Aboriginal bush medicine heals body and soul

NHULUNBUY, Australia (Reuters) - As the campfire burns slowly, a group of Aborigines build a “place of healing” in a remote outback camp where they will treat the ill using traditional bush medicines.

Australian Aboriginal healers Djerrkngu Marika (L) and Babalangua Munungurr of the Yolngu clan prepare a fire with bush medicines, as part a spiritual healing which will be performed at the Healing Place at Nhulunbuy, approximately 690 km (429 miles) east of Darwin July 16, 2007. The Healing Place is a project of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and is currently on a six month trial period. REUTERS/Pauline Askin

The Healing Place is set in Gulkula, a stringy bark forest with views of the Gulf of Carpentaria, about 15 km (9 miles) southeast of Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Cape in the Northern Territory.

Bush healing is a part of the Yolngu aboriginal culture, remedies from the ancient Dreamtime stories have been handed down through the generations for more than 40,000 years.

Poor health is a serious issue for Aborigines in this remote outback community. They have limited access to modern medical services and the Yolngu women are determined to continue to teach and practice their traditional bush medicine.

“The older ladies, the mothers of the people here, the mothers of this land, are concerned that it’s not being handed on like it used to be,” said Tash Eles from the aboriginal Yothu Yindi Foundation, which promotes Yolngu culture.

The Healing Place is a Yothu Yindi project currently on a six month trial basis.

“There’s an urgency, as traditions and oral histories are handed on through generations. If you skip a generation you lose a whole body of knowledge,” said Eles.

Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up two percent of the 20 million population and have a life expectancy 17 years less than white Australians. They have far higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.

At The Healing Place, Yolngu women will treat people with traditional bush healing alongside mainstream medicines.

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Aboriginal remedies vary between clans. During the last 20 years anthropologists have worked to record a complex and sophisticated aboriginal pharmacopoeia.

A “bush sauna”, when liquid is poured over a multitude of native flora and fauna, is a common treatment for easing arthritic pain. Clear liquid squeezed from a bush cockroach’s anus is used for its anesthetic and antiseptic properties.

In many parts of Australia, wounds are dressed with dirt or ash and some Aborigines eat small balls of white clay and pieces of termite mound to cure diarrhea and stomach upsets.

Bush remedies for headaches range from a bath of crushed Red Ash (Alphitonia excelsa) leaves to inhaling a crushed vine (Clematis microphylla) to rubbing a crushed liniment tree (Melaleuca symphyocarpa) on the head.

Some of the most well known aboriginal remedies are readily available in most Australian supermarkets -- Goanna oil, tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil.

Many doctors who work in outback Australia welcome aboriginal medicines. “I think that you can have two healing systems working together side-by-side”, Dr Oscar Whitehead told local radio.


Before the healing begins, three women drive off into the bush and return a couple of hours later with shrubs, nuts, leaves and paper bark, laughing and chattering in their native language. They use basic tools like an axe to strip the bark without damaging the trees.

Back at the camp, the women fill two big pots of water and place them on the open fire, adding some of the bush ingredients they have gathered. The rest is placed in a hole in the ground, about 6 feet in length and set alight.

The burning nuts give off an aroma like almonds when heated.

After a while the fire is doused with fluid from the pots, giving off a strong eucalyptus scent, like an open air steam room in the outback bush. Paper bark is then laid over the doused fire, with the damp side facing up so it is moist to lie on.

Yolngu elder Gungulu Munugurr, who has difficulty breathing and who has been waiting weeks to be healed, sits in the sun before she is treated.

“With Western medicine, a lot of people have to leave the community and go away from their families, especially for the old people,” explained Dhangal Gurruwiwi a senior Yolngu member.

“They don’t want to leave their families. So a family member has to go with the patient to the hospitals and by the time they get back they need the traditional medicine that the earth has supplied to us,” she said.

After removing most of her clothes, Munugurr lies on top of the paper bark while the healing women smother her skin in a slime like substance from one of the pots.

They then wrapped her in more paperbark and proceed to walk over her while chanting, almost in a meditative form.

“It’s not just a place of physical healing, but emotional healing, as well as spiritual -- it’s a healing that the land holds. If the spirit is healed, the body will heal,” said Gurruwiwi.