who in their right minds removes babies en masse from their mothers and fathers? And, according to some reports, the stolen generation that began in the 1920s and was continuous official policy through to the 1960s is still happening (Georgatos, 2014). Pilger in ‘Utopia’ claims: ‘Within a year of Rudd’s official apology, 37 children were removed from their Indigenous families in NSW. In Northern Queensland almost 200 babies were removed from their mothers within hours of birth without a word about process, rights or any explanation why.’
Recently, I was privileged to be invited to a private gig with Steve Pigram playing. So evocative of life in the Kimberley, he sang his original song ‘Crocodile River’:
He’s up a crocodile river on a moonless night,
Trying to shine a light on those beady red eyes,
In a dinghy with no paddle on a turning tide,
At the mercy of a salty, aaaaah — such is life.
The aaaah sounds like a creaky door and refers to the jaws of
a big croc opening to chomp down on you and pull you under,
literally up shit-creek without a paddle.
And to Mimi, his deceased and much-loved grandmother who largely raised him:
Mimi in the Sky, like yellow rays of light, watching over me,
Mimi when she sings, song gliding on the wind, watching over me,
Yawuru1 in my veins, with blood I write her name,
I’ll sing a song to sing what I can say,
Teary Mimi’s eyes, like raindrops from the sky, washing over me.
A voice that speaks so loud, face up in the clouds, watching over me,
Spirit never dies.
1. The Yawuru people are the native title holders of the WA town
of Broome, including pockets of land and sea in an around the
townsite. See http://www.yawuru.com
The next day, we saw the powerfully-affecting film ‘Charlie’s Country’ based on the life of its lead actor, the wonderful David Gulpilil. His character, Charlie, is destitute and anorexic-looking, but despite this gives away his benefit money to others in his community. I found this so confronting, such a different sense of community than the usual out-for-oneself Western variety.
Later, Charlie appears before a white judge with an English accent. Charlie speaks in his native language but the judge asks if he can call him ‘Charlie’ because he can’t pronounce ‘foreign names’. Charlie replies: “I’m a foreigner now, am I?”
Charlie is a poignant example of a contemporary Indigenous person who struggles to live through the old traditional ways in the context of modern Australian society, when those cultural values make even less sense.
I asked my patient: “How do we define an Aboriginal person?” I felt utterly stupid in asking this but then, many Aboriginal people are of mixed ethnicities. I really didn’t know the answer and wondered if it was ‘inappropriate’ to ask. She didn’t make me feel like a ‘dumb-ass white-fella’. She simply replied: “There are three criteria: 1) of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, 2) who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and 3) is accepted as such by the community in which s/he lives.”
There are variations of this definition used by various legislative and government bodies and many Aboriginal people carry ‘certificates’ from Aboriginal organisations that confirm their identity. But ultimately, it is a white authority that defines who is or is not an Aboriginal person.
Julie Tommy Walker, an Ubbawonga woman and Aboriginal leader has said that without listening to our own voices, ‘Aboriginality’ will continue to be a creation for privileged opportunists and will always be about us, rather than by us.
Even the word ‘Aborigine’ is a creation of English-speakers and originates around 1789, and then grew in common use to refer to Indigenous Australians.
My patient went on to say she was followed around the supermarket by a store detective, expecting her to steal. This happens regularly.
That brings me to ‘dadirri’. Taken from Judy Atkinson’s important book ‘Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia’ which I recommend to you, dadirri is a Ngangikurungkurr word that refers to a deep form of listening to each other, a contemplative process, a quiet,
still awareness. There are similar terms in other Aboriginal languages. Atkinson says dadirri is non-intrusive, ‘hearing with more than the ears; a reflective non-judgemental consideration of what is being seen and heard; and, having learnt from the listening, a purposeful plan to act, with actions informed by learning, wisdom, and
the informed responsibility that comes with knowledge’. (Ring a bell???)
Dadirri involves a strong sense of community. Healing occurs through being listened to, in this manner, over a long period of time. Dadirri requires an empathy that reaches to the sources of pain and anger in the service of generating knowledge and understanding. Meaning here is felt as well as cognised.
Maybe the original approach that is needed is this. We have to change ourselves, in order to effect change in relation to the Indigenous situation in Australia. We change by listening, in some ways as we already do in psychotherapy practice, with our entire being.
For many patients, the agent of healing is not a clever insight, interpretation or piece of wisdom that the therapist might offer. Rather we have to process what has been communicated to arrive at a place of deep empathic understanding. We must overcome the dissociative gaps in the felt-sense of what experience means for the patient through reflection. If we can ‘get it’ then it might, just might, make a difference.
This is not a causal principle. I know I can’t heal anyone. It is more of a principle of attunement, of resonance, of joining up with the experience and history of another person in a spirit of togetherness, of ‘at-one-ment’. As Jung said of synchronicity, it is an acausal, connecting principle.
We, therapists, are working through the damage of our clients. We are working toward a healing of the hurt that has come between us, from the traumatic misdeeds of the past, not least the shockingly wide-sweeping genocide of Indigenous people. We are working to overcome the divisiveness, the alienation, the estrangement, and the defensive distancing that disconnects us and makes a wider, more inclusive sense of community, impossible.
Is this not what is needed of psychotherapy in Australia?
I have worked hard to understand Indigenous experience. I have read some books, seen the films, watched documentaries and even (!) spent a bit of time with some Aboriginal people. Yes, I get it now. I get what so many other white Australians don’t get.
I get that I don’t get it.
So, I will keep on with my own practice of dadirri, and keep listening, and working, to change myself in the hope that one day, the meaning of community can apply equally, to all of us. Then, perhaps we can sit on a bench outside the bank, together.
Atkinson, J. (2003). Trauma trails, recreating song lines: The transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Georgatos, G. (February 15, 2014). Stolen Generations continues but worse than ever. The Stringer Independent News. http://thestringer.com.au/stolen-generations-continues-but-worse-than-ever/#.U92ZtFZVj8u
Pilger, J. (2014). Utopia. See http://johnpilger.com