Summer May Finlay writes:
Indigenous people from around the globe met on the lands of the Larrakia people (Darwin) for the International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference, held from the 17-20 June.
The theme, Thinking. Speaking. Being, was inspired by the UN’s declaration of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
More than 740 delegates, most of whom were Indigenous, experienced what many described as “the best conference they have ever been to”.
What made this conference so significant?
The total immersion in Indigeneity.
It was the predominantly Indigenous speakers and keynotes amongst a largely Indigenous delegation, hosted by one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, the Lowitja Institute.
Even the understanding of health was uniquely demonstrated at the conference from an Indigenous worldview. Health is more than the absence of disease. It is healthy culture, mind, language, being, community, family and self. ‘Health’, therefore, requires equilibrium in all aspects of each and every individual for us all to be healthy.
Peter Yu, a Yawuru man and the CEO of Broome-based Nyamba Buru Yawuru Aboriginal Corporation, summarised Aboriginal understanding of health perfectly:
For Indigenous people, a healthy life is fundamentally connected to our universal demands for self-determination, for freedom from discrimination and for autonomous economic foundations.”
Another unique aspect of the conference was the focus on solutions. Solutions defined by Indigenous people and solutions that were rooted in culture. Cultures which are as old as time. Cultures which are diverse and yet share a common thread, linking us together. A thread which, when we meet, is obvious to us.
For me there were key five take always from the conference:
1. Think cross-disciplinarily
Health is rooted in our sense of wellbeing: physical, emotionally, spiritually and culturally.
If health is multi-dimensional, our solutions need to be cross-disciplinary. This was a key point made by Associate Professor Chelsea Bond during her keynote speech.
Associate Professor Bond said she would not be entering into any more conversations about “which health discipline was ‘the best’.”
“If Indigenous people are going to experience health and wellbeing, we need the philosophers, journalists, the poets, activists,” she said.
We need the clinical professionals, but we also need the communicators to share our messages, academics to assist to develop the evidence base and activists to agitate for change.
If we engage across disciplines, we will be able to create solutions which work with a whole person, not just body parts.
2. Speak in language
In the International Year of Indigenous languages, Indigenous languages were the inspiration for the conference.
Keynoter speaker, an Indigenous Hawaiian man, Bruce Blankenfeld, shared an all too familiar colonial story of a denial of First Nations language.
For many years, it was illegal for Hawaiian languages to be spoken. This included in schools and the court system. In Australia, we are all too familiar with this dispossession and were also denied our languages. However, Blankenfeld says that language isn’t just a way of talking, it is also an expression of culture.
Culture is the core who we are. Our languages are a part of that.
In no way does the role language plays in culture diminish those of us who are unable to speak in our mother tongue. What it does do, is encourage us to learn our languages and reclaim that part of our culture. In doing so, we are putting ourselves back together as an individual and as a people.
3. Speak our true history
Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian man and author of the award-winning book, Dark Emu, continued to challenge the myth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were savages and without civilisation.
Aboriginal people were making bread at least 35,000 years ago, as evidenced by starch found in a grinding stone. We were farming. Building houses. Practising engineering, as demonstrated by the Brewarrina fish traps, which are known to be the oldest man-made structure.
Many of us do not know our true history as Bruce Pascoe tells it. We have been fed the story that civilisation only landed in Australia with the arrival of Captain Cook. This denial of our history only promotes the white saviour and leaves us as the saved.
The false narrative of us as savages by diminishing our culture, diminishes us. If we are striving to be healthy as a people and nation, we need to ensure that our history is told in full. Told in schools. By our politicians. In our academic institutions.
4. Be courageous
Associate Professor Chelsea Bond called for Indigenous people to “be courageous”.
Bruce Blankenfeld, an expert navigator, asked whether it was a greater risk to leave the canoe tied up on the dock and lose the strong history of Polynesian navigation and the culture that goes with it, or to untie it from the docks.
Dr Abhay Bang is a physician and an internationally well-known public health expert. For the past 30 years, he and his wife, Dr Rani Bang, have lived and worked in a tribal district, Gadchiroli, in Maharashtra.
Tribal peoples weren’t accessing the health services outside their communities. Why? Because it didn’t reflect their culture. They didn’t see themselves in the white and clinical corridors and doctors’ rooms.
The solution? Take services to where the people are. Simple in principle, complex for policy-makers. The outcome? A significant drop in child deaths.
Dr Abhay Bang called on policy-makers to ask themselves what the risk was of not changing the system to meet the needs of the neediest. The risk is that the high burden of disease and death will continue.
For me, the loss of culture is far riskier than taking the canoe out on the open seas. Indigenous peoples, if we are distant from our culture, we aren’t whole.
Call out governments, allies, non-Indigenous institutions for excluding us. For taking Indigenous funding when they know our organisations can better meet the needs of our people. Challenge the academy and their whiteness. Be Indigenous academics and do it in an Indigenous way.
5. Be Indigenous
The Lowitja Institute’s conference was a celebration of Indigeneity, it was ever present and both tangible and intangible. Each and every speaker reinforced the role culture plays in our health and wellbeing. The conference demonstrated that the colonisers’ attempt to destroy our culture through the process of assimilation compromised our health and wellbeing.
First and foremost, Indigenous peoples are Indigenous in every space we occupy. Our Indigeneity cannot be quantified or qualified.
Reclaiming, maintaining and practising culture gives us confidence of self. This confidence gives us permission to be courageous.
Professor Kerry Arabena called on us to stop being compared to non-Indigenous people. Our cultures are unique.
As Indigenous peoples, we are standing on the shoulders of giants: our ancestors. They are our strength. We must honour them with our actions. We must create a path for ancestors that are yet to be. This is health. This is culture. This is the solution.
• This article was first published by NITV.
Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman, academic, writer and a public health consultant. Summer has worked in a number of different areas relating to Aboriginal health and social justice. A contributing editor at Croakey, she is covering #LowitjaConf2019 for the Croakey Conference News Service together with Marie McInerney. Bookmark this link to follow the stories.