Ashum Owen, Kaurna, Narungga, Ngarrindjeri & Waanyi
During his 2016 National NAIDOC Person of the Year acceptance speech, Professor Chris Sarra, founder and chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute, honoured “the ghost children, those Indigenous boys and girls who chose to die by their own hands because they no longer believed that their future could be better”. Far too often we read heartbreaking headlines of Aboriginal people, as young as 10, becoming a part of Australia’s growing Aboriginal suicide epidemic. Current statistics estimate that one in three Aboriginal people aged 15-35 will commit suicide. One in three! That is a ridiculously large portion of our future being taken from us. How is it possible that in some areas of Australia our kids are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than their non-Indigenous counterparts? Why are 130 Aboriginal people ending their lives each year? How can we call Australia the “lucky country” when it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world? The answer is a complicated mix of psycho-social issues that can be traced back to invasion.
We know that suicide was virtually non-existent amongst Aboriginal people before the invasion of our sovereign nations. We are all familiar with the negative social, physical and mental consequences of invasion because we live and breathe them every single day. We are aware that invasion caused a severe disruption to the mental, emotional and cultural wellbeing of Aboriginal people in Australia. We understand that the dispossession of land, language and culture, coupled with oppression, discrimination, disadvantage and racism has further caused a vicious cycle of intergenerational trauma. We recognise that these issues we face in today’s society compound intergenerational trauma and create deeper problems.
But a solution exists. It runs through our veins, and lives beneath our feet: it is our culture and our country. During the 2016 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference in Alice Springs, Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said that, “healing comes from within us, it comes from our dreaming, from our land. The sooner our younger ones learn that they belong to this country the better off we will all be for generations to come”. I cannot agree more. If we are to continue as a strong, resilient people, we must regain our culture.
For thousands of years our ancestors successfully used traditional healing methods and medicines to help our people. Country has always sustained us since time began; its natural healing properties need to be utilised and these traditional methods of healing need to be incorporated back into our daily lives again. We have a strong connection with the spirit of our land. It is imparted into us from childhood that if we look after the land, the land will look after us because we belong to the land, and so, it is essential for our wellbeing.
Storytelling is also a large part of our culture and forms an important part of our healing process. Storytelling helps us to form strong connections with each other and reminds us that we are all facing various hardships but can overcome them by helping one another. By verbalising our individual journeys we allow ourselves to be heard and understood. So, it is crucial that with any Aboriginal affair, that there be a space for consultation and for us to have our say.
Many Aboriginal leaders have supported Gerry Georgatos’ call for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal suicide. Any enquiry into Aboriginal issues must be conducted WITH Aboriginal people, not TO Aboriginal people. We must be included in the process to ensure the implementation of culturally appropriate recommendations for our people. The Australian Government must listen to the voices of Aboriginal people and understand that the strongest healing weapon is our culture thus it must be at the forefront of any program established to prevent Aboriginal suicide. There are numerous organisations in every state and territory already incorporating our traditional beliefs and methods into their healing and empowering programs. Their results reiterate what we know; reconnecting with culture and country has the ability to heal.
I am overwhelmed by the pain my people have endured for over 228 years by the hands of the invaders and their systems. I am exhausted by the constant struggle I personally face as a black woman in this country. I am sick of hearing people justify the hurt of my elders. I am heartbroken for the young ones who cannot shoulder the burden of our past, nor continue with the harshness of our present. I wish they could see the potential in their future, the strength of their minds and the resilience in their spirits.
But there is hope. There is hope that our future generations will be instilled with the strength of all the ancestors before them. There is hope that the spirits of our lands will consume their hearts and continue to stoke the fires in their bellies so they may never find themselves questioning their place in this country, for their place IS THIS COUNTRY, it always was and always will be.
I would like to dedicate this article to every beautiful spirit that we have lost to the invaders system’s injustices. May their legacies inspire us to help heal one another and continue fighting together for a better future.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.