Wednesday, February 9, 2011
A Healthy Reminder Of An Unhealthy Race..
Currently, the life expectancy rate for Indigenous people compared to non indigenous Australians is 17 years. New figures and strategic plans were released on the 12th February 2011 by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the third official ‘Closing the Gap Report’ from the Australian Government.
So what does this statistic mean to me? I am a 25 year old Indigenous Murri woman from North Queensland from a blood line thousands of years old, and was recently forced to say goodbye to by mother who passed away from ‘natural causes’ on December 29th 2010, at the age of 49 years old, just one month shy of her 50th birthday.
I am no government official, or health expert. I’m far from a fitness junkie and a health freak. I’m just your average Indigenous 25 year old female from Queensland who lost her mum too soon. This life gap expectancy has become more important to me than ever before.
When governments, doctors, health clinics and other health professionals talk about the chronic illnesses and health barriers my people are faced with, to me and a lot of other Indigenous people, yeah it’s scary but I would say the majority don’t always feel the impact of bad health until they are faced with it and forced to live with it.
As one indigenous person, I do not have the right to speak on behalf of my entire race of people, but I can share in some of the similarities we all indentify with when it comes to our health and the stereotypes that often get attached to it.
Why are Indigenous Australians so prone to some of the world’s most chronic illnesses like diabetes, middle ear infections, chronic heart diseases, lung cancer, liver failure and others? The answer is obvious on the surface. We don’t eat healthy food, we drink alcohol, we smoke cigarettes and we don’t exercise. Yeah, but so do other non Indigenous Australia’s, so why are Indigenous Australians so susceptible to these illnesses compared to other Australians? The answer doesn’t start with our eating habits immediately. To understand the way in which we are so prone, you must understand the process and acknowledge the sociological problems from our past that are all contributing factors causing such alarming health figures today.
Now I don’t preach to know a whole lot about history, heck, a lot of Australian’s if honest with themselves, would probably admit to not knowing a whole lot about the history of this country or its people pre settlement, or today for that fact. So let’s take a minute to stop and think. Before colonisation, before the boats, before Captain Cook and the rest of them came, before you and I were even a thought in our parents head, what was life like for Aboriginal people?
The answer to Indigenous health problems and barriers start with my people’s history, which leads us to the here and now. My people and ancestors walked this land before the houses and buildings you live in and sit in today were even set in concrete. They were here living off the land and all its abundance before our earth was desecrated by farmers and their introduced animals and pests. They nurtured the trees and took care of the land and its native flora and fauna because that was, and still is the traditional lore (law) and custom to do so before mining companies arrived and raped the land of its purity. My people didn’t beat their wives or neglect their children, because it was against the LORE, and if they did, traditional punishment was then used against those individuals who dared break that scared lore.
The fundamental laws of respect for elders, for our families, for each other, for our land and country, for our lore, for our dreaming, and for our ancient culture and way of life, are the elements that have kept my people alive for so many thousands of years. With this in mind, let’s fast forward a few years when the boats arrived to ‘Australia’ and the term ‘terra nullius’ was declared, meaning ‘Land belonging to no one’, or ‘No man’s land’. In case you don’t know, the arrival of strange white people arriving and trying to claiming land that clearly had people on it, didn’t go down well with Aboriginal people.
If I were to try and explain every wrong doing that has happened to my people in history until now, I would go crazy, and wouldn’t know every fact and figure, so here is the quick and confronting version.
From the very arrival of Non Indigenous people, Aboriginal people suffered many wrong fates. Aboriginal land was taken without consent. Attempted genocide of an entire race of people happened with thousands upon thousands of people and tribes slaughtered and massacred. Those who survived the massacres, traditional people belonging to specific areas in the nation, were displaced and moved off their land. Black children were taken without consent and sent to missionaries as it was thought better for the babies (many were told their parents were dead when they were not, and many suffered sexual, mental and emotional abuse, with many failing to ever find their real birth parents long into their adulthood).
Terms and policies were introduced like, ‘breed the black out of them’, where those displaced people were stolen, forced into missions without their families, made slaves and built the states we live in today, many without a cent paid to them (Many are still fighting to receive their stolen wages today). Many of these men who were chased off their land and forced to work for ‘bosses’, were paid off with introduced substances like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other introduced foods instead of the money they deserved.
The women the men left behind when they were forced to go and work, were raped by intruders and officials who came into their communities and onto their lands, and forced themselves onto black women, and in doing so, forcing these women to break customary lore to their husbands and those who they were promised too. Religion was also introduced which forbid the everyday cultural practices like speaking their own native tongue.
Many Aboriginal people (including my grand parents) were put under government acts which resulted in them having to ask for permission off the government and police to do basic things like marry their partner, to go fishing or walkabout. Aboriginal people were classed under the governments ‘Flora and fauna act’ up until 1967 when Australians finally voted ‘Yes’ to recognising them as citizens in the Australian constitution, in doing so, giving them the right to vote.
As a result of all the above examples of past mistreatment and displacement, Aboriginal people lost parts of their culture including vital languages, paintings, stories’, dances, and disrupted traditional ways of living in many ways forever.
So how does that brief history lesson tie into the way we live our lives today? Well ask yourself this question, if all of those monstrosities had happened to your people, how do you think they would fair now in the 21st century living in a western world? We were forced to assimilate and we were forced to comply, but yet we still survived and are trying our best to salvage our indigenous culture as a whole around the nation in our own individual ways.
Any decent doctor or health professional would know that our genetic makeup is different from those of non indigenous people. Our bodies are not used to processed foods and introduced toxic wastes like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, petrol, paint, flour or sugars that are all available to us today.
Previous to these introduced foods in our diet, Aboriginal people had traditional food that helped to maintain healthy bodies like lean kangaroo meat, fish, dugong, turtle, snake, goanna, natural flours, natural wheats and other healthy bush tuckers that were all eaten in moderation. Obesity wasn’t common as we only ever ate what we needed. Any excess foods would be saved or shared out to other tribes or families. We didn’t need salt in our diets as we relied on the natural foods and their goodness to provide it. We didn’t know about alcohol and its affects so therefore our stomachs have no resistance to its poison, and we didn’t have overcrowding in our houses/huts then like we do now because we lived off the land and room was plentiful.
Our minds and bodies are rich with history, stories, and knowledge of our lands passed down from generation to generation. Mix these introduced foods and substances with our genetic makeup and we become sick and unhealthy, resulting in effects we see today with our poor health statistics.
The average Indigenous family has two or more children, often with only one parent working, with low or below average income. The world we all live in as we all know, is an expensive place. Supermarket prices are ridiculous and the average Australian would support that fact, so how do those in remote communities for example, with limited money and more than two mouths to feed every night cope? With limited money and resources like choice of supermarkets, comes the quick and easy soultions. Quick to make foods like rice, high in carbohydrates and bad for our genetic makeup, have become a staple for many indigenous Australians. Coconut curie chicken and rice, high in Tran’s fats is a meal I would arguably say is cooked at least once a week in a black family. Hamper and rice (processed tin meat, high in salt, resulting in high blood pressure and cause of chronic heart disease) is also seen as a meal that can stretch and feed a lot of people.
These types of recipes are just a taste (no pun intended) of the bad eating habits that a lot of Indigenous Australians like myself and families are used to cooking, as they are cheap and effective and last longer than healthy, more expensive foods that are better for you. Mix these kind of recipes with a lack of exercise, (less dancing, less walk about, less hunting and collecting, all which is a form of exercise) and mix it with a body type that isn’t used to these kinds of foods in our system, and w know what to expect; Chronic diseases and health barriers that set us years apart from the rest of Australians.
So how do we break these bad habits? What stops us from seeing a doctor or a health professional once we are diagnosed with these types of diseases and illnesses? I know myself, I don’t always have the motivation or desire to go and speak to someone about my health problems because I am afraid of what they will say considering the odds against my people are never good when it comes to our health. A lack of education on what you can and can’t eat, compared to what you can afford is another factor. Then there is the thought process when you’re considering going to a doctor for a check up of, ‘what if you are sick’? I don’t always have the money from my low income pay packet to afford the medicine that I need, even if it is at a cheaper price thanks to my health care card.
There’s also the issue of ‘Men and woman’s business’. I recently had my first check up ever for sun cancer (I had a spot on my back that turned out to be nothing), and I can say the process was degrading and embarrassing; in black fulla terms, it was a huge ‘shame job’ to go through. A male doctor examining my naked female body from head to toe, top to bottom for sun cancers would’ve been enough to get speared in customary lore in the past, so why should we feel so comfortable with it now in this day and age?
If I had known of the process previously to getting that check up for sun cancer, I would not have gone, simply for the shame factor. I am in no way encouraging people not to get checked up, I am just saying why it is so difficult to go and physically do it. It seems so simple and silly to say that to others, but for us as Indigenous people, we aren’t used to going to a clinic and seeing a strange doctor about our personal health problems, whatever they may be. Non indigenous people are used to this, because they know no other way, but we had our own medicines and our own health practices from people in our tribes for generations that were chosen specifically for those types of jobs, and it would always be dealt with in a culturally appropriate way (males working with males for men’s business, and the women with women for woman’s business)
The way western medicine is trying to improve this shame factor now is by running Aboriginal Health Services. Indigenous run programs tailored to specific Indigenous needs is what I believe is helping to beat the chronic diseases plaguing my people. An understanding and respect for Aboriginal culture and history and using the technology we have today will also help to improve Indigenous health. Encouragement and patience by willing participants and health professionals is essential to break the cycle of bad eating habits and lack of exercise. Those suffering with social problems due to alcohol and drug abuse need to be understood and not misjudged. Although everyone has a choice and there is no excuse, one would think the loss of culture, of identity and misplacement is enough for anyone to develop an easy dependency on drugs and alcohol.
The reason why I wrote this today was to give a little bit of a grass roots understanding to those who may not even know an indigenous person or for those who maybe quick to judge and call us all lazy and diseased stricken. The point of this is for others to walk in our shoes for a brief moment, and develop a better understanding of our cultural. Our Aboriginal culture is still very much alive, but the affects of our ancestor’s mistreatments live on in each of us today. Their struggles back then, continue to be our struggles now in many forms; poor health just one example.
I don’t claim to have the answers or a quick fix approach for any of what I have talked about. I speak for myself and not on behalf of every black Australian and all of this is simply my outlook on the plight of my people compared to the rest of the nation. If you have gained nothing else from this but a small understanding of what it is to walk in the shoes of Indigenous Australians who constantly has the odds stacked against them, than perhaps I feel I have made some sort of difference.
While the history books remain the same, our health problems may improve but will never go away completely. I can only hope to live to a ripe old age and that my life isn’t cut short like the sudden, unexpected and unexplained passing of my 49 year old black mother in December, but unfortunately though, according to statistics, this could be a very real possibility for me and many other Indigenous Australians.
Our futures according to statistics maybe bleak, but with by helping ourselves and having an understanding and lending hand from the wider community, maybe, just maybe, we can beat the odds again like we have done in the past.
Until next time.. One Love, One Life.... X