The Australian Aborigines believe that illness is caused by sorcery, particularly by object intrusions. The tribal elders, in contact with their 'Dreaming', would claim to extract the object from the sick person. Medicinal plants were, and still are, used. Aboriginal people traditionally were much healthier than they are today. Living in the open in a land largely free from disease, they benefited from a better diet, more exercise, less stress, a more supportive society and a more harmonious world view.
Throughout Australia, Aborigines believed that serious illness and death were caused by spirits or persons practising sorcery. Even trivial ailments, or accidents such as falling from a tree, were often attributed to malevolence. Aboriginal culture was too rich in meaning to allow the possibility of accidental injury and death, and when someone succumbed to misfortune, a man versed in magic was called in to identify the culprit.
These spiritual doctors were men (rarely women) of great wisdom and stature with immense power. Trained from an early age by their elders and initiated into the deepest of tribal secrets, they were the supreme authorities on spiritual matters. They could visit the skies, witness events from afar, and fight with serpents. Only they could pronounce the cause of serious illness or death, and only they, by performing sacred rites, could effect a cure.
Anyone who has ever had a pre-med injection before an anaesthetic for surgery will have received a drug called hyoscme commercially cropped from Duboisia myoporoides, a medicinal plant well known to the Aborigines. Aboriginal medicine contains innumerable folk remedies, many of which have formed the basis for pharmaceutical treatments that we use routinely in Western medicine. Traditional approaches to healing are holistic and consider mind, body and spirit. Medicine is distinguished from healing, which goes beyond mere treatment of sickness. It is somewhat ironic that modern physicians say they provide health care when they really only treat diseases.
The healing relationship is based on a series of virtues: respect; humility; compassion; honesty; truth, sharing, hospitality and divine love. Traditional Aboriginal care recognizes many more routes to healing than does Western medicine. Seven routes are commonly mentioned: Talking, Crying, Laughing, Dancing, Sweating, Yawning, and Yelling (giving vent to your feelings, rather than yelling at someone).
Aboriginal peoples often had need of bush medicines. Sleeping at night by fires meant they sometimes suffered from burns. Strong sunshine and certain foods caused headaches, and eye infections were common. Feasting on sour fruits or rancid meat caused digestive upsets, and although tooth decay was not a problem, coarse gritty food sometimes wore teeth down to the nerves. Aborigines were also occasionally stung by jellyfish or bitten by snakes and spiders. In the bush there was always a chance of injury, and fighting usually ended in severe bruises and gashes.
To deal with such ailments, Aboriginal people used a range of remedies – wild herbs, animal products, steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages, string amulets and secret chants and ceremonies.Some of these remedies had no empirical basis, but it is clear from the accounts of colonists that they worked. Many of the remedies worked by healing directly through their chemical or physical action. Aromatic herbs, tannin-rich inner barks and kinos have well documented therapeutic effects. Other plants undoubtedly harboured alkaloids or other compounds with healing effects. Aboriginal remedies varied between clans and in different parts of the country. There was no single set of Aboriginal medicines and remedies, just as there was no one Aboriginal language.
The Medicine Wheel
The medicine wheel symbolizes the interconnection of all life, the various cycles of nature, and how life represents a circular journey. The number four is sacred to the many Aboriginal peoples of North America and can represent many things: the four seasons, the four parts of a person (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual); the four kingdoms (animal, mineral, plant and human); the four sacred medicines (sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar and sage). Hence, you will see the medicine wheel presented in several different ways:
(1) The four points of the compass, each with a guiding spirit, symbolize stages in the life journey. The East, direction of the daily birth of the sun, represents a person's birth and early years. The South relates to childhood and intellectual growth. The West symbolizes adulthood and introspection, while the North represents the old age, wisdom and the spiritual aspects of life. The centre of the wheel is symbolic of Mother Earth and the Creator, and their role in the beginning and continuation of life.
(2) The four points can represent the balance between spiritual (East), mental (North), physical (West) and emotional (South) aspects of health.
(3) The wheel can also represent values and decisions. Here, values (drawn in the East, where the sun rises) influence decisions taken in the mental realm (drawn in the North, at the top). Then, decisions are implemented in the physical realm (West), and actions produce reactions in the emotional realm (South). Finally, these reactions provide feedback into the value system, completing the circle of value - action - evaluation.
(4) The quadrants of the wheel are often coloured red, yellow, black, white or green.
For a traditional healer, an imbalance (e.g., the loss of traditional values, perhaps resulting from experiences in residential schools) may affect health decisions (e.g., leading to alcoholism).
Medicine men sometimes employed plants and herbs in their rites, but they did not usually practice secular medicine. The healing of trivial non-spiritual complaints, using herbs and other remedies, was practiced by all Aborigines, although older women were usually the experts. To ensure success, plants and magic were often prescribed side-by-side.
Plants were prepared as remedies in a number of ways. Leafy branches were often placed over a fire while the patient squatted on top and inhaled the steam. Sprigs of aromatic leaves might be crushed and inhaled, inserted into the nasal septum, or prepared into a pillow on which the patient slept. To make an infusion, leaves or bark were crushed and soaked in water (sometimes for a very long time), which was then drunk, or washed over the body. Ointment was prepared by mixing crushed leaves with animal fat. Other external treatment included rubbing down the patient with crushed seed paste, fruit pulp or animal oil, or dripping milky say or a gummy solution over them. Most plant medicines were externally applied.
Medicine plants were always common plants. Aborigines carried no medicine kits and had to have remedies that grew at hand when needed. If a preferred herb was unavailable, there was usually a local substitute.
The Four Sacred Medicines
Sweetgrass (the North) is used by almost all Aboriginal peoples in North Australia for ritual cleansing. When Sweetgrass is walked on, it bends but does not break. Hence, it has been associated with virtue: an injustice can be returned by a kindness, by bending, not breaking.
Tobacco (the East) is held as a scared plant by most Aboriginal peoples. Tobacco connects us to the spirit world; it absorbs prayers and carries them to the spirit world. If a request is accompanied by an offer of tobacco that is accepted, the promise must be honored. Tobacco can also be used to thank the Creator for his gifts: if you enjoyed good weather, you could leave some tobacco on the ground, and say thank you for the gift. Tobacco is generally not smoked, except on special ceremonial occasions.
Cedar (the South) is used for purification and (taken as a tea) to attract positive energy, feelings, emotions and for balance. Its vitamin C content helped prevent scurvy when fruits and vegetables were unavailable during the winter months.
Sage (the West) is a women's medicine, conferring strength, wisdom, and clarity of purpose. It is a powerful purifying medicine that drives away negative energies. Sage can be found braided and hung in people’s homes, perhaps tied with a ribbon in one of the colors of the medicine wheel. The threefold braid represents body, mind and spirit.
In the deserts, the strongest medicines are made from very widely occurring plants. Fuchsia bushes (Eremophila) and bloodwood trees (Eucalyptus terminalis) grow everywhere and were used fresh,or as ground leaves. Lemon grasses (Cymbopogon) sprout on every ridge top and jirrpirinypa (Stemodia viscosa) around every water hole.
A 'smudge' is smoke used for ritual cleansing. Smudging is a ceremony traditionally practiced by some Aboriginal cultures to physically or spiritually purify or cleanse negative energy, feelings or thoughts from a place or a person. Sacred medicines such as cedar, sage, sweetgrass or tobacco are burned in an abalone shell. The person puts their hands in the smoke and carries it to their body, especially to areas that need spiritual healing (mind, heart, body). Perhaps the smell of the burning medicines stimulates the brain to produce beta-endorphins and promote healing processes.
Meetings held to heal physical, emotional and spiritual wounds. A symbolic object, often an eagle feather, may be given to a person who wishes to speak, and then it is passed around the circle in sequence to others who wish to speak. Shamans may conduct the ceremony.
Sweat Lodge (a.k.a. Purification Lodge)
A ceremonial sauna used for healing and cleansing. It made of a wooden framework covered by blankets or skins, usually igloo-shaped, about 1.5 metres high and large enough for eight people to sit in a circle on the ground. Hot stones are placed in a shallow hole in the centre of the lodge. A medicine man pours water on the stones to produce steam and participants may spend an hour sweating in the lodge. The lodge combines the four elements of fire, water, air and earth. Ceremonies include offerings, prayers, and reverence. At times, excessive exposure to the heat of the lodge may have health effects; also toxins can be released if grasses that have been exposed to pesticides are placed on the rocks.
Sun Dance (a.k.a. Rain Dance, Thirst Dance, Medicine Dance)
A ritual that celebrates the harmony between man and nature, and spiritual dedication. Originally practiced at the summer solstice, the sun dance represents continuity between life, death, and regeneration. The symbolism often involved the buffalo, on which plains Indian groups depended, so deserving reverence, but which they also had to kill. Four days before the ceremony, the dancers prepare by purifying themselves, at times in a sweat lodge, by meditating and collecting ceremonial items of dress to use in the sun dance. The sun dance itself takes another four days, and generally involves drumming, singing, and dancing, but also fasting and, in some cases, self-inflicted pain. This symbolized rebirth and often involved piercing the skin and attaching cords that the person had to tear out. This element led governments to suppress the sun dance around 1880, but it has been re-introduced.
The pipe is used individually and in groups for prayer and ceremonial purposes. Participants gather in a circle. A braid of sweetgrass is burned to purify the area and those present, to make a sacred place for the spirits to visit. Tobacco or kinnickkinnick, a traditional mixture of bearberry and wild herbs or red willow shavings, is smoked so that prayers can be made to the Great Spirit or requests made of the spirits. The pipe may also be smoked to open other meetings or ceremonies. When not in use, the bowl and stem are separated and carried by one individual, the pipe holder.
A ceremonial feast among northwest Pacific coast Native peoples held to celebrate major family events such as a marriage or birth. The host distributes gifts according to the status of each guest; reinforcing the perceived hierarchical relations between groups. At times the gift-giving became competitive, the host giving away personal possessions in anticipation that others would reciprocate in their turn. Such largesse enhanced the host’s prestige. Missionaries encouraged government to outlaw the potlach around 1885; it is now common.
Unfortunately, much of the knowledge of traditional Aboriginal medicine has been lost. Very little is known of medical practice in southern and eastern Australia, where traditional Aboriginal culture was largely obliterated more than a century ago.
In recent years there have been attempts to record and test some of the medicinal uses in central and northern Australia - the most notable example being a project called the Aboriginal Pharmacopoeia in the Northern Territory.
Anthropologists have worked over the last 20 years in central and north-western Australia to record what is left of Aboriginal medical knowledge. In Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, and in the deserts of western and central Australia, there are still Aborigines living who grew up leading traditional lives.
Their testimony has produced a picture of a complex and sophisticated pharmacopoeia, embracing remedies for all manner of ailments. Whether Aborigines in southern Australia had the same range of plant remedies, it is impossible to say.
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