Healing through stories - transgenerational trauma of First Nation people

One of the reasons I most wanted to come to Australia was to learn from the First Nation people, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are the traditional owners and custodians of the land which is now called Australia. This year is an important one in the history of the indigenous population as a referendum will be held later this year to enshrine a voice for these people in the Australian constitution. If the referendum is successful this will guarantee that the indigenous people of Australia will be properly represented and consulted on political matters, an important step in making amends for the trauma that this diverse community has suffered as a direct result of colonialisation.

The symbolic importance of this referendum can not be underestimated. Today, as I joined a fascinating tour of the Australian Museum’s First Nation collection, led by an inspiring young aboriginal woman, Remie, I learned that up until 1967 Aboriginals were classed, not as people, but as part of Australia’s flora and fauna. Australia has come a long way on its journey to confront the appalling treatment suffered by the indigenous population at the hands of white settlers, with the flag of the Aboriginal people now flying over Sydney Harbour Bridge and many places reverting to their original First Nation names. However, the transgenerational trauma suffered by the indigenous people is still very much a reality reflected in the disproportionate numbers of aboriginal people incarcerated in Australia’s prisons and the higher prevalence of mental illness, psychological distress and suicide.

A crucial part of healing from trauma is having the opportunity to tell our stories. The Australian Museum is doing just this in their First Nation exhibition, which through its collection of images and artefacts gives visitors a fascinating insight into the culture and ways of life of some of the First Nation people, both past and present.

The exhibition also helped me to understand how the climate catastrophe we now face is fundamentally connected to the way the indigenous community have been treated. Not only have we failed to learn from the Elders, whose profound connection to the land, their mother, involves a deep and abiding respect for nature but the abuse and degradation of the land as a result of greed has compounded the trauma already visited upon this population. Indigenous people have always understood that you must not take too much from the earth. Being nomadic enabled them to live sustainably on the land, never taking more than was needed and moving on so the land could repair and regenerate. As we looked at the intricately woven baskets used to catch fish our guide explained they were designed so that smaller fish could escape in order to ensure the species remained plentiful. Similarly, when the bark was removed from trees to make dug-out canoes this was done with enormous care to ensure the tree would continue to thrive and whoever had taken from the tree would then have a responsibility towards it to ensure it continued to grow and flourish.

In stark contrast a special exhibition at the museum highlighted the plight of the Barka River which as a result of climate change and water mismanagement has suffered years of drought, followed by floods, followed by a devastating toxic algae bloom leading to fish dying in their millions. This environmental catastrophe was experienced as a further trauma by the Barkindji, traditional owners of the river, who use it for drinking, bathing and recreation and now found the waters to be so toxic they caused a rash on the skin when used for washing and were no longer fit to drink. To native people the earth and the rivers and the air are their mother so an assault on the river is an assault on their very being and the exhibition powerfully demonstrated the emotional and psychological trauma of this environmental disaster.

For the First Nation people of Australia climate change and social justice are intertwined. The transgenerational trauma these people live with is being compounded by the impact of capitalism and greed on the land itself. Yet these are a resilient people. A people of story and song. A people whose traditions, including those of yarning and art are enabling them to survive and pass their wisdom on to those of us open enough to listen. I look forward to learning so much more on this trip from these people who have experienced so much and who carry such wisdom, which has been passed down from Elders to younger generations, creating the narrative that is so necessary for healing.