'This is the first of three articles about Sharing Culture, our new Human Rights initiative developed to help Indigenous peoples around the world heal from historical trauma and its consequences (e.g. mental health problems, addiction, suicide), as well as other adversities (e.g. social and economic deprivation). Sharing Culture is also about celebrating the successes, gifts and beliefs of Indigenous peoples and their culture.
In this first article, I include a letter I received from an Aboriginal Elder, and provide an introduction to Sharing Culture. I’ll look at some of the problems faced by Indigenous peoples in Article 2. I’ll consider some solutions to these problems, and describe in more depth what we are trying to do with Sharing Culture in the final article. These articles have been written as we try to enhance our reach and increase the size of our audience.
At the end of March, I received the following moving letter from Aboriginal Elder Miliwanga Wurrben:
It is with great respect that I write to you.
I heard about your work with ‘Sharing Culture’ and I feel honoured to be able to share some of my stories and perspectives with you. I have always longed for my culture to be known to the rest of the world. I hope that in your way you might support us to allow others to hear about the lives, the culture and the many stories of Indigenous People in Australia.
In hearing and knowing what is happening in north WA in communities such as One Arm Point it breaks my heart. I feel deeply sad when I hear what is happening to the people there. As we have been told that the government now has started the removal of Indigenous People (Elders, families, men, women, children) from their communities in to small townships and cities.
My deepest concern is that this will totally destroy their spirit and I think of my Elders and the children in the homelands of my community. When Indigenous Peoples live on the homelands, which are similar to small villages, they live in connection with the land. When they move off the homelands, they don’t have a connection with the ways of the western world and they have no means for survival.
For an Elder to leave his or her homeland is like taking away the most valuable possession of their life, that they’ve held on to and cared for since the beginning of time. For an Elder to be removed and put in a town or city will mean much fretting over their land and finally end up losing their spirit and will to live and they will surely pass away.
For the children, they will be in an environment without listening to their language being spoken and trying in every possible way to adapt to their environment, this will cause them to become sick spiritually, emotionally and physically. A lot of their wellbeing is dependent on their connection with their lands.
Thank you for feeling our pain and hearing our voice and hearing the calls of our cries.
We hope that if we work together, maybe more people will hear and understand this is a crime against humanity. This is a repeat of the traumatic history of Australia.
I am most honoured to be heard by you and feel grateful and thankful for our connection.
Yes, can you imagine waking up one day to hear that your community was being closed down… or living day-by-day knowing your community may be closed down? This is happening in Western Australia - one of the richest areas of the world - because the government says it cannot afford to maintain remote Indigenous communities.
When talking to Mel on Skype, I felt emotional about what is happening to her peoples. It’s not as if this was the first time I’d heard or read about the bad things that are happening to Indigenous peoples in Australia. And it’s not as if our discussion was focused on these negatives. Far from it, as Mel spent a good deal of time telling me about her culture, spirituality and art. Her happiness and joy lifted my spirits - her sadness brought tears to my eyes and touched my heart in a way that hadn’t happened before. I felt a true and strong connection with a special spiritual lady.
As I watched Mel on a computer screen, I realised that I had made the right decision to start helping Indigenous peoples heal from the trauma and other adversities they have faced and continue to face in their lives.
Just as importantly, and as I have come to realise over the past two years, there is so much that I can learn - and pass on to others - from Indigenous peoples. For example, I have come to appreciate that the Indigenous holistic worldview of social and emotional wellbeing is superior to western culture’s worldview of mental health. Indigenous peoples are also far more caring about our environment and the planet than is western culture. As Naomi Klein in her book ‘This Changes Everything says:
“This means that financially honoring Indigenous peoples rights is not simply about paying off Canada’s enormous legal debt to First Nations; it is also out best chance to save entire territories from endless extraction and destruction. In no small way, the actions of Indigenous peoples - and the decision of Canadians to stand alongside them - will determine the fate of the planet.”
So who am I and what am I trying to do? And why did Mel Sandy contact me?
Well, my name is David Clark and I am an Emeritus Professor of Psychology. I took early retirement - should I say escaped? - from the academic world in 2006 in order to work full-time in the community empowering people to recover from addiction and mental health problems. I moved from the UK to Perth at the end of 2008. I had worked in the addiction and mental health fields for over 35 years before starting to work with Indigenous people.
Three Indigenous people initially inspired me into working in this field: Marion Kickett and Judy Atkinson from Australia, and Native American Don Coyhis. I read Judy’s seminal book Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia and was instantly blown away. I had not thought about trauma being passed down the generations, and I did not realise that this trauma had so profoundly affected Indigenous people of Australia and other colonised countries. I was totally fascinated by Judy’s approach to healing historical trauma and by her We Al-li healing program.
I set up the Sharing Culture initiative with my colleague Michael Liu in the latter part of 2013, with the aim of helping Indigenous peoples heal from historical trauma and its consequences, e.g. emotional distress, addiction, violence and suicide, as well as other adversities, e.g. social and economic disadvantage. Sharing Culture is based on the core values of authenticity, connection, courage, creativity, empathy and forgiveness.
We built the Sharing Culture website as the first stage development of an education, storytelling and advocacy resource that will: (1) empower Indigenous individuals, families and communities to heal, (2) educate and inform wider society, so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can together create empathic and supportive healing environments. I started to blog early in 2014 and there are now over 200 blogs on the website.
Our initiative, which as far as I can see is unique worldwide, is supported by an international network of over thirty Indigenous and non-Indigenous Advisors/Healers, the vast majority of whom are world leading experts in, for example, Indigenous healing, trauma, addiction and mental health recovery. I have been humbled by the positive response of some of these experts when we asked them to join up.
In the future, we will expand this network further by recruiting people in the arts, as we believe strongly that music, painting, dance, theatre, etc, facilitate healing.
We have lots of exciting plans, but what we achieve is obviously dependant in part on funding. All we have achieved to date has been done with no funding, but we cannot continue in that way. Our first efforts to raise funding from government and the corporate world in Australia were not successful, but we’ll start a new funding drive shortly. Keep your fingers crossed.
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. There is a real energy at a grassroots level that can be catalysed to generate a ripple effect of hope and healing. We honestly believe that we can help make healing contagious, as is happening with, for example, the addiction recovery movement in the USA. It will take time, but it will happen.
Key to making things happen is empowering and connecting Indigenous people. You empower people to heal or recover by providing hope (that healing is possible), understanding (of the nature of the problem and how it can be overcome) and a sense of belonging. And you must help connect Indigenous peoples not just to other people, but also to their culture, land and spirituality. At Sharing Culture, we want to enhance cultural connectedness by facilitating cultural pride.
I love it when people thank me for putting up a certain article on the website. There’s a lot of really good information out there that just isn’t circulated enough. I just know that we can achieve so much by developing a high quality resource with educational material about healing, information to feed advocacy campaigns, healing stories to inspire, and a wealth of other content. Content that is relevant to people’s everyday lives. Content that can be used to help them deal with their problems. Content that carries a powerful Indigenous Voice.
This information must not focus on the problem - the popular media seems to wallow in problems. True, we must understand the nature of the problem(s), but sometimes even social justice campaigners spend too much time talking about the problem. Focusing on the negatives (the ‘problems’) can create an environment that is disempowering and lacking in hope for Indigenous peoples. Constant negativism leads to negative mindsets, which act as a barrier to healing. Moreover, the same happens when we focus on the needs and deficiencies of Indigenous peoples.
At Sharing Culture, we intend to focus on solutions. And we intend to focus on the strengths, assets and gifts of Indigenous peoples. They are amazing peoples with incredible resiliency - otherwise, how on earth have they survived what the colonisers have thrown at them over hundreds of years. And still do today.
Back to Mel Sandy. Aunty Mel has contacted me and asked for help, partly because she can see what can be achieved with the Sharing Culture initiative. She knows that we are building a network that will allow Indigenous peoples to tell their Stories - good and bad - and be heard by people around the world. She knows that Indigenous peoples around the world can better help and learn from each other. And she believes that more non-Indigenous people will become involved when they know more about the situation.
Next month, I meet Aunty Mel for the first time when I head to the Northern Territory to participate in a Cultural Tour organised by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann in Nauiyu on the Daly River, and visit various communities in the region. I’ve been developing a collaborative project, Voices of the Rivers, with Aunty Miriam and Aunty Mel, and Pip Gordon from Katherine. We’ll be discussing that project and yarning about lots of things.
I’m really excited about my trip. It’s the beginning of a new journey for me - and for Sharing Culture - and I can’t wait to be on country, hear about dadirri, and just listen and learn! Roll on to that time!
See you soon, Aunty Mel and Aunty Miriam Rose!
"Hey David Clark, we yarned up 'Sharing Culture' and Miriam said… 'David... lets grow belonging and connection'. Love to you and your family and Carlie Atkinson and Judy Atkinson… a seed planted for a sit down together up here in Nauiyu?"
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>> The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Part 2, Nature of the Problems
>> The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Part 3, Finding Solutions and Facilitating Healing