Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Friday, May 04, 2007

Indigenous Health Issues

SAN 1102
Anthropology of Aboriginal Societies
Marcia Hewitt
May 8 2003
Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia

How Social Changes In Post Settlement Times Have Impacted on the Health of Indigenous Australians

Social changes in post settlement Australia have impacted on the health of Indigenous Australians in mostly quite negative ways. I will argue here that this “impacting” has occurred in four main areas; housing, kinship, diet, and socio-medical schema, or cultural perception.

In the first instance I will speak about the area of housing. The Homeswest Summit Report of 1996 (unpublished manuscript) states that housing for Aboriginal people is often situated far from medical care with no transport and often no telephone to call for emergencies or births. Inadequate housing makes it difficult to carry out complicated treatment regimes and treatment regimes are easily forgotten with nowhere to prepare food, nowhere to keep medication secure, nowhere to record dates or appointments. From this report alone it can be said that the traditional living situation has been disrupted in such a way as to create an entirely new set of socio-medical problems. In addition to the type of housing, there is also the continual fear of losing housing, or that housing is overcrowded. There is also the issue of housing people next to unsuitable neighbours where conflict is likely to arise; this type of thing would never be an issue in traditional structures where there are appointed people for conflict resolution.

Social change has wrought devastating changes in kinship patterning, which has always been the mainstay of Aboriginal existence; this post-settlement change to the infrastructure has brought about problems within the area of childcare and care for the elderly or sick. Aboriginal women are very often living in fear of losing children to welfare officers, which can also lead to depression and physical exhaustion (Dr. Diane Faulkner-Hill, 2002, personal communication). When Aboriginal families move to urban areas or are taken away from their families for different reasons, this childcare infrastructure breaks down, and with this breakdown comes a lowering of immunities (Living Black,4th April 2003, TV programme).
“We need our family with us. Aboriginal people, they’ve got more relations than European people---and their family follow on to a big line---more than European people. We know we need our families, so it makes us happy to sit down together. But when we are alone, we feel sad because we need our family with us. “ (Daughter of a dialysis patient,

Post settlement has also impacted Aboriginal people in the area of socio-medicine or cultural perception. In this area there are vast differences in how Aboriginal people view the European medical system and the efficacy of this system . The Aboriginal view of the body is based on a belief that it is linked with their spirit, and that air is the basis of life, and that their souls come from the Dreamtime, and are eternal. They view specific organs as having life and spirit, and being part of a person’s personality. The cause/effect aspect of disease is also different within the Aboriginal psyche which might believe that disease stems from the transgression of “Law” or even an external factor such as sorcery or an evil spirit entering in a dream. The European medical system clashes with these beliefs, both in ascribing cause to “germs” and also in cure, prescribing aspirin, antibiotics, painkillers or anti-depressants. Whilst there are some convergence points between the two cultural notions, Western methods are often not curing Aboriginal people, who on average now die before the age of 60.

The number of Aboriginal babies born anemic and underweight and the rate of SIDS in Aboriginal babies also shows that there is a disparity between the two systems (Health-Education-Shelter report, September 1996). This could mean that Aboriginal people are not receiving the same quality of obstetric care, or that there are economic factors at play here.
Aboriginal children suffer from chronic childhood illness such as middle ear infections with perforation ; most urbanized children bear the scars of frequent skin and respiratory infections. Most Aboriginal children are admitted to hospital at some stage during their infancy and early childhood. Many children will have witnessed or been subjected to some sort of physical or psychological abuse (Perth Aboriginal Health Services, 1998). Diabetes is being poorly controlled despite attempts at intensive medical intervention and the complication of eye, kidney and heart damage frequent and severe. Because traditional dietary teachings are so different, Aboriginal people are often “lost in the supermarket” and choosing the wrong foods, foods that do not contribute to health.
“These days---since sugar----people are rather weak; we’re just about dying now from sugar. Our blood’s no good now, it’s deteriorated, gone dark; [that’s] aged us prematurely, made our bodies slack; our blood [actually] our general condition has gone downhill.” (Devitt and McMaster, 1988, p.23).

Aboriginal people in traditional communities generally enjoy good health, living on natural bush tucker and being part of unbroken kinship bonds and knowing “The Law’ and adhering to it. One has only to look at photos of Aboriginal children in Arnhem Land to see the glowing health that they enjoy. My conclusion is that the socio-medical perception of disease and how it is cured is playing a large part in Aboriginal health. For example an Aboriginal person might believe they are going to a hospital to die, rather than to “get better.” (Dr. Jacqueline Van Gent, 2003, class discussion). So one could argue that expectation plays a significant role in recuperation. There have been numerous studies done on the recuperation of patients who have religious beliefs, or those who are actively being prayed for.

There is a notion that disease is due to either the spirit going too far away from the body or some form of sorcery (Reid, 1983).
“Kidneys feature prominately in descriptions of traditional illness caused by sorcery and other malevolent practices…Kukatija people (as did the Walpiri) attributes some serious illness (unspecified) to damage to fat around the kidneys” (Devitt and McMaster, 1988, p.25).

This notion of causation could affect the patient’s treatment, since antibiotics and other forms of renal treatment might be perceived as useless and the belief system of an individual can sometimes be stronger than the biochemical “cure” in a person whose mind is totally trained towards the mind/body connection. I would venture even further to argue that some of the Aboriginal notions may be more in harmony with progressive complementary medicine than the Western notion of “bioterrorism” on the body. Many studies are being done by the Chopra Centre (Chopra 2003) in California that illustrate the role that our thinking and expectations play a role in areas such as bone density, brain regeneration and increasing longevity. I argue that traditional Aboriginal people have an innateness towards mind/body healing and a propensity towards natural healing, so that fields of study such as naturopathy, aromatherapy and massage might help to improve Aboriginal health.

Marcia Hewitt


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