‘They do think about health’: Young Indigenous women’s ideas about health and their interaction with the health system

‘They do think about health’: Young Indigenous women’s ideas about health and their interaction with the health system Book Section

Indigenous Australian Youth Futures: Living the Social Determinants of Health

  • Author(s): Friderichs, Mascha
  • Secondary Author(s): Senior, Kate, Chenhall, Richard, Burbank, Victoria
  • Published: 2021
  • Publisher: ANU Press
  • ISBN: 9781760464448

Abstract: Introduction: One day I was talking with a non-Indigenous service provider who asked me what my research was about. I told her I wanted to know how often young Indigenous women in Katherine thought about health and how they engaged with health and social services. Her response was that it would be 0 per cent because Indigenous people do not think about ‘health’ because health it is a Western concept. This service provider’s idea was in line with much of the literature, which states that there is no Aboriginal word for health (Atkinson 2002, 44; National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party 1989). However, to say that Indigenous young women in Katherine have no conception of the term health or ideas about health is to overlook the reality they live in. The young women in my research were living in a town where non-Indigenous people were in the majority; they attended school, engaged with Western media and used the Western health care system. As such, they cannot be regarded as isolated and independent from their surroundings (Merlan 1998). Moreover, the fact that there is no word in Aboriginal languages that means health in the Western sense does not mean that people do not think about issues that are generally regarded as being in the domain of health and sickness. Research on Aboriginal health often falls into one of two categories. Research from a biomedical perspective only looks at health from that perspective and is generally based on statistical indicators of mortality and morbidity, without acknowledging the existence of traditional beliefs. Conversely, much research on Aboriginal health beliefs focuses on traditional beliefs (Maher 1999), with anthropologists emphasising sorcery and traditional healing (see also Senior 2003). Both perspectives run the risk of overlooking the reality and complexity of people’s views and behaviour. Indigenous health is an issue of concern for governments, service providers and researchers, which makes it imperative to consider whose perspectives are prioritised. Research findings need to reflect Indigenous people’s own lived experiences. The majority of anthropological research on Indigenous health has focused on the general population or on small children (see e.g. Carson et al. 2007; Reid 1983; Saggers and Gray 1991a). Research focused on Indigenous youth, on the other hand, is not always focused on health specifically (Burbank 1988; Eickelkamp 2011).1 However, research with young people is important, as many health-compromising behaviours, as well as patterns of health service utilisation, are developed during adolescence (Vingilis, Wade and Seeley 2007). It is at this age that people become aware of their bodies and start making active decisions regarding their health (World Health Organization 2003, 7–9). If public health policies and the work of service providers are to contribute to improved health outcomes for Indigenous young women, it is necessary first to understand their views on health and what is important to them. Many ethnographic studies on Indigenous health focus on remote locations rather than town contexts. Yet, young Indigenous women in towns are exposed to different influences on their health beliefs and behaviours than those in remote areas. Although there is increasing recognition that the living circumstances of Indigenous people in remote communities should be seen as intercultural (Burbank 2011), there is a stronger boundary between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal contexts in remote communities than in towns. Whereas in the former, non-Indigenous people are always outsiders (i.e. never permanent), towns form home for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In towns, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people mutually influence each other, and strict distinctions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal domains—between tradition and modernity—cannot be made (Merlan 1998, 4).2 This is especially relevant when considering young people may have multicultural friendships and who attend school and activities such as sports together. Another difference related to location is that, although the populations of remote communities generally consist of people from various language groups, this variety is even more pronounced in towns. In this chapter, I show the multitude of health beliefs held by Indigenous young women in Katherine. The chapter starts with a description of Katherine and the 12 main informants in this study. This includes an explanation of how their Indigenous identity can be understood, as well as a consideration of Katherine as an intercultural place. This is followed by a short overview of the methods used, then an exploration of definitions of health, including how services influence young women’s views, as well as ideas around taking responsibility for health. Subsequently, I discuss the use of health services, focusing on the role of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs). The final section before the discussion considers the changing role of bush medicine and traditional healing.

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Suggested Citation
Friderichs, Mascha, 2021, ‘They do think about health’: Young Indigenous women’s ideas about health and their interaction with the health system, Book Section, viewed 30 November 2021, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=26699.

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