Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating aspects of my Aboriginal culture is the knowledge of our ‘traditional’ medicines and practices. I’ve been for so many walks with my father, aunties and uncles to learn about our Aboriginal medicines and how the most ordinary of plants can have the most amazing of properties. These knowledges and practices have been developed over tens of thousands of years with a close connection to Country. It is not surprising that early European notes talk about the strength, good health, and energy of Aboriginal peoples before the full impacts of colonisation had taken hold.
I remember my father and my Uncle Freddy (dad’s brother) telling us stories about my grandfather who was a snake man and performer in La Perouse. My grandfather was fearless with his deadly snakes including red-bellied black snakes and brown snakes. He was bitten many times and I was always fascinated to hear about how he treated his snake bites using some of our old knowledges and practices. Even more amazing though was that he always survived the bites and made numerous, full recoveries.
If we have such well-developed knowledges and practices, why do Aboriginal people now have some of the worst health outcomes in the world, with the highest rates of many chronic diseases while living in a wealthy, developed country like Australia?
The answer lies not in the negligence of our own health, but in the inherently racist healthcare system in which we now reluctantly find ourselves. Colonisation ensured that our land that had provided us with medicines and treatments for millennia was destroyed. Colonisation also introduced a range of diseases to the community that we were unprepared for, leaving us reliant on a Western healthcare system that does little to acknowledge our culture or ways of being, let alone our presence. Many Aboriginal people don’t seek medical care because it is often provided through the lens of a worldview that is grounded in racial stereotyping and a deficit mentality.
The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) is a privately funded, not-for-profit organisation that has been established to address this racism in the Australian healthcare system. AIDA’s programs mentor and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical students with the intention that, by increasing the amount of Aboriginal doctors in the system, healthcare will become more culturally safe for Aboriginal people. In March this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard in Australia, AIDA had to issue a media release warning against racism in the healthcare sector as it will cost lives (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) during the pandemic. The release describes some of the racial abuse Aboriginal people have had to endure trying to receive treatment during the pandemic, a time when it is vital to the entire community that all people seek medical help when needed.
For Aboriginal people though, this is not just a problem experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is everyday life in a Western healthcare system and our family has experienced the devastating outcomes of this first hand. One night in 1986, Uncle Freddy was walking home, minding his own business when he was picked up by police who were suspicious of a Black man in a nice, respectable, white suburb. Uncle Freddy was taken to nearby Riverwood police station where he was severely bashed by police officers. The next morning, he was released and barely able to walk, slurring his words, vomiting and with a pounding headache.
These symptoms continued for days afterward, and my concerned cousin took him to a local GP for treatment. The GP took one look at Uncle Freddy, an Aboriginal man, and told him that he was just drunk and he should go home and sleep off the grog. Uncle Freddy had not been drinking. He went home and did go to sleep but he never woke up. Uncle Freddy, a proud D’harawal man and Sydney Traditional Owner, passed away at the age of 44 from a cerebral haemorrhage caused by a blow to the head. He died within a week of being released from police custody. In legal terms, Uncle Freddy’s death is considered a death in custody.
But this is not only about the insidiousness of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the racist Australian justice system; this is a story about how racism in the healthcare sector contributes to so many avoidable deaths for Aboriginal people. Uncle Freddy could have been saved by that doctor but he was let down by the very system that is supposedly in place to help him. This is the experience of so many Aboriginal people all over Australia.
It is astounding that Aboriginal people are known across the world as the first scientists, doctors and pharmacists with the longest surviving knowledges in human history, yet we experience some of the worst health outcomes in the modern world. This is not because we do not know how to look after ourselves; rather, it is about how everyone should know how to look after each other. After all, what future is there for all of us without it?