• Ngangkari Healers helping a patient. (Social Media)Source: Social Media
Is there room for 60,000-year-old therapeutic treatments to integrate with mainstream healthcare?
Douglas Smith

27 Feb 2019 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2019 - 12:30 PM

The wards of Adelaide’s hospitals are thousands of kilometres from the deserts of central Australia where the ngangkari honed their craft.

The traditional healers treat spiritual, mental and physical ailments and believe they can help the Indigenous community in ways that the mainstream health system cannot.

In some places, particularly in South Australia, they are offering “complementary” treatments alongside doctors and nurses.

One institution in Adelaide, the Lyell McEwin Hospital, announced this month that it had developed a clinically endorsed procedure to support ngangkari healers provide services.

Debbie Watson, one of the ngangkari who travels across the country to offer treatments in hospital settings, acquired her knowledge from a lifetime immersed in her Pitjantjatjara culture.

She was a little girl growing up in the APY Lands, more than 500km southwest of Alice Springs, when her father began teaching her traditional healing skills.

“I started doing healing and touching people’s spirit and taking the pain away,” Ms Watson told NITV.

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Rubbing, massage and touch – pampuni  –  are all important along with a blowing technique  – mapampa. Different native plants are also used to treat everything from headaches to respiratory problems or sore muscles and joints. But perhaps the biggest advantage over mainstream healthcare is a deep understanding and connection to the cultural and spiritual lives of Indigenous patients.

“When they lose their country, they lose their family and then the spirit,” Ms Watson said.

Statistics show that the life expectancy of Indigenous people is about 10 years less than that of non-Indigenous people. Factors include higher rates of smoking, risky alcohol consumption, less exercise, a greater risk of high blood pressure and difficulty accessing affordable health services.

Advocates believe more culturally inclusive healthcare could form part of the solution.

Registered nurse Tracey Toomey said she had never seen anything like the ngangkari until Ms Watson visited Dubbo Community Mental Health Clinic in regional NSW for the first time. 

“We’ve got Indigenous and non-Indigenous clients here that have been seeing the ngangkari,” she said.

“The feedback has been positive. The ngangkari has been seeing children, babies, it's really overwhelming the feedback.”

“We had one lady that came in with pain an when she left, she had no pain.

“She was sick of all the medication doctors were giving her.

“It's just a good alternative to medication.”

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Healers like Ms Watson are paid for their work through the Aṉangu Ngangkaṟi Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC), an organisation founded by Italian academic Francesca Panzironi.

The group lobbies for ngangkari methods and practices to be absorbed into mainstream healthcare.

She has been working with ngangkari for over 10 years and told NITV News that they could do things western doctors couldn’t and vice versa.

“I think there is a deeper meaning to what they do,” Dr Panzironi said.

“They have the ability to see through the body and see the spirit and they know the spirit has to be in a certain place.

“Sometimes patients come to ngangkari and their spirits are out of place, that’s when ngangkari healers put it back to where it belongs.”