Can Indigenous and Modern Medicine work together?

By Jonathan Davis on Tuesday May 24th, 2016


Bridging the Gap Between Ancient and Contemporary Healing

In Australia’s red centre, the Indigenous people know two forms of healing. In their communities, there is often a small medical centre with a local area nurse supported by The Royal Flying Doctors Service. The other form of healing comes from the Ngangkaris who use traditional healing techniques passed down through what could be literally hundreds of generations. A recent conference at Sydney University discussed the idea of improving health outcomes for Australian Indigenous people by creating a model that integrates both pathways to healing.

Indigenous health is in a very dismal state in Australia. There’s still a very big gap between health outcomes and life expectancy in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and I think it’s time we thought through [whether] there is anything else we could be doing… in our health services [to] actually improve health outcomes for Aboriginal people.
– Prof Elizabeth Elliot on The Wire

here’s still a very big gap between health outcomes and life expectancy in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.There’s still a gap between health outcomes in Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Who are the Ngangkari?

There were originally around 250 Indigenous language groups across the Australian continent and it was likely that there was a similar number of names for the spirit-healers that are known in the central desert as Ngangkari. The word Ngangkari is somewhat like the word ‘shaman’, which is originally from the Tungusk region in Siberia but is now used to refer to Indigenous medicine practitioners from around the world. In a similar way, the word ‘Ngangkari’ comes from the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra language groups, but modern use of the term is growing as a description for Indigenous spirit-healers in general across Australia. Other common names in English for the people within Aboriginal tribal cultures who play the role of healer and carrier of spirit lore are ‘the clever people’, ‘clevers’, or ‘feather foots’.

Ngangkari are kind of like a mixture between a general practitioner and a psychiatrist all in one. Their medicine is holistic in nature, concerned with a person spiritually and physically, and this is important to many indigenous people. – Francesca Panzironi CEO of ANTAC (Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation)

Ngangkari are kind of like a mixture between a general practitioner and a psychiatrist all in one.Ngangkari are kind of like a mixture between a general practitioner and a psychiatrist.

Rare Gifts Almost Lost

The central desert mobs managed to carry through their healing traditions into the modern day in part because of their remote location, whereas other tribal cultures have sadly suffered much more comprehensive cultural severance at the hands of ongoing colonisation. It is important for the world to remember that the Indigenous people of Australia were not even recognised as human beings until the 1960’s, and that more children are being removed from their families today than at any time during the stolen generations, which were designed as a form of cultural genocide.

In spite all of these ongoing attempts to destroy Indigenous culture, a small number of lineages of healing knowledge have remained unbroken or have managed to be revived. We, as a species, came very close to losing every trace of what is almost certainly the oldest continuous healing modality on the planet. Thankfully these featherfoots, after more than two centuries of persecution, are now on the front foot, allowing their presence to be more publicly known.

A small number of lineages of healing knowledge have remained unbroken or have managed to be revived.A small number of lineages of healing knowledge have remained unbroken.

Two Emerging Approaches

In recent years, two main organisations have emerged in central Australia to publicly represent and promote the work of Ngangkari healers, whose extensive tribal homelands are split by a modern colonial state border.

In the past non-Aboriginal doctors would do their work, yet they didn’t know about us traditional healers. Our traditional healers were always busy healing people at home, looking after the entire community, while the doctors did their work in their clinics. But neither knew how the other one worked. – Maringka Burton in The Australian newspaper

The Hand-In-Hand Model

In the north end of South Australia exists the Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation or ANTAC, who have chosen to pioneer their Hand-in-Hand model of close collaboration and integration with the western medical system. The Hand-in-Hand approach argues that these practices should be accepted as valid on the grounds of cultural appropriateness and efficacy. In Australia, there is a universal healthcare system that provides science-based western medical treatment to all citizens. ANTAC seeks to create a system of accreditation for the Ngangkari to be formally recognised alternative healthcare providers that can be paid for their services in the same way that western medical practitioners are paid by the government.

Depressed people can feel a lot better within themselves after a Ngangkari treatment. That’s one of our specialities. Their spirits are out-of-sorts, and not positioned correctly within their bodies. The ngangkari’s job is to reposition their spirits and to reinstate it to where it is happiest. – Naomi Kantjuriny in The Australian newspaper

The Hand-In-Hand Model.The Hand-In-Hand Model.

The Parallel Model

In the middle of the Northern Territory, in the desert city of Alice Springs, an organisation called the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation or NPYWC is wanting to maintain full autonomy.

Georgina Kenyon describes in her comprehensive article Australia’s Other Flying Doctors that ‘the NPYWC ngangkari tell me they do not directly treat drug addiction or other diseases such as diabetes that they say were unknown in indigenous communities before European settlement brought new social problems and diets high in processed sugar and flour. But they will treat people suffering from mental distress or physical conditions such as injuries and trauma, muscular diseases, and issues surrounding pregnancy.’

Kenyon suggests that while the mob from the South Australian side of the border tend to be more closed to the outside world, but push for formal accreditation and recognition as healthcare providers, the mob from Alice Springs seems to be more welcoming of outsiders but are more closed to the idea of collaborating with government and the western medical system.

he Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal CorporationThe Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation

The Ngangkari here are part of an old belief system. They don’t want regulation, but prefer to operate as a parallel health service. Many are happy not to be part of the health system. – Angela Lynch, Programme Manager at the NPYWC

The Hand-in-Hand model seeks to legitimise the practices of the Ngangkari and connect them to the financial stability of the National Health System. Among it’s many goals it also seeks to work with the medical profession in a way that makes it more attractive to Indigenous people, because their culture is not only considered but actually included in the process. While it may seem like an uphill battle to convince the government that spirit medicine needs to be recognised, the numbers don’t lie. If the people at ANTAC can provide evidence for the efficacy of their program, it will be more difficult to ignore, even if the methods of the Ngangkari may seem strange.

The most serious drawback to the Hand-in-Hand approach may well be the ongoing subordinancy of Indigenous practices to the authority of western medicine. While there is no doubt that increasing trust and power balance will occur as relationships between Ngangkaris and doctors strengthen, it seems unlikely that the patriarchal, colonial approach backed by verifiable science would ever truly cede authority to the Ngangkaris perspective.

it seems unlikely that the patriarchal, colonial approach backed by verifiable science would ever truly cede authority to the Ngankaris perspective.It seems unlikely that the colonial approach backed by verifiable science would ever truly cede authority to the Ngankaris perspective.

Mainstream recognition

Ngangkaris Andy Tjilari and Rupert Langkatjukur Peter were awarded the Mark Sheldon Prize for Indigenous mental health by The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in 2009, as well as the Sigmund Freud Award for distinguished contributions in mental health by the World Council for Psychotherapy in 2011.(Medical Journal of Australia).

One day my grandfather asked me, ‘Do you want us to give you ngangkari power, so that you can live your life as a Ngangkari? You’ll have to help sick people, and heal them, whether they are men, women or children. If you do become a ngangkari, the power will stay with you all your life and you’ll never lose it, or be able to throw it away.’ – Andy Tjilari in The Australian newspaper

“If you do become a Ngangkari, the power will stay with you all your life.”

The Parallel Healthcare Model – Drawbacks and Benefits

Traditional Indigenous Australians aren’t operating without any laws to govern their behaviour and ethics. On the contrary, they are operating in accordance with their own Lore which has existed unbroken for millennia; meanwhile in other parts of the world, empires have risen and then completely collapsed along with the very systems of law that were designed to prevent the kind of chaos that causes civilisations to fall. As long as this system of traditional Lore and ethics has the willingness to refer patients to other professionals more able to assist a person when required, then the parallel model is likely to function in tandem quite well, and this willingness is already being demonstrated.

We are unable to do too much work with renal patients; we never touch their kidneys, they are too vulnerable. But we do help with pain and discomfort. – Maringka Burton in The Australian newspaper

“We help with pain and discomfort.”

Echoes of a Deeper Issue

These two approaches seem to echo a much larger debate in Australia about whether Indigenous people should be ‘recognised‘ and finally included in the constitution of Australia, or whether Indigenous people should stand strong in the concrete fact that they never ceded sovereignty and the legal method for claiming authority by the crown, terra nullius, was actually a lie. This legally makes the crown’s authority on the continent now known as Australia null and void, according to the crown’s own system of law. The truth is that Australia still legally belongs to its Indigenous people and is actually an occupied territory, due to the fact that there is no treaty, no official record of military conquest, and terra nullius – the claim that the great southern land was uninhabited – was and is categorically and definitively false.

Terra nullius is the method the British crown chose to use in order to take possession of the Australian continent according to international law. It is the bedrock that the entire Australian legal system and the very authority of the crown in Australia are built upon, however just like in any other legal matter from murder cases to parking fines, if a crucial piece of evidence turns out to be false (like the fact that the continent wasn’t uninhabited), then the claim, in this case, of possession and authority over the entire continent is legally invalid.  This means that in the practical sense the only authority the crown wields in Australia is the fact that they possess the firearms and the cages.

Terra nullius is the method the British crown chose to use in order to take possession of the Australian continentTerra nullius is how the British crown took possession of the Australian continent.

Indigenous Australians are still sovereign peoples and are the rightful owners of the Australian continent, and they are living under occupation-by-force. They are surrounded by a population who are almost totally unaware that they are descendants of an occupying force and the occupation is still in place. (It should be noted here that Indigenous Australians traditionally held a belief that was more about custodianship than ownership, however, this doesn’t invalidate the fact that according to the terms of the colonisers which involved things such as working the land, the continent was not uninhabited and already occupied.)

The blackfellas who are demanding treaty instead of constitutional recognition, may well be on the correct and true side of history, however this doesn’t mean that the hand-in-hand approach of engagement with a legally illegitimate government, isn’t a prudent path towards preventing suffering and saving lives.

The link between sovereignty and Indigenous health should not to be underestimated. How can we expect there to ever be true healing on the very real and tangible day-to-day healthcare level, if we never rectify the foundational wound of their unrecognised sovereignty?  In my opinion, the healthcare gap between indigenous people will only be finally closed once this fundamental cultural wound is healed. Anything less is just triage on a cultural scale.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Jonathan Davis

Amplifying personal healing and growth for collective evolution.



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I wish to thank journalist Georgina Kenyon for the thorough research presented in her excellent article Australia’s Other Flying Doctors

Feature Image:
Major (Uncle Moogie) Sumner is a Ngarrindjeri elder from the lower Murray River in South Australia. He has a deep connection with the river and travels the length of the system conducting and teaching traditional river healing ceremonies. Uncle Moogie emphasises the need for all to show respect the land and to act as custodians rather than owners.


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14 Comments on "Can Indigenous and Modern Medicine work together?"

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Donna Hughes
Donna Hughes
I think that the only way the Earth can be saved from the many ravages of “civilized” culture is for us to learn from the remaining indigenous peoples how to again walk the Earth in a sacred manner. We have been worshipping at the alter of false gods who caused us to set ourselves above the rest of creation and to pillage it as we wished, whereas the “savages” were taught to not take more than one needed and to live on the Earth respectfully and thankfully. As far as healers, shamans and scientific medicine are concerned, I would much… Read more »
Mike Pilgrim
Mike Pilgrim

After reading through paragraphs of complaints, I have yet to find any evidence these persons are possessed of any treatment or skills to heal anyone. I did see demands for the government to pay them money.

Jonathan Davis
Jonathan Davis
I’m not sure there were any demands. There are certainly recommendations which you can read in the Hand-in-hand report. The first clearly tangible evidence is that if there are indigenous healers present at a medical centre, indigenous people are more likely to show up instead of avoiding the clinic and getting worse, thereby costing more money in the long run. The SA government has been wise enough to pay indigenous healers most likely because the cost benefit analysis reveals that they save money by doing so. This is only the very first piece of evidence but it’s enough to address… Read more »
Mike Pilgrim
Mike Pilgrim

There is one thing though, that may qualify them as doctors, their awakening to the realization that they can get paid for not treating anyone. In this respect they are very much like western medicine, where our witch doctors are experts at shaking down government, patients and insurance, for money.

Jonathan Davis
Jonathan Davis

I must say I share your scepticism and disappointment with the western medical system.

Mike Pilgrim
Mike Pilgrim
While, judging from the length of your reply, you intended to address the issue, you have confirmed my statement, that aside from a rather long diatribe about how terrible the British entry to Australia was, which is not the issue, that you have no evidence whatsoever, of these persons healing anyone. The interesting neurosurgeon tale, supposedly healed of an injury that nobody knew about, can easier be explained by saying there was no injury there before pr after. That is a better rational fit with the facts. You, yourself, call the tale anecdotal, another way of saying “a story” Please… Read more »
Rebekah Copas
Rebekah Copas
I have evidence of Ngungkari healing work. And I know that at least three Ngungkari are already in receipt of a government wage, from within a social work budget, managed through the appropriate government authority. Ngungkari need be registered with the federal government of australia, at the exact same level as western medical science specialists need be registered; within the exact same regulation system. They are being paid because they are able keep their clients out of hospital beds. The healing I have received, started with being told that the Kediatchure men (local lingo brissie affliated word for Ngungkari/Shaman) can… Read more »
Mike Pilgrim
Mike Pilgrim

Sounds more like you suffer from schizophrenia, hallucinations of black things being thrown away, hallucinations of pain. Your post consisting of evidence of schizophrenia is not credible. Writings such as yours are misleading and readers need to be cautioned, particularly those readers who have borderline schizophrenia, they can be influenced by other schizophrenics.

Jonathan Davis
Jonathan Davis

Check out the world health organisation report that shows that the developed world is measurably less effective in treating psychosis and schozophrenia than developing countries who employ folk medicine and engage the the material coming up in the person’s psyche in a way that doesn’t immediately pathologise… i.e. A primary reason their method of healing measurable works better than ours is because they refrain from doing exactly what you are doing which is jumping to label people with an illness.

The numbers don’t lie.

For more info on this approach check out my uplift article called the shamanic view of mental health.

Rebekah Copas
Rebekah Copas
Well now, my fine feathered friend, I could also tell you that once a psychiatrist told me that placing belief within indigenous culture was the only evidence that the psychiatric profession ever had in my being schizophrenic, and another psychiatrist told me it is very obvious that I have no symptoms of schizophrenia. And if you prefer yourself to believe that all indigenous Australians are schizophrenic, and a danger to others because they speak out about their beliefs, well then, that will be your own prerogative of belief, and you can take the matter up with the psychiatry profession without… Read more »
Mike Pilgrim
Mike Pilgrim

All that means nothing, you presented with symptoms before one psychiatrist and without the symptoms before another psychiatrist. I doubt all indigenous Australians are schizophrenic, your opinion of them is not credible.

Jonathan Davis
Jonathan Davis

also, easily explained isn’t the same as accurately explained. sounds more like ‘explained away’ especially when I have already said that she had before and after scans. When the medical profession decides that they’d rather a piece of their own evidence be retrospectively considered false, yet the same evidence would cause them to conduct brain surgery it indicates a bias that borders on faith instead of evidence.

Jonathan Davis
Jonathan Davis

The article wasn’t designed to go into detail about the healing gifts of the Ngangkari, however that’d be a good topic for one.

Steve Richards
Steve Richards

as an aboriginal descendant I was taught the old ways of the Ngangkari,, to day I have taken Dreamtime healing using Holographic kinetics to a scientific level of understanding and trained over 950 students from over 37 countries, there is plenty our main stream is lacking.
This ancient cultural beliefs and practice could save the tax payer millions if implemented into the system. http://www.holographickinetics.com