Thousands of First Nations people from Australia and abroad are expected to gather on Cadigal Country in Sydney next week to stare down trauma.
The eighth gathering of Healing Our Spirit Worldwide (HOSW) plans to unpack and accost the challenges many Indigenous peoples face, with healing responses like laughter, art, intellect and evidence.
Elder from the Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi nations, and HOSW participant, Dr Lynette Riley says the experience will be different for everyone who attends.
“Healing Our Spirit Worldwide is one of those experiences that will help your spirit as an Indigenous person. It’s not aimed to be academic," she told NITV.
"It’s an opportunity for Indigenous peoples from all around the world to talk about things they’ve been doing in their homes, communities and workplaces to promote their culture and heal themselves.
Sometimes it can mean having a really good laugh with someone about really traumatic issues. Sometimes it can mean just having a good cry with someone.
“Sometimes it can mean having a really good laugh with someone about really traumatic issues. Sometimes it can mean just having a good cry with someone. It’s also about having an open dialogue and raising issues.”
Tackling the complexity of trauma, colonisation and family ties
Airing complex issues is the purpose of this program, is has been designed to stimulate debate, collaboration and healing. Co-hosted by the University of Sydney in partnership with The Healing Foundation, CEO Richard Weston firmly believes that trauma is intergenerational.
“All of the challenges we face in our communities are primarily as the result of trauma that has been passed down. The colonisation process has traumatised our people,” he said.
“In spite of that we can fix the challenges that are in our communities and we can do it if we engage Aboriginal people in building and developing those solutions.”
HOSW gathering represents a shift in the presentation of healing. What was once considered ‘new-age’, the concept of healing has evolved and is now taken very seriously by esteemed academics such as Professor Juanita Sherwood, a descendant of the Wiradjuri Nation.
“We know education can play a vital role in healing and the health and wellbeing of First Nations people,” Professor Sherwood explains.
“The Gathering offers an invaluable opportunity for us to strengthen our collaboration with First Nations people in Sydney, Australia and the world— and to re-examine how our researchers might continue to work with communities to address the specific challenges our people still face, she said.
A key of the aim of the gathering is to support growth and understanding.
“By sharing stories and highlighting successful education and healing opportunities, participants will learn from each other and create a different future 'For Our Grandchildren’s Grandchildren', which is the overarching theme of the 2018 Gathering,” Professor Sherwood said.
Many of speakers of the event have forensically studied the history and impact of colonisation. These researchers and advocates have sharpened a political agenda focused on strengths, not deficits. One organisation in particular that is honing this agenda for reform is The Healing Foundation, who grapples with traumatic experiences daily.
Healing can be grounded in medicine or a spiritual journey
Established in 2009, one year after the watershed Apology to the Stolen Generations they have funded more than 175 community organisations to develop healing projects and they have assisted more than 45,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members in their healing journeys.
“I have learnt a lot from working with the Stolen Generations,” said Mr Weston, a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait, told NITV.
“They don’t want to see their grandchildren going through the issues they had to deal with. The deprivations, the abuses, having to carry the hurt and pain for their whole lives.
“They want to see change in their communities.”
There is a sense of urgency to reform the myriad of policies that continue to disadvantage the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, as more than half of this group is under twenty-five years of age.
Looking at old problems a new way, Mr Weston explained that healing is fairly new on the Indigenous affairs scene in terms of a policy response. However, it is evolving and developing.
“We’re seeing our people come up with solutions in the health system, in the justice system … we’re doing some ground-breaking work,
“We have the evidence that it works and can make positive change, we just need to do it on a bigger scale.”
We have the evidence that it works and can make positive change, we just need to do it on a bigger scale.
Healing can arrive in many forms and on many different levels. For some it is grounded in medicine and for others it can be a spiritual journey, beginning as a personal quest as it did for Mr Weston, himself.
“I think I am on a journey of healing. In my personal life I have lost people. I have these losses as markers in my life.
“I lost my best friend when we were 10-years-old. He drowned … then I lost my sister when I was 21, she was nineteen.
I lost two other sisters along the way, then my Father … I think those loses call into question what am I, what is the purpose of my life, what is the point of it?
And I think that’s what drew me into working in Indigenous affairs, to try to understand who I am as a person, where I came from, what does it mean to belong to one of the oldest cultures in the world and what do I do with that?
What do I teach my children, how do I keep them connected to their identity and their culture to survive and thrive in a modern world?
I have been on a journey myself, perhaps without even realising it.”
Global gathering on Gadigal Land
Richard Weston and Professor Sherwood will both open the Gathering on Monday evening, 26 November, at the Darling Harbour Theatre at the International Convention Centre.
They will join more than 200 speakers, healers and cultural custodians from countries like Canada, Hawaii, New Zealand, Norway and the United States; as well as trauma experts, academics, politicians and service providers.
Other highlights include Stolen Generation Elders, Aunty Lorraine Peeters and Florence Onus, mental health advocate Joe Williams, Maori youth health advocates Natasha Kemp and Te Ao Tanaki, Vinton Hawley Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada and Dr Sheri Daniels a health policy specialist from Hawaii. The closing address Igniting the Spirit of the Nation will come from Ms June Oscar AO, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
The full program for the four-day Gathering also includes cultural performances, starting with a Welcome to Country and a Parade of Nations. There are networking zones, healing activities and world-class performers like the Yothu Yindi Band, Rocky Dawuni and Stevie Salas. The Gathering is expected to attract around 1000 people.
The first time Mr Weston attended a HOSW Gathering he was overwhelmed by the feeling of being connected and uplifted.
“The Australian contingent was on stage to dance together for the audience, it was very powerful. Feeling part of that is indescribable.
“Seeing it in that international context, people were in awe, in awe of those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that got up on stage to dance and perform. Unfortunately, I didn’t do that, I wanted to preserve the quality of the performance by staying off-stage,” he joked.
Richard has a bashful laugh at the memory. When asked whether the CEO needs to dance this time around in Sydney? He just responded with another big laugh.
Indicative of the optimism which flows through the program, Dr Lynette Riley of the University of Sydney is excited to present her PhD research into what the conditions for success are for Aboriginal students. This is just one of the many presentations scheduled from a variety of domains including education, health and culture.
“The reason why I did that research is, often when undertaken in relation to Aboriginal students it is looking at the gap between Aboriginal students’ academic performance and other students. I feel this is a deficit approach.
“It is not talking directly to the students themselves, so my research was aimed at talking directly to Aboriginal students to get information from them about what they thought helped them.
“These are kids who are succeeding in the school, succeeding when lots of other kids are not, so why are they doing really well?
“And they are smart as. Smart as, these kids.
Dr Riley interviewed not only the children, but everyone they came in contact with to understand what gave them the leading edge. “I basically came up with a set of dimensions that I think if followed would help schools and communities in creating similar conditions that support academic success for Aboriginal students.”
When asked for further elaboration on any tips for success, Dr Riley laughingly implored people to “come along and listen to the address", as it's "too long to abbreviate".
“I really encourage people to come along because… when Indigenous people get together like this, we have a good time.” Dr Riley ends with another big joyful laugh.
I really encourage people to come along because… when Indigenous people get together like this, we have a good time.
Professor Sherwood is keen for people to feel welcome at this Gathering, creating many opportunities for participation.
“People can also get involved through sponsorship, donations to help community Elders and members travel to the Gathering, setting up a market stall in the Gathering Place or just coming along to some of the cultural activities, which are open to the public.
“Volunteer opportunities are also available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members and students to work at the Gathering and enjoy some of the program sessions in between rostered hours of work.”
Disclaimer: NITV is a media partner of Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. HOSW has no editorial influence on NITV's coverage.