"They said, Judy, we don't want to tell you any more of these stories; we've got to do something about it. We want to do healing work. It's the first time I'd ever heard in Australia that word healing and I went, well, what's healing? They said, we don't know but we've heard about it and we want to do it. I was, well, let's find out together so that's the story of We Al-li."
Judy Atkinson is one of a small number of people who have inspired me greatly to work in the field of historical trauma and Indigenous peoples. I cannot speak highly enough of her seminal book Trauma Trails - Recreating Song Lines.
No one in Australia has done more for helping our understanding of historical trauma in Aboriginal people, and the ways that it can be tackled, than Judy. In fact, I hate to think where we in Australia would be in understanding and tackling the issues related to historical trauma without her.
You can find out more about Judy, her research, her educaring approach and We Al-Li from webpages of a presentation she made in April 2012 for the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Below, is the abstract of that presentation, and on the right, Judy describes her start to this journey in an audio transcript. You can also hear Judy's talk and see her slides.
"Aboriginal peoples, as individuals and within their families and communities, have been profoundly hurt across generations, resulting in layered historic, social and cultural trauma. The symptoms are contained in the statistics which drive Closing the Gap policies and programs.
Where there is hurt there has to be a healing. In healing, people’s trauma stories become the centerpiece for social action, where the storytellers are the teachers and the listeners learn how they should act in response to what is heard.
An educaring support for healing processes has been developed by Aboriginal peoples within the We Al-li Program which is grounded in the philosophy that there is an innate capacity within all of us, to restore our physical, mental, social and spiritual selves to a state of full productivity and quality of life, no matter how severe the initial damage. Mollica calls this the biological, psychological, and social power of self-healing.
This presentation outlines the historical design and development; and the theory and practice in the delivery of We Al-li as an educational-healing [educaring] program specifically developed in response to generational trauma, by Aboriginal Australians." Judy Atkinson
Judy's daughter Caroline is also making very important contributions to this field. Her PhD, was entitled The Violence Continuum: Australian Aboriginal violence and generational post-traumatic stress.
The research suggests that the high rates of Aboriginal men being incarcerated for crimes of violence could be due to a history of widespread traumatic stressors that are being transmitted across the generations, and which will continue to increase across successive generations without effective intervention.
Below, Judy and Caroline make a 'joint gig', which is great to see. You can watch it in three parts on YouTube.
An 'Educaring' approach to healing generational trauma in Aboriginal Australia
"The beginning: 18 September 1987, I'm up in Cape York. We were doing the land claims stuff, developing a whole process on self-management. Bob Katter was our Minister in those days, Minister for Northern Development and Community Services. We had a big meeting, State and Federal Government people were there in a little place call Kowanyama, 950 people.
On this particular day, we had 10 minutes to decide on $23 million of housing money. We absolutely had no data. We had no idea how many houses were in the 14 trust communities in Queensland, how many people lived in those communities, but we had 10 minutes to make a decision on how we were going to spend this $23 million.
It was obscene; it was awful because we were under such stress. Aunty Judy Brumby took me aside at lunchtime and she said to me, girly, can I talk to you tonight and I said, sure. 7:30 that night, we sat under a mango tree and she said, girly, last year a little five year old was raped. We know who did it. The police say it's cultural and they can't do anything. Can you do something? I went, excuse me, the police say it's cultural? Yes. Will you do something? I went off to talk to my Chairs and Deputy Chairs, there was 28 of them - 14 Chairs and 14 Deputy Chairs, all men - and they said, go for it.
I was the sole research person organising all of the meetings and they said, go for it; do whatever you need to do. Aunty Julie Brumby kick started me on a journey, and this journey took me to understand - well, it took me into a PhD - it took me to understand the historic, social, cultural and developmental complex trauma, there are a lot of different words there, I just want to call it generational trauma, that contributed to the fact that a five year old could be raped and nobody was doing anything.
As I dug into that story, I started to understand - this was the same year that the Royal Commission for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been started. We had more suicides out of cells than inside custody, but nobody was talking about the suicides in those days. Nobody was talking about the number of women who had been to death in the Cape. More than all the deaths in custody in Queensland, women had died through domestic violence. Sometimes they died, according to the death certificate, by pneumonia so it was like people were in denial.
I started to walk this pathway and talk to people, and I was offered this big, long story - I went over to Canada to look at Canadian programs - offered scholarships from three different universities to do a PhD I'm starting to write up on. Just so you get this straight, when I started my PhD, one of my supervisors who was a teaching psychologist, a PhD psychologist, said to me - I outlined what I wanted to do and he said, oh, so you want to do phenomenology and I said - I said, what is that? He said, where did you get your Master's and I said, I don't have a Master's and he said, oh.
Well, where did you get your degree in psychology and I said, well, I don't have a degree in psychology. Actually, my degree was in professional writing and filmmaking. He said, how did you get to get a scholarship in a PhD? I said, I really don't know but I was offered one by this university because I'm working in the area of violence and nobody else was doing it at the time. I got it all together. I wanted to ask the question: what is this violence? I went home to my dad's country.
Around the Capricorn coast area, Rockhampton - my dad was born on the banks of the Fitzroy River. His mother was born on the old Taroom Reserve on the banks of the Dawson River in Jiman country. Out of that, I started to put some kind of context together. What happened in this process is that the mob up home, the group up home, the people up home said to me, we want you to stay here. I thought I was going back out to the Cape to do my PhD but they were, we want you to stay here. Right. Let's have a community meeting and see what I'm supposed to do.
I want to find out what this violence is. Okay, we'll talk to you about that, so for three months - and I had a feminist analysis; I was really smart. That's all I was reading at the time - men bash women, that's it, end of story. Three months later, I realised that what I was reading was not fitting the stories that I was hearing. As I was sitting on the riverbank, sitting down in the [psych unit] and sitting down in the rehab centre with people listening to stories, listening to the stories in their homes.
I started to read trauma theory. As I said, my dad was born there and I started to actually also think about my own life story which is this story here. Six months into it, they came to me again, a big meeting - you're a PhD student and really worried about it.
They said, Judy, we don't want to tell you any more of these stories; we've got to do something about it. We want to do healing work. It's the first time I'd ever heard in Australia that word healing and I went, well, what's healing? They said, we don't know but we've heard about it and we want to do it. I was, well, let's find out together so that's the story of We Al-li." Read more...