Over the past six months, I’ve been a little surprised and very pleased to have encountered a number of books in which much of the prose has been authored by Aboriginal people (and then well translated into English). The common complaint that we don’t hear Indigenous people speak for themselves often enough has been somewhat ameliorated by this series of publications. There have been genuine collaborative undertakings, like Desert Lake (CSIRO, 2013) with its teams of kartiya scientists and artists working alongside traditional owners at Paruku in WA. There was Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Macmillan, 2012), produced and edited by whitefellas, but with a text predominantly supplied by the weavers themselves, and Ngurra Kuju Walyja / One Country One People: stories from the Canning Stock Route (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), with its rich trove of oral histories.
The latest in this series of efforts to publish the first-person stories from desert dwellers to cross my desk is the gorgeous Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari (Magabala Books, 2013) Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation (NPY). Apart from a three-page forward by Dr Helen Milroy, the entirety of this large-format, 272-page volume was authored by the traditional healers, the ngangkari, themselves. I doubt that it could have achieved its ends in any other way.
The book has two major parts. The first is a series of profiles of twenty-one ngangkari; with a single exception all are autobiographical accounts of the healer’s life. The second half of the book is devoted to thematic essays on a broad range of topics crucial to the work of the ngangkari, ranging from substance abuse to grief death and dying, and from recognition and equality to kurunpa (spirits). Supplemental material includes background information about the NPY Women’s Council, a glossary and pronunciation guide, and a regional map.
I found the profiles of the nangkari to be endlessly fascinating, for a number of reasons. First, I should not have been as surprised as I was to find numerous famous artists among their ranks, including Jacky Tjapaltjarri Giles, Nakul Dawson, Harry Tjutjuna, Bernard Tjalkuriny, Dickie Minyintiri, Whiskey Tjukanku, Jimmy Baker, Ilawanti Ungkutjuru Ken and Josephine Watjari Mick. Even setting aside for a moment the revelations they offer about medicine and healing, this minor “lives of the artists” was enough to keep me engrossed for hours. And beyond these names that I recognized from exhibitions and art centre websites, almost every other profile included samples of the ngangkari‘s painting. I should have anticipated this, as one would expect those who were well-versed in Law to be well-versed in its ritual expression as well. But nonetheless, the inclusion of much brilliant art made the book even more enjoyable from the outset.
In the course of my reading over the years, I have gleaned fragments of knowledge about the healer’s art in desert Australia, enough to know that there are similarities between their practice and that of what I would loosely describe as shamanic work in other cultures around the world. Many of these healers, for instance, speak of marali, a journey in which the healer’s spirit leaves his or her body for extended travel. Marali takes several forms: sometimes it is a journey of initiation or education, sometimes it is a means to cover long distances in a night’s time to provide healing to a sick person who is otherwise isolated from help. This is a practice that is known in many other parts of the world, from Siberia to the American continents (and probably in Africa, as well, although I’m pretty ignorant about that part of the world).
Another practice of the ngangkari that is known world-wide is the healing of individuals by extracting from their bodies some piece of foreign matter, usually wood or stone, that is causing the illness. The ngangkari will suck or massage the offending fragment out, usually without leaving a visible wound or shedding blood, and carefully dispose of it at some distance from the patient. Other common methods involve breathing on the patient’s head and a laying on of hands, often as a kind of therapeutic massage–but one that has a more spiritual than physical intent.
For one of the common sources of illness (and here I was learning aspects of the story that I had not encountered before) is a physical dislocation of the kurunpa (the spirit, also glossed as the will, or simply the self). In a normal, healthy individual, the kurunpa sits roughly in the area of the solar plexus. But stress or disease can cause the spirit to move to another location in the body, and the healer’s work is to move it back to the proper location.
More seriously, the kurunpa can leave the body altogether, sometimes in response to a sudden fright. The healer must then locate the spirit and return it to the body. Often the kurunpa is perched in a nearby tree, but is invisible to all but a nangkari. Usually the capture of such a spirit is men’s work, as the nangkari uses a miru (spear thrower) to retrieve the kurunpa and return it to the patient.
In addition to attending to illness brought on by spiritual malaise, these men and women have a common body of knowledge for treating wounds and injuries of a more obviously physical nature. Many talk of how the gauzy nest of a caterpillar is used to treat burns, or describe how they splint and heal broken bones, or use infusions of a variety of plants to alleviate coughs and other respiratory complaints.
As each nangkari tells his or her story, other common themes emerge. Almost all of these healers were taught their art by an older relative, although a few discovered it on their own. These latter, however, were often reluctant to let others know of their abilities until later in life. Most began their training as young children, and many have mentored descendants in whom they recognize potential. All of them believe in the continuing importance of their work.
There are disparities and differences among the group as well. Some feel pride in performing this service without receiving money in return; others resent the lack of compensation, especially when compared to what they see whitefella doctors earning in their communities. Some nangkari find their abilities limited to only certain kinds of maladies, while others are more “general practitioners.”
There is disagreement, too, on the efficacy of traditional medicine to deal with introduced maladies, especially when it comes to the effects of problems induced by alcohol or ganja, or diet-related diseases like kidney failure. For these, western medicine is the only answer in some cases; but the spiritual or mental distress that causes or results from substance abuse can sometimes be alleviated by the nangkari‘s skill. But while some of the older healers repudiate surgery and the loss of blood that it entails, the majority of these men and women are in agreement that a combination of Indigenous and western medicine is necessary today to insure the health of their people.
By presenting all of this information in the voices of the nangkari themselves, Traditional Healers of Central Australia allows for a compelling portrait of bush medicine unencumbered by the skepticism of “Enlightenment” thinking. The richness of the medical system in which these men and women operate is thus allowed full and free expression, and the subtleties of their practice can emerge untainted. This is, perhaps, the book’s greatest achievement.
In the final chapters of the book, the voices of the ngankari reveal an agenda. They believe strongly and earnestly in the work that they do, and they seek its recognition from the whitefella doctors who share their country. More than just respect, they also recognize the need, in the changing material economy of the central desert, for just compensation for their work, not only as healers, but as teachers who must train up future generations of nangkari to continue their important work. This book, and its predecessor, Nangakari Work — Anangu Way (NPY Women’s Council, 2003), were produced to generate the respect for their work that will allow their traditions to thrive into the future and to protect it from outsiders who seek to misappropriate it.
Beyond this important message, Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Nangkari is an amazing historical document. Rich with photographs of the nangkari as children in the middle decades of the twentieth century that complement the life stories told in its pages, it charts the course of contact between two cultures over more than half a century. Add this to the earnest message about culture it contains, and the glorious reproductions of startlingly beautiful art works, and the insights into Indigenous psychology, and you will be hard pressed to find another book quite so sumptuous and satisfying.