• The pioneering Yolngu Elders after a steam and sauna session on their 2015 trial health retreat. (Hope for Health, Why Warriors)Source: Hope for Health, Why Warriors
They hope to control the diet-related chronic disease epidemic on Elcho Island and return the Yolngu to their original vitality.
Alyssa Braithwaite

5 Jul 2016 - 4:52 PM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2016 - 4:52 PM

Two years ago, Yolngu woman Dianne Biritjalawu, 47, was wheelchair-bound with symptoms of unstable ischemic heart disease and uncontrolled diabetes. Her health was failing fast.

Like many many people in the community on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory, Dianne's diet was full of processed foods that are high in sugar and low in nutrients, and it was taking a serious toll.

Her friends Tim Trudgen, from Indigenous health and community empowerment organisation Why Warriors, and his wife Dr Kama Trudgen, realised if something wasn't done Dianne wouldn't live for much longer. 

They offered to cook one healthy meal a day for her for a few weeks, and she committed to change her diet for the better. 

Three weeks later, Dianne was out of her wheelchair. Within a few months she was telling everyone about her incredible recovery.

"It was amazing," Mr Trudgen tells NITV. "She was up walking around the community, walking up and down hills, evangelising about the benefits of good nutrition.

"Although she had a lot of ideas about what good nutrition was, she never put any of it into practice, because she never really believed that food would actually make a difference until that point."

Soon there were more and more people from the community knocking on the Trudgens' door asking the couple to do the same thing for them. 

Instead they got together with the community and came up with a better idea - to send a group of Yolngu women off to complete an intensive health retreat.

Together with Why Warriors, the community raised $60,000 through donations from around the world, and 12 Yolngu female community leaders traveled to Living Valley Springs in Queensland followed by three months of post-retreat health coaching.

The results were profound, including weight loss, control over diabetes and many reduced their medications. Half of the smokers also quit.

They decided the way forward was to set up a health retreat at home in Arnhem Land, so that the local people can be educated about good health. 

In the 60 years since Western culture arrived on Elcho Island, the local Yolngu people have gone from vibrant vitality to facing high death rates and some of the worst statistics in chronic health in the world.

Over that time the increasing availability of modern processed foods, a lack of access to culturally effective information on the adverse effects of such high-sugar, low-nutrient foods, and the marginalisation of healthy traditional practice have caused an epidemic of poor diet and disease.

"In Galiwinku [on Elcho Island] it seems that everyone here has a chronic disease, the epidemic is out of control and the people feel helpless," Mr Trudgen says.

"They don't know who will die next, the feeling is like living with a time bomb but you can't see the counters ticking down all around you.

"Our alternative is to help people discover that diet makes a difference."

They have started a project called Hope For Health, which aims to control the diet-related chronic disease epidemic, starting with the first ever traditional health retreat on Elcho Island in late August and are now trying to crowdfund the $80,000 to make it happen. 

"In 2016 we plan to take 30 of our most in-need Yolngu community members on a 2-week retreat. We'll use our traditional food, medicine and treatments as a base and we'll be supported by health professionals, doctors and naturopaths to design and deliver the program including medical testing, detoxification, western treatments, nutritional expertise and post retreat support," the community says on their crowdfunding website.

The goal is to return the Yolngu to their original vitality with a return to the sort of traditional diet that made them strong and healthy hunters since time immemorial. 

The average day on the retreat will include green detox smoothies, traditional herbal and medicinal teas (local and imported, such as the stringy bark tea and ginger tea), as well as a meals based as much as possible on a traditional diet, such as barramundi, steamed with specially selected local herbs, lemongrass & ginger and a side of cauliflower and broccoli rice.

"We used to live long time. We didn't get sick," says Daisy Goinggulu, one of the pioneers of the program. 

"I want to help this place, [and] make traditional medicine available to the community."

The project has already attracted a lot of interest from the nutrition community and the wider Indigenous community.

"It's pretty exciting. It's potentially future-changing for East Arnhem Land," Mr Trudgen says.

"It's got potential first of all for the whole of East Arnhem Land, which is about 10,000 Aboriginal people and then it could go beyond there too."