Deep in the heart of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, in the far northwest of South Australia, Max and Debbie Watson learnt the traditional healing methods of the ngangkari.
It’s a practice that was passed on from their fathers when they were little.
Debbie Watson explains that ngangkari work in pain relief, and restoring the body’s spiritual alignment, often through pressing their hands on the patient’s skin.
"When people get sick, we take away the pain. We see inside the mind," she says.
Max and Debbie Watson are beginning to pabut they hope to spread it much farther than their communities.
Last week, they brought their practice to a wellness centre in the suburb of Leichhardt in Sydney.
In the centre’s backyard, a non-Indigenous man called Andrew Crabbe gave the healing method a try.
Lying on his back, Max and Debbie kneaded at his skin.
"You could feel places that they were touching, there were things moving inside me that felt like they hadn't moved for a while and were maybe out of place," Mr Crabbe said.
“And I feel now a lot more energised, a lot more balanced and aligned - if that's possible.”
Traditional medicine in the national health framework
In South Australia the ngangkari often work alongside medical practitioners, and occasionally in prisons where they calm people whose behaviour is out of control.
While there is no federal health policy recognising Aboriginal traditional medicine, ngangkari involvement in the mental health of Indigenous people is enshrined in South Australia’s state law.
The Watsons are paid for their work largely thanks to an organisation called the Aṉangu ngangkaṟi Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC), set up by Italian academic Dr Francesca Panzironi.
The organisation hopes to introduce ngangkari healers all over Australia.
“What we would like is to reach out to the Aboriginal community in Sydney, NSW and other parts of Australia," Dr Panzironi said.
“So that's why we are starting a conversation with the Aboriginal medical services in order to make Aboriginal traditional healing sit within the health system. As part of an ongoing service available for the Aboriginal population. Everywhere."
Debbie Watson says she hopes to one day see traditional medicine in every hospital in Australia.
Rather than replace western practitioners, she says the ngangkari will compliment and strengthen their work.
"If someone is in the car and has an accident, spirit is in the car and doctor can't help. When they die in the hospital, the spirit is left behind."
“Spirit is the main one for every people in the world. Spirit we need to look at.”