Traditional Aboriginal Medicine Practice in the Northern Territory

Traditional Aboriginal Medicine Practice in the Northern Territory Conference Paper

International Symposium on Traditional Medicine

  • Author(s): Devanesen, D
  • Published: 2000

Abstract: Traditional Aboriginal medicine is a complex system closely linked to the culture and beliefs of the people, knowledge of their land and its flora and fauna. Its survival is explained by its “embeddedness” in the social fabric of Aboriginal culture. Reid (1978) has shown that, though Aborigines living at Yirrkala in the Northern Territory choose western medicine to treat the majority of their sicknesses, they continue to explain the causes of these sicknesses through their traditional beliefs. Western medicine is primarily interested in the recognition and treatment of disease. Traditional medicine seeks to a provide meaningful explanation for illness and to respond to the personal, family and community issues surrounding illness. Traditional medicine explains not only the “how” but also the “why” of sickness. The Aboriginal approach to health care is a holistic one. It recognises the social, physical and spiritual dimensions of health and life. Their concept of health in many ways is closer than that of Western medicine to the WHO definition of health, ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. The Warlpiri Aboriginal tribe have described health as “life” or ‘Wankaru’. Their definition takes in a whole of life cycle. The front of their Health Centre at the Aboriginal settlement of Yuendumu is adorned with the painting depicted below. It shows family life, food, shelter, warmth, water and exercise, all essential for health.

Notes: Traditional healers were employed by the Northern Territory Department of Health at various rural health centres in Central Australia in the early 1970’s. A training course to teach traditional healers about western medical practices was attempted in 1974. It was soon realised that it would be better to train a separate group as Aboriginal health workers and to leave the traditional healers to their vitally important roles (Devanesen and Briscoe 1980). The employment of traditional healers was ceased, and a training program for Aboriginal health workers commenced. However, rural health centres continue to recognise and cooperate with traditional healers in the management of sick people. Two way medicine is the term that has been coined by Aboriginal health workers to describe a bicultural approach to health care. It is based on the principle that “if you can use what is best in modern medicine together with what is best in traditional healing, the combination may be better than either one alone” (Werner 1977). The Northern Territory Department of Health’s first policy on Aboriginal health stated that “traditional medicine is a complementary and vital part of Aboriginal health care, and its value is recognised and supported” (Northern Territory Department of Health 1982). The Northern Territory Department of Health over the years has established several programs that recognise the traditional health system, Aboriginal values and beliefs.

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Devanesen, D, 2000, Traditional Aboriginal Medicine Practice in the Northern Territory, Conference Paper, viewed 23 July 2024,

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