December 2018 – January 2019


At the edge of comprehension

By Kim Mahood
Image of Rene Kulitja, The Man in the Log.

Rene Kulitja, The Man in the Log. Photo by Angela Lynch

In Central Australia, the Anangu people and Western health professionals are working towards a common language

On a recent visit to Alice Springs I was told the following story. At the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, a secondee from inner-city Sydney was sharing an office with Linda Rive, an interpreter who had spent a good deal of time living in remote communities in the Western Desert. Linda mentioned that when she first worked out on the lands there was no accommodation for visiting whitefellas, and she had lived for months at a time in a wiltja. The secondee heard the word, which means a traditional shelter, as “wheelchair”. Constrained by good manners from asking what disability Linda had, and having been told by the coordinator of the placement organisation not to ask too many questions, but to listen and learn, she absorbed this information.

“It was pretty cramped,” Linda said. “Especially when other people moved in with me.”

The secondee wondered how this might be managed, and towards the end of her placement she commented to her colleagues that Linda was a remarkable person, who had lived for months in the desert in a wheelchair, sometimes even sharing it. By the time the story made its way back to Linda it had become local legend.

I love this story for several reasons. The image it conjures up, of Linda trundling over the dunes in her wheelchair, people clinging all over it, is much more beguiling than the reality of living in a shelter made of branches and spinifex. But more importantly, it reveals how easily wires get crossed; how readily we accept the improbable or outlandish when we are in unfamiliar territory; how acquiescence and good manners can allow the preposterous to go unquestioned. It’s a perfect introduction to an essay about communication at the edge of the incomprehensible.

The Indigenous world is the radioactive core of Alice Springs, impacting on everyone who lives here, even those who aren’t involved with the organisations that service, support and incarcerate Aboriginal people. Whenever I return, it’s like entering an energy field in which the cultures ripple through one another, obscuring, illuminating, interrogating, undoing. The deficit aspects of Aboriginal life are in full view, and the counterpoint to that deficit is a dynamic, enmeshed, inspiring enterprise playing out in multiple ways.

I’m in Alice Springs to research a project called Uti Kulintjaku, which translates from Pitjantjatjara as “to listen, think and understand clearly”. In Pitjantjatjara, to listen properly and to understand are synonymous. You can’t listen if you don’t understand the language of the other people in the conversation. This isn’t a difficult concept, but it seems to have eluded the grasp, or at least the capacity, of governments, educators, police and health professionals.

Since the publication and viral circulation of an essay I wrote several years ago about the dysfunctional world of whitefellas working in remote communities, I’ve been on the lookout for examples that run counter to that trope. These examples stand out because they share a suite of characteristics that are rare or absent from most of the organisations that service Indigenous people. The organisations and projects that meet my criteria are anchored in long-trusted cross-cultural relationships, have evolved as a response to the wishes of Indigenous people, feature engaged Aboriginal participation, involve high-functioning white people who are in it for the long haul, share an equal respect for different ways of knowing and being, build on what is already there, and are process-based and responsive to change.

The Uti Kulintjaku project has all these elements, but what is especially compelling is that it provides a framework for a conversation about the underlying psychological forces that drive human behaviour. This conversation is carried out across languages and between cultures with profoundly different belief systems, but which are attributed equal value. The project employs skilled interpreters so that people can think in their own language and share complex ideas, teasing out words and their meanings with precision and subtlety. Everyone involved with Uti Kulintjaku speaks about it with a kind of wonder. It’s the first time I’ve heard desert Aboriginal people express such enthusiasm for a project that isn’t embedded in country.

Over several weeks I sit in on evaluation interviews and speak to people involved with the project. There’s something unique and important going on, something more than good practice and productive outcomes, though that’s unusual enough.

Uti Kulintjaku evolved from the Ngangkari (traditional healers) project, which was also developed by the NPY Women’s Council, beginning in 1999. The Ngangkari project brought traditional healing practices to the health system in Central Australia, to help deal with the crisis in mental health among Aboriginal people. Conventional treatments were failing, and when Anangu (Western Desert people) were asked why, they suggested that their own healers were being ignored and should be brought into the process.

Initially there was resistance from doctors, who were afraid that the ngangkari would discourage the Aboriginal patients from accepting Western medical treatment, but the Anangu healers insisted their role would be complementary. After all, most of them were on various forms of Western medication. The presence of ngangkari at Alice Springs Hospital became commonplace, producing a marked improvement in the mental health of Aboriginal patients. In the early stages, the ngangkari were astonished to learn that Western doctors can’t see or feel the spirits that are essential to human balance and health. How could they treat sick people if they couldn’t see if the spirit was out of alignment? The spirit is intrinsic in the breath, and must be in its proper place for a person to remain healthy. According to senior ngangkari Toby Minyintiri Baker, “Spirits are not particularly difficult to work with. If you can see them, you can get them! They are not overly clever or trying to get away or escape you. They are just confidently themselves and just need to be where they should be!”

The success of the Ngangkari project exposed the need to apply what had been learnt back on the lands, where mental-health resources were scarce and youth suicide was on the rise. As the conversation between Western psychiatric professionals and Anangu traditional healers evolved, it became apparent that there was little common language with which to talk about mental-health issues. Interpreters had been employed all along, but as the questions became more specific the interpreters struggled to find the words to frame them or the answers when they came. In 2012, a small grant was sourced to run a project that focused on words for various states of mind, and Uti Kulintjaku was born.

Many of the Aboriginal members of the Uti Kulintjaku team belong to Tjanpi Desert Weavers, the collective of artists who produced the transgressive female tree spirits first shown in the 2013 String Theory exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. They also collaborated with Fiona Hall on the exhibition Wrong Way Time for the 2015 Venice Biennale. They were the instigators of and key participants in the 2017 exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia. Some members also sing with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, which toured Germany to great acclaim in 2015. Their fingerprints are on every major creative enterprise in the Western Desert. Many, though not all of them, are ngangkari. They are directors of the NPY Women’s Council, highly proficient speakers of language, and comprise an encyclopaedia of Western Desert knowledge. They bring a broad-spectrum approach to an issue generally constrained by Western medical science.

I meet four of these women at the home of Angela Lynch, program manager of the Ngangkari and Uti Kulintjaku projects, and her partner, Patrick Hookey, who speaks Pitjantjatjara and has agreed to interpret the conversation. In the course of the discussion I ask the women what message they would most like to pass on to the politicians in Canberra.

“We need to think about that,” they say. The women talk quietly to each other over dinner. When the meal is over we regroup, and Rene Kulitja, a powerhouse for whom Uti Kulintjaku has been transformative, speaks for everyone.

“Nganana palyani nganampa katjaku munu untalpaku. Tjana-nku walytjangku kulira, atunymankunytjaku munu kunpuringkunytjaku.”

Patrick translates: “We want to do this project for our daughters and our sons, to look after them so they can be strong, to help them think for themselves.”

It’s the cry of parents everywhere, but there’s great poignancy in this carefully articulated statement. The challenges faced by these parents are gargantuan, and the alternative is grim. The gap is great between the oldest people, who grew up in the bush, and the youngest, who inhabit a world of mobile phones, internet banking and consumer goods. The children are safer, and their chances better, if they stay on the lands where family support remains strong. In town, instead of them reaping the benefits of the resources it offers – education, jobs, stimulation, creative opportunities – the more likely outcomes are substance abuse, crime, violence, incarceration and, all too often, death.

“The government needs to keep helping us,” Rene says, “because for us there are two roads, one to a good life and one to death.”

That these women are driving the push to address mental-health issues is not surprising. Suicide, drugs, alcohol and violence in many forms have affected their own children and grandchildren. But that’s not all that brings them to the meetings. In the Uti Kulintjaku evaluation interviews, the women consistently talk about how excited and challenged they are by the conversations with the Western mental-health doctors, and how they love gaining knowledge that expands and develops their ideas, digging into their languages to find words to describe the complex psychiatric and emotional problems afflicting their families. Coming together to share experiences, support each other and workshop ideas makes them strong. It enables them to go back to their communities and practise what they have learnt.

In a meeting-fatigued culture, people make the effort to travel vast distances to attend Uti Kulintjaku workshops. This is almost unheard of for anything other than funerals, football, family business and gatherings to celebrate country. There is a sense of meaning, but also of progress. The workshops begin with the Anangu interpretation of the previous one and what has happened in the interim. Their knowledge is the baseline from which to broaden the conversation into physiological and psychiatric explanations of cause and effect. Fundamental to the process is the inclusion of skilled interpreters. Their presence enables the Anangu to think in their own languages, to reflect on and share what they know, and to recognise that they have a considerable body of knowledge to bring to the cross-cultural dialogue. The drilling down into language has given them the words to articulate the developmental stages of Anangu child-rearing practices, and how these have been affected by cultural change. Old words are being revitalised to describe new conditions. As Rene says, “We are looking for a new way of using the old way in the new world.”

For all the Anangu women interviewed, a transformative moment was when they were shown a scan of the human brain. This occurred after they had questioned one of the doctors about why Western treatments are administered, and how they work. The doctor used the scan to demonstrate the functional impact of trauma on the brain, and how that carried through into behaviour and treatment. Apart from recognising trauma-­related behaviour in their communities, the women understood that they had all suffered trauma – the loss of a husband or child (often both); family members going to court and prison; chronic illness; exposure to violence, alcoholism and drug abuse; poverty – which compromised their capacity to look after others.

With this realisation, stress-management techniques – painting and meditation – were introduced to the workshops. Mindfulness exercises were taken up with enthusiasm. Psychiatrist Marcus Tabart, Clinical Director of the Central Australian Mental Health Services, and a member of the Uti Kulintjaku team, says, “It was very amusing when mindfulness was introduced to the ladies and they said, ‘Well, why didn’t you do this sooner?’” The women challenged the practitioners’ assumptions that some Western approaches would not be applicable, and vice versa.

One of the women, speaking through an interpreter, says how important she finds the self-reflective exercises for self-management and “stress clearing”. After talking about especially difficult issues, such as abnormal sexualised behaviour among children, she puts her distress and sadness into the painting exercises, and observes herself as she paints. She says she can feel the painting working as a continuous clearing process. “When I begin I feel heavy, and then when I put my stress into the painting I can feel myself getting light.” As the interview proceeds, the shy, quietly spoken woman becomes animated, articulate and confident. The conversation is seamless, everyone slipping between languages in a familiar and well-tried process.

Since its inception in 2012, Uti Kulintjaku has produced books, a language compendium, an iPhone app, videos, posters and methodologies to manage the catastrophe of intercultural damage. One of the most popular resources is a bilingual poster illustrating and providing words for various mental and emotional states, including the behaviours and feelings associated with depression and psychosis. The drawings convey humour, bringing a light touch to a heavy subject. Schools and clinics use the poster to open up the conversation about mental health. People put it on their walls at home, and children treat the poster and associated flash cards like a board game, identifying themselves and people they know.

A beautifully illustrated book published by the NPY Women’s Council in 2017, Tjulpu and Walpa tells the story of two girls: Tjulpu, who has a good life supported by family and culture; and Walpa, who is lost in the world of alcohol, family violence and unsupported pregnancy. The book crosses the literacy barrier, speaking to the girls whose lives follow Walpa’s trajectory, documenting their experience and offering a way through. According to a woman who worked intensively on the book, it also serves as a warning to girls at risk. “You want to end up like Walpa?” she asked her granddaughter when she deliberately missed the plane from her community back to boarding school. The question was effective: “It cost us money for another plane, but she got on it!” An equivalent story for boys is in the pipeline.

Yankunytjatjara woman Margaret Smith loves being part of Uti Kulintjaku. The bilingual dialogue has alerted her to the sophistication of her own languages, Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara. She illustrates her point by mentioning words for the many refined aspects of listening and thinking. While she speaks about her pleasure in working with the other women, it’s the conversation with the doctors that really stirs her enthusiasm, especially when the concept of tjukurpa enters the discussion.

Tjukurpa refers to the Dreaming, or creation period when ancestral beings made the Law that underpins Aboriginal culture. It also means history, and story, and how culture functions in present-day life. The meaning is dependent on context, and the difficulty of pinning down a precise interpretation conveys the challenges faced when a project strives for cross-cultural understanding. Margaret uses “tjukurpa” to describe the Greek myths introduced into a workshop about addiction.

“Working with the doctors – they have their tjukurpas too … The one with the grapes, they made them into wine. And the one where she goes underground.”

Craig San Roque, a local psychologist with many years’ experience working with Aboriginal people in Central Australia, told the story of Dionysus, with props, to show how European culture had ancient instructional stories, and how the effects of alcohol permeate the present day. The women were enthralled to learn that white people had a form of tjukurpa. They discussed the impacts of addictions on their own families and communities, and a visiting doctor suggested they might explore a relevant tjukurpa story during the painting session the following day.

What happened next is now Uti Kulintjaku folklore. Overnight, five women – Pantjiti McKenzie, Rene Kulitja, Nyunmiti Burton, Maringka Burton and Ilawanti Ken – identified the story as the tjukurpa for addiction, made telephone calls to seek permission to tell it, and gathered the materials with which to make a miniature version of the trapped man and his grieving wives. This was produced with a flourish after the painting session, accompanied by the telling of the story and a discussion of how it applied to contemporary life.

A good man, a husband and provider, goes hunting one day and chases an animal into a hollow log, where he becomes hopelessly stuck. While wailing and singing, he manages to hobble back to his two wives, who are baffled by the sound coming from the advancing log. When they realise their husband is inside, they fling themselves about in grief and try to free him. Failing this, they squeeze water-soaked grass through a small opening so he can drink, and then lead and carry him in search of a ngangkari powerful enough to set him free. After much difficulty and the efforts of several ngangkari, the log is cracked to reveal the shrunken, emaciated, excrement-fouled body of the husband. With the care of his wives and the advice of the healers, he is slowly restored.

Whatever the ancient meaning of the tjukurpa story, the metaphor of entrapment has resonated with modern Anangu. It has been variously interpreted to mean that men are trapped in their shells, unable to communicate their problems; that they don’t know what their role is anymore; and that they are trapped in cycles of alcohol and violence. The women lament that “when that man is trapped, he hasn’t got his full potential”. The metaphor is extended to young people trapped by substance abuse, and all Anangu trapped by cultural breakdown. The wives who refuse to abandon their trapped husband symbolise the women in the Uti Kulintjaku project who refuse to give up in spite of the scale of the challenges they face. To escape can’t be accomplished alone. It’s a heroic task, requiring the combined resources of doctors and culture and family.

Embedded in cultural memory, the story of “The Man in the Log” provides a psychological traction that’s missing from Western approaches to Aboriginal mental health. That the women immediately made the connection between the European myth and an equivalent tjukurpa suggests that there are vast metaphoric resources in their culture, waiting to be tapped.

Digging into their tradition-rich past to discover what has made them strong and resilient, the women also identify the aalpiri, the name of the instructional wake-up call that began the day of the desert-dwelling Anangu. Aalpiri – jokingly called the morning rooster – gave a dawn bulletin of how things were travelling in the Anangu world, re-enforced right behaviour and outlined the activities for the day.

A performance of the aalpiri has been filmed out on the lands, along with a recitation of “The Man in the Log”. The plan is to broadcast them on Indigenous Community Television, the channel watched throughout the Western Desert, with the aalpiri commencing daily programming. The film is still a work in progress when I see it. The intended setting of sensational desert scenery was washed out by a flash flood, and Ilawanti Ken declaims the tale of “The Man in the Log” against a backdrop of crumbling demountables. She is enthroned on her mobile walker, and accompanied by Pantjiti McKenzie singing the eerie song of the trapped man trying to attract the attention of his wives.

With the development of “The Man in the Log”, the Uti Kulintjaku team decided it was time to invite Aboriginal men into the project. The women chose the men – effective leaders and individuals of status in their various communities, ranging in age from 25 to 70-plus. The facilitator of the men’s group, Martin Toraille, says that having been chosen by the women, the men feel pressure to act. Faced with a challenge so vast, and seeing men as a significant part of the problem, they want to get out and start fixing it – stop the violence in their communities, keep people safe – but don’t know where to begin. It’s early days, and the concepts and processes are very new. It’s the first time a men’s group has been established within the NPY Women’s Council, and the first opportunity these men have had to talk together in such a facilitated and focused way. The brain imagery showing the effects of trauma also had a huge impact on the men. Jamie Nyaningu, the only Anangu man whose interview I observe, speaks passionately of the need to manage traumatised kids properly. According to the team psychiatrist, the men are already doing the right thing – calming people down, providing care and support – but need to enhance and develop these skills. Jamie talks of a trauma toolbox, and finding the tools to put in it. The interview is held in English, which Jamie speaks well enough, but he flags, struggling to articulate his thoughts. When asked if he has anything more to add, he says, “I might be worn out, eh! I’m tired.” I’m tired too, just from listening. It underlines the value of the interpreter.

Stephan Rainow, from Nganampa Health Council, first worked with Anangu in the 1970s, helping to build the communities during the homeland movement. Invited by the men to be part of their team for the Uti Kulintjaku project, he says the model should be adopted by every organisation, as the level of discussion is something people want and need. “People should be talking about this stuff, what’s driving the cultural engine.” Instead, the fatigue caused by relentless, endless meetings about housing and budgets and the like is contributing to the mental-health issues that Uti Kulintjaku is trying to address.

Behind the revelatory experiences of the Uti Kulintjaku workshops is the hard slog of writing reports and grant applications, the constant pursuit of funds to keep the multiple strands of the project going, the logistical challenges of getting people from remote desert communities to town for the workshops and supporting them while in town, and of mobilising crews for bush trips.

Angela Lynch says it’s difficult to put a tangible value on the most significant outcomes of the project, which are incremental rather than quantifiable. For example, information and strategies teased out in the workshops in Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra trickle out into the communities via word of mouth. The same information, limited to English, doesn’t travel. It’s a critical point, but a fine one, and hard to position on the performance indicators around suicide prevention.

Ngapartji-ngapartji – working together – is fundamental, and the mutual respect and affection is palpable. People’s lives have interwoven over time, in some cases 30 or 40 years, as they have committed to work towards whatever is possible. The white members of the Uti Kulintjaku team are as challenged and enthusiastic as the Anangu, their minds stretched and their sense of awe amplified by this engagement with a parallel reality. The excitement, humour and shared aspirations are implicit in every conversation and interview.

“This is one of the most exciting and encouraging and hopeful developments that I’ve seen in Central Australia for the 21 years that I’ve been here,” says Marcus Tabart.

Without the Uti Kulintjaku process of listening, thinking and understanding clearly, “The Man in the Log” may never have struggled into the Anangu repertoire of ways to approach the fractious terrain of contemporary life. Maybe, back in the days when we were all more connected to the mythic world, these stories didn’t need to be made conscious for them to work their healing power. It would be ironic if an Aboriginal metaphor about a man trapped in a log shows all of us a way forward.

The people and the project are inspiring and humbling, and make my own work seem self-absorbed and irresponsible. I can do self-absorbed and irresponsible, I tell myself, as I pack up my notebook and voice-recorder. I’ll pay my dues with an essay to get the story out there. If people could learn to listen properly they would understand that Uti Kulintjaku offers a glimpse of this unique cultural potential, where ngapartji-ngapartji, based in generosity and trust, enriches both sides of the encounter.

Sadly, the revolutionary work of Uti Kulintjaku doesn’t translate easily into conventional funding parameters, and crossing the borders of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory complicates things. The Northern Territory Primary Health Network withdrew support for Uti Kulintjaku in the 2018 July funding round. The NPY Women’s Council has reapplied in the latest round, and is awaiting the outcome. Small grants have been sourced to continue some threads of the project, but as things stand the future of Uti Kulintjaku is unpredictable.

As Jamie Nyaningu says, “It’s like driving down the road on the rim, but you still keep going.”

Kim Mahood

Kim Mahood is the author of Craft for a Dry Lake, Position Doubtful and the essay ‘Kartiya Are Like Toyotas: White Workers on Australia’s Cultural Frontier’.

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