Traditional healers have been entrusted with the well-being of indigenous Australian communities for as long as their culture has been alive – yet surprisingly little is known of them.

There I was, on a cold but bright day in late autumn, wearing nothing but my bathing suit, lying on a pile of kangaroo skins and engulfed in plumes of smouldering leaves from a peppermint tree by the banks of a sacred river.

Kwoorabup has been a place of ceremony for thousands of years. The river, located near the small town of Denmark, 360km south-east of Western Australia’s capital, Perth, was given its name by the local Noongar people, who believe it was formed by the Wagyl, a giant serpent from the creation period known as the Dreaming.

Most people journey to this wild coastal stretch of Western Australia’s Great Southern region to visit vineyards, sample delicious produce and holiday by its strip of stunning beaches, but I was there to have my spirit rebalanced by the local medicine man, Joey Williams.

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Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people have the oldest living culture on Earth. For around 60,000 years, their intricate understanding of ecology ensured survival, and their physical, spiritual, mental and emotional well-being was achieved by maintaining healthy, balanced relationships with all living and non-living things.

At the heart of their communities were traditional healers. They have been respected and entrusted with the well-being of Aboriginal communities for as long as the culture has been alive, yet still today surprisingly little is known of them. The few healers who remain, of which Williams is one, have extensive knowledge of Aboriginal culture and are believed to possess supernatural abilities. Their role is to treat physical, mental and spiritual ailments using bush medicine, smoking ceremonies and spirit realignment – the latter being a common remedy for depression, or what indigenous Australians call “sickness of the spirit”.

In 2017, the World Health Organization published a study stating the total number of people living with depression in 2015 was estimated to exceed 300 million – an increase of more than 18.4% since 2005.

More recently, the Australian Medical Association announced their agreement with other leading global health organisations, declaring climate change a “health emergency” that will cause a higher incidence of mental ill-health, among other health-related issues. With modern living an apparent threat to both mental well-being and the planet ­– and having personally battled with depression myself – I had wondered whether answers could be found by looking back to the wisdom of the world’s oldest continuous civilisation.

An Aboriginal elder and mubarrn, meaning “medicine” or “lore” man in the local Noongar language, Williams told me his healing ability has been passed down through his ancestral lineage. For him, and other Aboriginal healers, the most important first step in relation to healing is the ability to reconnect to the land, since for indigenous Australians, connection to country represents connection to their culture. For this reason, we’d started the healing ceremony the previous day in the Stirling Range National Park, a 90-minute drive north of Kwoorabup, to experience a reconnection ceremony at an ancient sacred site on the traditional lands of the Koreng tribe to which he belongs.

Western Australia’s only southern mountain range is an area of extraordinary beauty. It’s one of the few places in the state that gets snow, and spring sees it dotted with an array of brightly coloured wildflowers. Home to 1,500 species, many growing nowhere else, it’s one of the world’s most important areas for flora.

Many of these native plants have medicinal properties, and because Williams spent his early childhood living off the land with family, it’s no wonder that he, now in his late 50s, refers to the area as his “supermarket” and “pharmacy”.

Wading through knee-high grass, Williams showed me how to dig for bloodroot (good for numbing toothache) and gather resin formed from the oozing red antiseptic sap of a marri tree, which strangely resembled the very thing it is known for healing – an open wound. “It cures stomach ache too,” he said.

As we walked, Williams demonstrated that to him and other indigenous Australians, the land is very much alive, with songlines (cultural memory codes that hold knowledge of a place and define the responsibilities attached to kinship and lore) scattered across its skin. After singing the specific songline attached to the spot we were standing, Williams “read” the land to me, pointing out peaks like chapters. “There’s Bulla Meile, the hill of eyes,” he said. More commonly known as Bluff Knoll, southern Western Australia‘s highest peak is where the Koreng people believe they return after death. “And straight out in front of us is Talyuberlup. See her face, breast and stomach?” he asked, tracing curves in the air. “Meaning beautiful woman sleeping. She’s the protector of this range.” 

Following his gaze, the undulating countryside did indeed look like an expecting mother resting, and served as a reminder that Aboriginal people see the land as a “mother” and a guide for reciprocal wellness.

Back in the car, we continued on to Wickelenup, a semi-dry salt lake that is a “power ground”, a place where the Koreng people have performed ceremonial reconnection rites for thousands of years. Wickelenup means “lake of many colours” and it’s named for the ochre pits resting beside it. These large deposits of clay earth produce pigments ranging from pale yellows to deep reds, which, when painted on the body during a ceremony, represent the important connection that indigenous Australians have with the land.

I only have to listen to you for half an hour and I know you

Entering Wickelenup, Williams used clapsticks and what he called a “protection song” to summon his ancestors for the protection and blessing of our steps upon the Earth. After crossing a bed of clay that looked as if giant tins of red and yellow paint had been dropped from the sky, he led me to an oddly shaped chunk of volcanic rock that he used as a platform for grinding ochre. Williams stood with his eyes closed and sang the songline belonging to his family, the Kaarl Poorlanger, meaning “people of fire”, before mixing ochre on the stone and painting a russet-coloured pigment onto my skin in a technique known as “smudging”.

“This is your mark, your connection to this land. You might wash it off later but I know it’s there… and so will you,” he said.

Looking at the symbol on my arm, I asked why he had chosen what looked like ripples in water. “I didn’t,” he said. “You chose it in your mind.” Sensing my confusion, Williams elaborated. “I only have to listen to you for half an hour and I know you.”

Whether healers truly possess any psychic ability, it seems a key skill Aboriginal people have honed over thousands of years is an advanced way of listening.

Elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Aboriginal activist, educator and artist from Australia’s Northern Territory, believes “dadirri is the Aboriginal gift” the world is thirsting for.

Meaning “inner deep listening and quiet still awareness” in her Ngangikurungkurr language, dadirri is a form of mindfulness and reciprocal empathy we can develop with the land, each other and ourselves, according to Ungunmerr-Baumann. “We call on it and it calls to us… It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’,” she writes on her website.

For indigenous Australians, this spiritual listening practice provides a way to observe and act according to the natural seasons and cycles in a way the modern world seems to have forgotten. “We watch the bush foods and wait for them to ripen before we gather them. When a relation dies, we wait a long time with the sorrow. We own our grief and allow it to heal slowly,” she told me.

While much ancient Aboriginal wisdom and culture has already been lost, elders such as Ungunmerr-Baumann are striving to keep what’s left alive, but it’s not an easy task. When the First Fleet of British settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, Australia’s indigenous population was thought to be around 750,000. Ten years later, it was estimated to have dropped by 90%, due to the introduction of new diseases and violent clashes with the European colonisers. Today, indigenous Australians make up just 3.3% of the population. The forced separation of families and removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, lore and practices affected the passing of cultural knowledge and led to the intergenerational trauma that is still being experienced today.

But one woman advocating for greater recognition of traditional Aboriginal healing principles, practices and medicine is Dr Francesca Panzironi, a human rights academic from Rome. The CEO of Australia’s first organisation of Aboriginal traditional healers, Panzironi formed Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC), with Ngangkari (healers of Australia’s central desert areas) in 2012.

“For indigenous people, it’s about reconnecting to culture and accessing healing techniques that are different from Western medicine,” Panzironi said. “Western medicine looks at the body from a mechanistic perspective, whereas healers highlight everyone has a spirit that intimately links to the body and emotions.”

Although traditional Aboriginal medicine is not recognised as an alternative medicine in Australia (due to difficulty regulating spiritual practices and the lack of testing of bush medicines), Ngangkaris are recognised in South Australian legislation through the Mental Health Act of 2009, and ANTAC now has healers working alongside Western doctors and mental health experts in some public hospitals. They provide “complementary” treatments to medical care for indigenous Australians – something especially beneficial for people recovering from intergenerational trauma, stemming from colonisation.

Panzironi says there has been increased interest from non-indigenous people, too, who are dissatisfied with the mainstream model and are looking for alternatives. “We had a middle-aged woman who reduced her intake of antidepressants significantly over a six-month period of regular pampuni (a massage technique used for spirit realignment by the Ngangkari, particularly in the stomach, which is thought to be connected to the mind), in consultation with her GP. Both the woman and her doctor noticed improvement in her mental health,” she said.

Currently ANTAC has a mobile clinic allowing Ngangkaris to travel to patients in areas of Australia where access to their services are non-existent, but Panzironi would like to see hospital programmes similar to the one in South Australia rolled out nationwide. “The goal is to have Aboriginal traditional medicine recognised as an alternative medicine and to make healers commonplace, as a viable choice for everyone through Medicare [Australia’s universal health care system],” she told me.

Back at Kwoorabup, Williams was preparing for the final stage of my spirit realignment ceremony. After using smoke to cleanse and protect our surroundings from bad spirits, as is the traditional ceremonial practice among Aboriginal people, he placed a small stone upon my navel – a tool, he said, to absorb my vibration or spirit.

“We’re all made up of vibration,” Williams said. “It’s connected at birth through the umbilical cord. It’s the essence of who we are.” Through his water vibrational healing ceremony, something that is unique to mubarrn of the area, he explained that I’d be able hear my spirit amplified when he placed the stone in the river. “High vibration means anxiety,” Williams said. “Low vibration is depression. I’ll take your vibration and balance it by releasing it through a portal I’ll open in your back.”

We’re all made up of vibration – it’s the essence of who we are

I had known the water would be cold, but that still hadn’t prepared me for the shock I felt when it came time to immerse myself in the river. Floating on my back, with Williams holding me, I tried to relax and listen to my “vibration” with the stone now held against my spine, but my shuddering body wouldn’t cooperate.

Pain from the freezing water intensified and I was also experiencing discomfort because I was unused to feeling supported. An irrational fear came over me – if I didn’t break free, to move by myself in a way I was used to, I might sink. But then I felt a strange force pushing up from under me and realised it wasn’t just Williams supporting me, but the river itself.

Doing as Williams asked – to relinquish control and acknowledge pain and trust – I tipped my head back and focused on the warmth of the sun’s rays. I remembered something I’d read earlier by Ungunmerr-Baumann. “We cannot hurry the river. We have to move with its current and understand its ways,” she’d written. Moments later, much to my disbelief, my ears filled with a sound like the motor of a distant power boat, growing louder and resonating within – sounding a lot like anxiety, according to Williams’ earlier description. Letting go, I breathed out and went under.

From my own experience, recovering from depression is a little like resurfacing from a cold river; thoughts like colours and sounds seem brighter, louder, clearer. And even if there’s no magic fix for mental illness, it seems indigenous Australians have much to teach us about developing greater awareness and reciprocity with our planet for our physical and emotional survival – if we only take the time to listen.

“You need to ask, who you are, why you’re here, where you’re going,” Ungunmerr-Baumann told me. “We know who we are as Aboriginal people. It’s in our language, dreaming, country. We’re waiting for all people to listen and hear what we hear so that we can connect and belong together.”

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