"Saddest thing is they don’t even realise that they’ve got all the coping mechanisms, and they’ve been healing themselves all these years. If it was pointed out to them, things would really start to happen. They would build on it, because they know things are wrong, but they just don’t know what to do about it." Mary in Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines by Judy Atkinson
Working towards solutions with our Sharing Culture initiative
Michael Liu and I have developed the Human Rights initiative Sharing Culture as a way to help Indigenous peoples heal from historical trauma and its consequences, and other adversities. Sharing Culture is based on the core values of authenticity, connection, courage, creativity, empathy and forgiveness. We use a strengths-based, solution-focused approach that celebrates success and fosters positivity, acceptance and cultural pride.
We recognise that self-determination is a central foundation of healing - solutions must come from Indigenous communities. At the same time, non-Indigenous people can contribute to this healing process in a variety of ways. One major way that Sharing Culture will facilitate this healing process is to generate high quality educational content and Stories about Indigenous healing, and distribute it in the most effective manner to as wide an audience as possible.
A major foundation of our approach is based on highlighting and utilising the strengths and assets of Indigenous people and their culture. Large numbers of Indigenous people live happy and successful lives, many of whom have healed from historical trauma and its consequences. They have shown great strengths and resilience, as well as the necessary coping mechanisms, skills and knowledge, to rise above adversity. These people are the lived solution, the role models who Sharing Culture will work with to help inspire and teach other Indigenous people to heal. Their Healing Stories need to be told and widely distributed.
Sharing Culture also highlights the humane and holistic view of Indigenous wellbeing that incorporates the physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, social and environmental. This view, which has been in existence for tens of thousands of years, is far richer than the western view of mental health. The indigenous view focuses on ‘wellness’ rather than ‘illness’, ‘social and emotional wellbeing’ rather than ‘mental health’, ‘balance and harmony’ rather than ‘restoration of function only’, a ‘strengths’ approach rather than ‘reducing risks’, and a ‘collective’ rather than ‘individualistic’ approach.
Importantly, western-based scientific research is only just now recognising the key importance of factors like ‘belonging’, ‘relationships’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘Stories’ in underlying healing and recovery, factors that Indigenous cultures have known for many thousands of years.
Indigenous peoples have a diverse range of healing approaches that help heal historical trauma and its consequences. Some of these, such as the culturally-based Native American Wellbriety Movement, are impacting positively on many thousands of people’s lives. Don Coyhis and his colleagues emphasise the importance of actively healing the community and its institutions at the same time as individuals work on their own healing. Annalise Jennings has been using her Whole of Community Change model to great effect in Indigenous communities in Australia.
The inspirational research of Professor Judy Atkinson and her daughter Dr Carlie Atkinson in Australia has led to development of the highly effective We Al-li healing program for helping people heal from historical trauma. Judy and Carlie emphasise the importance of ceremony and cultural tools such as dadirri, storytelling, art, music, dance, theatre, and reflective discussion in healing.
Dr Bruce Perry, world-leading trauma expert, points out how Indigenous cultures from around the world are using the same general approach to facilitate healing from trauma. He emphasises that these approaches impact on biological substrates in the brain:
“While these therapeutic practices may not at first seem “biological”: be assured that they are not only likely to change the brain, but they will assuredly provide the patterned, repetitive stimuli required to specifically influence and modify the impact of trauma, neglect, and maltreatment on key neural systems.”
Sadly, however, far too few Indigenous healing initiatives receive adequate financial support from government or other sources. Moreover, there is too little communication across Indigenous communities about successful healing programs.
Sharing Culture will help change this situation, by developing an education resource and information network to ensure that communities across Australia (and further afield) learn from each other. We will create an advocacy campaign that helps healing initiatives promote themselves and be better able to attract funding. We will help western culture learn from Indigenous healing practices; people must be able to benefit from both western and Indigenous worldviews and practices.
Healing from trauma and its consequences
The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Healing of trauma (and historical trauma), therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the person and the creation of new connections. Trauma also robs the victim of a sense of power and control; the guiding principle of healing is to restore power and control. The first task of healing is to establish the trauma survivor's safety. A healing environment must be created that is culturally safe.
Empowerment is also key because healing is something that comes from the person, not from a practitioner or treatment. Sharing Culture empowers people to heal by giving them hope (that healing is possible), understanding (of the nature of the problem and how it can be overcome) and a sense of belonging. They need the opportunity to make their own choices and be reminded of their strengths and assets.
In relation to the second principle (connections), healing can take place only within the context of relationships (or community). In a renewed connection with other people, the trauma survivor recreates the psychological facilities that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic operations of trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy.
When people are connected, they can receive the support of other people, which allows them to feel accepted and loved. Their self-esteem and confidence increase as they learn social skills and become better at interacting with other people.
The development of social skills helps them overcome their feelings of isolation (disconnection). It leads to an increased self-awareness of the need to change their previous destructive thought and behavioural patterns, and a belief that they are capable of leaving their old lifestyles behind and working towards a more positive future. You can read here some of my own past research which provides insights into how community facilitates healing.
A further important component of healing is gaining a sense of agency, the subjective feeling of controlling one’s actions and being in control of one’s own life. A person gains a sense of agency - and a feeling of power and control - by being engaged in meaningful activities and gaining a niche in the community.
Much research also shows the benefits of helping other people (‘giving back’) and of peer-to-peer support on health and wellbeing. Finally, it should be emphasised that becoming connected and gaining a sense of agency empowers people, and enhances their self-esteem and commitment to change.
Connecting Indigenous peoples to their culture, land, family, community, spirituality and history is key for healing to occur. When these connections are strong, indigenous people gain a sense of who they are and where they belong. Culture provides meaning and purpose to life and a sense of wellbeing. Identifying, preserving and sharing culture gives indigenous people a sense of pride and hope of a positive future. All these elements facilitate healing.
In the recent Elders Report on self-harm and youth suicide in Indigenous people, Elders from around Australia stressed the importance of providing young people with “a cultural foundation and helps protects them from feelings of hopelessness, isolation and being lost between worlds.”
Research in over 200 indigenous communities in Canada has showed that Indigenous communities that have control over local institutions and are grounded in a collective sense of history and culture have the low rates of suicide or no suicides at all, while indigenous communities with no cultural connectedness had suicide rates over 800 times the national average.
Stories and Education
Stories are a major foundation of the Sharing Culture approach. Role models and their personal narratives are of considerable value, since they provide hope that healing is possible and help people understand the nature of their problem and how it can be overcome.
People in the early stages of healing identify with and trust the experiences of someone who is further along in their journey. They are inspired by Healing Stories and use the ‘educational’ content they contain to help them deal with the problems and struggles they face in their day-to-day living. Who better to help us than someone who has ‘been there’?
Sharing Culture will tell the Stories of healing initiatives, as well as Cultural Stories that create pride and facilitate cultural connectedness. We will empower communities to develop their own Stories initiatives and encourage young Indigenous filmmakers to become involved with our initiative.
Education is another key element of the Sharing Culture approach. Education to facilitate Indigenous healing takes a wide variety of forms, including the spiritual aspects of health and wellbeing. Key themes to be developed for our resource are:
History: Viewing history from an Indigenous perspective, illustrating how conditions for social and psychological discontent have developed, helps community members understand why they have problems, and also shows them that they retain the necessary agency to change their lives for the better. It helps them deal with shame and blame, factors that impact negatively on wellbeing.
Culture: Indigenous peoples need to discover, understand and transmit Indigenous knowledge, values and ways of knowing in order to better connect to their culture and gain a strong cultural identity and a sense of belonging. (They must also understand selected Western ways as well).
Healing historical trauma: Indigenous peoples will be shown the strong evidence base for healing historical trauma at an individual, family and community level.
Healing addiction and mental health problems: Indigenous peoples can learn more about the symptoms of historical trauma (e.g. addiction to substances), how long-term recovery (healing) can be achieved, and what they might expect if they interact with society’s treatment and support systems.
Self-caring skills: Indigenous peoples will learn how to undertake a journey to wellness that involves self-care. They will have the opportunity to: learn social skills; how to deal with shame and negative thinking; learn about mindfulness, self-compassion and forgiveness; and develop resilience.
This educational resource will be utilised by Indigenous individuals, families and whole communities. It will contain videos of Indigenous people, and users of the website will be able to download these videos for themselves or other people. Sharing Culture initiative will instill curiosity, creativity and cultural pride. It will empower people to help themselves and others.
We intend that our resources reach a wide-ranging audience. We both love innovative communication technologies and will develop new distribution methods.
The initiative will help increase the number of Indigenous people in the workforce, something that is essential to facilitate healing. Non-Indigenous people working with Indigenous people in health, social care and criminal justice settings need to know more about the healing of historical trauma to help them improve what they do.
We aim that our educational content and stories be shown in schools and universities, so that we help empower Aboriginal children at an early age, and ensure that the next generation of health, social care and criminal justice workers are better educated about trauma and healing.
Policy makers also need a better understanding to make the most appropriate decisions regarding policy and funding. A better understanding of the problems and adversities faced by Indigenous peoples, as well as examples of the solutions that are occurring daily, will help reduce stigma and racism in wider society.
In order to help influence policy makers and facilitate wider societal change, we will encourage Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to use our educational content for advocacy purposes and to join our Sharing Culture advocacy campaign. Engaging Indigenous people in advocacy work enhances their self-esteem and sense of agency, which in turn facilitate healing.
Phases of the Sharing Culture initiative
In the first 18 months of our Sharing Culture initiative, we have conducted a great deal of research, launched the Sharing Culture website and David’s regular blog, and created an international network of leading experts - Sharing Culture Advisors - in areas relevant to our work. We have seen a genuine enthusiasm and excitement amongst Indigenous people about our initiative, and we know that many people will want to get involved.
In the next year of our project, we aim to develop an education resource on Indigenous Healing, which will include an inspiring collection of written and filmed Indigenous Healing Stories. These Stories will allow us to see and feel the impact of historical trauma on Indigenous people, understand how our storytellers have overcome great adversity, and gain important insights into Indigenous healing.
They will teach us about the strengths of Indigenous culture, and allow us to appreciate the beauty of Indigenous arts and country. We will learn about exciting Indigenous initiatives that are changing society. These Healing Stories will be made available for free on our Sharing Culture website, as well as be purchasable in the form of DVDs and educational iBooks. We will expand our distribution network and facilitate the ways that different initiatives, communities and countries can help each other.
We have been developing collaborative projects, such as the Voices of the Rivers, and we aim that these projects will flourish over time. One thing that I have noticed in working in the field is how important it is to connect people. There are people working hard who at times feel very isolated. There are few things worse than being a change maker working in isolation, having no one to share one’s frustrations or joys with. It’s great to see how people respond when they connect with a similar spirit.
All of what we have achieved to date with Sharing Culture, has been done with no funding. This situation cannot continue if we are to put some legs on this initiative. I state this explicitly because I don't want to build false expectations. In the past, many people thought that my Wired In recovery work was well-funded (some people thought we were an institute), when in fact there were two or three of us working and being financed by my personal savings. There are no personal savings anymore, so I am looking to find sponsors for our work.
Sadly, despite the incredible - humbling - response we have had from world leading experts about our initiative, we have been unable to date to attract interest from funders here in Western Australia and further afield in this country. We will continue our search to find passionate and caring people who can help fund a project that will make an enormous difference in a cost-effective manner. We know the latter, because people will be empowered to heal.
In summary, Sharing Culture will highlight the multitude of ways that society can facilitate Indigenous healing and spread these healing messages in innovative ways. We will harness the considerable latent energy that exists at grassroots levels by providing hope, understanding and a sense of belonging through cultural pride.
We intend that our project creates a ripple effect of hope and healing amongst Indigenous people which travels through and across communities. Eventually, healing will become contagious, as has happened with other social movements. Our films and Education content will pass on to our viewers’ children and grandchildren, ensuring that they facilitate indigenous healing across generations.
Trauma has crossed generations - healing can do the same.
David can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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>> The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Part 1, Answering a Call from the Northern Territory of Australia’
>> The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Part 2, Nature of the Problems