Traditional Aboriginal health care

Traditional medicine has been used successfully for generations, but is there still a place for the traditional healing methods of the ngangkari healers?

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Ngangkari : Traditional Aboriginal healers

Traditional Aboriginal healing is as old as the culture itself. Over a long time Aboriginal healers built a body of knowledge based on the resources they found on the land.

But while Australia is recognised as having “advanced policy development and support for traditional medicine”, this is not because of Aboriginal healing, it’s because of the official embrace of Chinese medicine. Simply put, Aboriginal traditional medicine has not been researched a lot.

In the Anangu Pitjintjatjara Yangkunjatjara (APY) lands in northern South Australia traditional health knowledge is still alive and well, and working in a contemporary setting. The Elders who are working as healers are called Ngangkari, a Pitjantjatjara word that literally means ‘traditional healer’. In the Flinders Ranges they are called Yura urngi in the Adnyamathanha language.

Aboriginal traditional healers are born into the ability through family lines and knowledge passed down through family to family. Becoming a Ngangkari can begin as a toddler, when family and community members identify a child to be a natural healer. Their status is equal with doctors in their effectiveness for the people.

"Western medicine looks at the body from a mechanistic perspective, whereas healers highlight everyone has a spirit that intimately links to the body and emotions," knows Francesca Panzironi, founder and CEO of ANTAC, Australia’s first organisation of Aboriginal traditional healers (see below). There is also strong evidence to suggest that spirituality helps Aboriginal people to cope, be strong, resilient and determined, and to come to terms with life’s problems.

Ngangkari healers in SA work alongside doctors and medical staff in community clinics and hospitals, and often visit Adelaide to attend to Aboriginal hospital patients and deal with everything from childhood illnesses, pain relief, pain management to restoring the spirit balance within the body and treating loss of spirit. Their job is not doing an operation or giving medication.

The Commonwealth of Australia has never enacted legislation on legal recognition, regulation and financing of Aboriginal traditional medicine, nor on the status of Aboriginal traditional healers. South Australia is the only state that recognises traditional healers in its Mental Health Act 2009 which says that mental health services for Aboriginal patients can, “when practicable and appropriate, involve collaboration with health workers and traditional healers from their communities”.

Despite the legal acknowledgement, Ngangkari are engaged and paid in an ad hoc fashion, with funding directed through NGOs and other agencies. They have no official status or pay scale, and what they earn for their work varies wildly, as do Ngangkaṟi community programs.

In December 2013 traditional Aboriginal healers from central Australia in Adelaide formed Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC), a corporate body to coordinate the provision of their health care services. ANTAC is the first organisation of Aboriginal traditional healers in Australia, founded on the principle of self-determination. The healers are visiting major hospitals and rural clinics in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

The corporation proposed a framework for a two-way health care model to help Ngangkari health care services work hand-in-hand with Western medicine and be recognised in the mainstream healthcare system as a form of complementary alternative medicine. According to CEO Francesca Panzironi, the most comparable form of alternative medicine to Ngangkari healing is reiki.

Depending on a client's problems, Ngangkari healers offer three main techniques: a smoking ceremony, bush medicines or spirit realignment. They use their hands to remove pain, blockages or obstructions. Healers consider the spirit as a "core component" of a person's body and help clients reconnect to culture, the "lifeblood of their spiritual being".

More and more non-Aboriginal people who are dissatisfied with the mainstream model and are looking for alternatives become aware, and use the services, of traditional healers.


Traditional Aboriginal medicine is not recognised as an alternative medicine in Australia, due to difficulty regulating spiritual practices and the lack of testing of bush medicines.

I remember once the manager of the hospital said to me 'Oh my god, I have never seen so many Aboriginal people in the hospital smiling and being so happy to be here'.

— Francesca Panzironi, chief executive ANTAC

For Aboriginal people especially, the healers make all the difference how patients use and experience health services.

In 2014, there were 14 traditional healers in the association.

But Australia is yet to catch up with the world. In New Zealand and Canada you can walk into a clinic and choose between seeing a Western doctor or a traditional healer, while Africa and South America have national associations of indigenous healing, recognised and funded by the government.

Further resources: Documentary Ngangkari by Erica Glynn, and the book Traditional Healers of the Central Desert: Ngangkari by the NPY Women's Council Aboriginal Corporation.

When your spirit leaves your body, you better start looking around for a Ngangkari.

— Cyril McKenzie, traditional healer from Ernabella, northern SA desert

The man who should be dead

Scientists are amazed by the skeleton of an Aboriginal man who lived about 1,000 years ago .

The man survived a life-threatening fall from a tree or cliff suffering multiple leg and arm fractures, losing a large amount of blood.

Studies of the skeleton which was found in a burial site in Adelaide suggest he recovered from his life-threatening injuries, and although deformities crippled him for the rest of his life he went on to live until the age of about 50.

The scientists say that only "his outstanding fitness and the standard of care he received" contributed to the man's survival and reflected "an impressive depth of nursing and social support in a community of hunter-gatherers". The case also raises questions about the use of very effective herbal medicines and sedatives to control infections and ease pain.

Multi-trauma survival before the advent of modern medicine is likely to have been extremely uncommon, particularly in primitive societies.

— Lucian Solomon, Associate Professor, University of Adelaide

Anne Warren, an Aboriginal elder and medicine woman, explains: "In traditional Aboriginal medicine, which is entirely holistic and preventive, 'spirit' is the ultimate wisdom. If the spirit is well, the body will be well. So we heal the spirit through the body."

Traditional healing is very close to what we today label the eastern healing approach. "You don't address one part of the body without healing the whole body," Warren says.

Connecting to spirit has to do a lot with deep listening. "Spirit comes in through dreams, visions, signs and symbols in our daily lives," she explains. "It's about listening to everything, acknowledging the interconnectedness between yourself and every living thing."

For example, if you had a pain in the stomach, the centre of digestion, it might help to ask "What are you not digesting?" If you suffer period pain ask about the creative outlet you need, as a woman's reproductive organs are the centre of feminine creativity.

Aboriginal elder of the Yankunytjatjara people near Uluru Bob Randall observes how white people are "insensitive" to the spiritual side of healing . "White people separate things," he says, "even the relationship between their minds and their bodies, but especially between themselves and other people and nature."

In Aboriginal traditional healing, Warren says, "every plant has a spiritual aspect that must be taken into account."

Healing in "ridiculously short periods"

Aboriginal people on the Cook Islands treat rugby players' broken bones with traditional medicine that has been used for generations.

"Several of my friends sustained fractures playing football and were back on the park in ridiculously short periods of times after being treated," says Dr Graham Matheson, an emergency physician who grew up on the island .

Following traditional protocol he asked his elders for permission to research commercial use of the medicine. The council of chiefs agreed to the research project, which found "dramatic" healing results.

The chiefs became shareholders in an Australian company, Cook Islands Medical Technologies (Cimtech), that was tasked to commercialise the findings.

Scientific research increasingly backs up traditional knowledge. It found, for example, that a paste made from the gum, stem and leaves of a local red ash tree heals infected sores because it contains intensive concentrations of anti-infection and anti-microbial compounds .

Who owns traditional healing knowledge?

In recent years, conflicts over who has the right to commercialise and benefit from traditional knowledge have intensified.

In 2011, controversy surrounded an application by the American cosmetic company Mary Kay to patent an extract of the Kakadu plum for use in a skin-care product, with some Aboriginal people worried it could prevent them using the fruit as bush tucker or medicine . They objected their patent application. Proper consultation with traditional owners and keepers of knowledge is vital in any such process, but not always followed.

University of Hawaii researchers who obtained patents for new varieties of taro found themselves under pressure to revoke the patents on the basis that taro is sacred to indigenous Hawaiians. The researchers finally abandoned them in 2006 .

A UN summit on biodiversity in Japan in 2010 resulted in the first internationally binding agreement to prevent biopiracy. The new protocol requires informed consent for researchers getting access to genetic resources and agreement on "fair and equitable" sharing of any resulting benefits with the party providing the resources. However, the US has so far not adopted the agreement. Dream Shield, a program launched in 2010, aims to help Aboriginal people turn their traditional knowledge into commercial products. It advises them to keep quiet about their new inventions or design until they've got intellectual property protection.

Under the program, the Jarlmadangah Burru Aboriginal Community in the Kimberley has patented compounds from a traditional bark remedy for skin conditions.

Placebo effect challenges medical thinking

Even if you don't believe in the success of the examples above and think it's all show, you'll be surprised how effective a placebo can be.

Western medical research has found that 'ritual' and 'theatre' are key elements to trigger people's bodies to heal themselves, known as the placebo effect.

Damien Finniss, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney's Pain Management and Research Institute, found that you need not only treat the body but also the brain, "through ritual".

This could include the look and feel of the consulting room, the time a doctor takes to explain side effects, and the style of clothes they wear.

If, through ritual and theatre, a patient believes a medicine will work, which is in fact a placebo, it releases the body's own pain killers and activates the same brain regions as a real drug. A growing number of research shows how placebos can produce a genuine biological response that could affect the disease process itself. Rats have been trained that a certain liquid makes them sick. But when they were given the same liquid without the nauseous ingredient, they were still affected and even died, because their system had learned to fail in the presence of the liquid. This could explain how indigenous people all over the world are affected by 'bone pointing' and other rituals used by shamans to make them sick or die.

Losing Bush Medicine

Oh what if all the doctors died
Elena thought then cried and cried
and what if modern medicines fail
to keep the virus from this vale
of what if secret wisdom stays
a secret all our many ways
our bush food and our medicine
will be forgotten lost to men

I truly
cannot understand ...
how can we keep ...?
Elena wept and wept
and wept and wept
into her final sleep.

Poem by Kevin Gilbert . Read more Aboriginal poetry.


View article sources (16)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] [1e] [1f] ‘Aboriginal healers working to keep traditional medicine alive’, ABC News 23/5/2014
[2] The Macquarie Dictionary added 'ngangkari' in its eight edition in 2020. It is pronounced 'ngung-guh-ree'.
[3] [3a] ‘SA Health Aboriginal Culture and History Handbook’, Department for Health and Ageing, October 2013
[4] [4a] [4b] 'A 60,000-year-old cure for depression', BBC Travel 30/9/2019
[5] ‘Hand-in-Hand. Report on Aboriginal Traditional Medicine’, Francesca Panzironi, Aṉangu Ngangkaṟi Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation 2013, p.36
[6] loc. cit., p.48
[7] loc. cit., p.49
[8] 'Traditional healers – ngangkari – in an Australia-first', The Stringer 17/12/2013
[9] [9a] [9b] 'Ngangkari healers: 60,000 years of traditional Aboriginal methods make headway in medical clinics', ABC News 28/3/2018
[10] [10a] 'Man's survival amazes scientists', Koori Mail 492 p.40
[11] [11a] 'Ancient healing', The Sunday Telegraph 16/11/2008, Body + Soul p.16
[12] 'Medicine man makes no bones about paying dues', SMH 9/4/2011
[13] 'Yaegl people, Macquarie Uni combine to give bush medicine a boost', The Australian 20/8/2014
[14] [14a] 'Healers and wheeler-dealers', SMH 09/04/2011
[15] [15a] ''Mind-body' healing: Success of placebo trials challenges medical thinking', SMH 11/6/2017
[16] 'Losing Bush Medicine',, retrieved 1/4/2013

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Traditional Aboriginal health care, <>, retrieved 14 July 2024

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