Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

'If We Come Together Our Health Will Be Happy': Aboriginal Men Seeking Ways to Better Health

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

'If We Come Together Our Health Will Be Happy': Aboriginal Men Seeking Ways to Better Health

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper arose out of research with men of the Western Desert of the Kimberley, Western Australia. While Aboriginal health is well known to be poor, not much is known about Aboriginal male experiences and perspectives of their health. In particular, this research picks up the concept of kanyirninpa ('holding') as developed by Myers with the Pintupi 30 years ago. It explores kanyirninpa as understood today by another desert people and what it means for men's health. I consider examples where men continue to seek health that is culturally based, creative and controlled by themselves, concluding by suggesting some implications for Aboriginal men's health.


We were sitting together in a remote Kimberley community, five of us, watching people as they went in and out of the local store: an old man, his wife, her sister, the couple's eldest daughter and myself. They had been talking about the old days and how things had changed. The daughter took up the conversation: in her view youth no longer had respect for older persons. Women were now stronger, as men were often in prison and the authority of older men was no longer evident. No longer were they considered the head of the family household. No longer did young persons listen to them.

I was sitting on the red desert earth listening to her as she and the others spoke. It was a warm winter's day and the family was content to talk as people moved around them and did their shopping.

She stressed the importance of young persons needing to have 'respect' for older persons and the serious responsibilities older persons had to look after those that lived with them. 'They would be held to account', she said, 'for what the young people did': if the young person did something wrong the adult person could get punished and get sick. This was because the older person was considered to be 'holding' the younger person. They were responsible for them.

As she talked, I noticed that partially embedded in the ground in front of me was a marble, a small, round object of play that a child had left. I lifted up the marble, felt its texture and weight, and pondered its place within the palm of my hand. I started to wonder what she meant by this English word holding, (1) how it seemed to include elements of care and responsibility, and what it might mean for the health of young Aboriginal men.

Before taking up this particular use of holding, and how it might apply to the health of desert men today, I provide a brief overview and background to the research that I conducted in a remote desert area of the Kimberley, south of Halls Creek, sometimes referred to as the Kutjungka region. (2) The research focused on the health of Aboriginal men and, in particular, young men.

In 1973 I first went to Balgo Mission, as it was then called, as a lay missionary (and Jesuit seminarian) for the Catholic Diocese of Broome. The Pallottine priests and the St John of God sisters were actively involved in maintaining the Mission, as they had since its early days. I spent one year there working in the boys' dormitory and returned to Melbourne. The year was memorable for me in that it disclosed the vast challenge of the desert to someone who had been brought up in a fairly sheltered city life. It was also a memorable year because it was that year that the dormitory system began to be dismantled. (3) I continued to revisit the community over the following years. I accompanied some of the men to the 'hand-over' of Uluru in 1985, and in 1990 did some research in the region for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Dodson 1991). In 1992 I was asked to return in a formal church capacity as parish priest. I stayed there until April 2000.

I left the region to explore ways in which men's lives and health could be improved. This eventually led to my visiting the desert in 2001 to ask the regional Aboriginal health service, the Palyalatju Maparnpa Aboriginal Corporation Health Committee, if I could do health research with the men of the four communities. …

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