Ngangkari are the traditional healers of the Anangu people. For as long as anyone can remember they have been caring for the wellbeing and mental health of Indigenous people.
“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. 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.
Dealing with the deceased, sometimes we can capture the spirit of the deceased and place it into the living spouse, which is a really caring and strengthening thing to do. Sometimes if a son passes away, and the mother is really sick and bereaved, the dead son’s spirit is placed inside the mother. In that way everybody is happier and it ensures that they get back to their normal health more quickly and are happier and healthier during their time of grief, because it is really terrible if somebody is too sad for too long.
Sometimes I can call a spirit with a branch. Using the branch I can usher it along, into the burial place, where the spirit should be. Sometimes the spirit will leave the body and leave the burial ceremony and travel around and make people sick. Sometimes, if I see that, I use a branch to brush it along, to brush it along so it goes back to the cemetery.
See here on my elbow? That’s where my mapanpa sits. I’ve got openings in my hand and an opening in the forehead. We say that ngangkari people are mara ala and ngalya ala, which means open hands and open mind. When you hear someone say, “Oh, he’s mara ala,” that just tells you instantly that she’s a healer, a traditional healer, a ngangkari.”
Before white settlement, traditional ideas like kurdiji were used to keep Aboriginal communities in good mental health – suicides were virtually unheard of. After white settlement, government funded institutions intervened in Aboriginal communities with Western psychology – the suicide rates skyrocketed. We are losing over 150 Indigenous people a year to suicide, the vast majority of them children.
(photograph by Judith Crispin)