Joanne Garnggulkpuy lives on Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land. She is a Hope For Health Committee Member, a Wangurri elder, experienced researcher and teacher. Photograph: IndigenousX

Joanne Garnggulkpuy: We can revive our story if we blend Indigenous knowledge with western nutrition

Joanne Garnggulkpuy lives on Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land. She is a Hope For Health Committee Member, a Wangurri elder, experienced researcher and teacher. Photograph: IndigenousX

Joanne Garnggulkpuy lives on Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land. She is a Hope For Health Committee Member, a Wangurri elder, experienced researcher and teacher. Photograph: IndigenousX

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Joanne Garnggulkpuy lives on Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land. She is a Hope For Health Committee Member, a Wangurri elder, experienced researcher and teacher.

In our songs and dances, there are some parts that talk about how to get food from the bushland, the open land, from the sand dunes, the beaches and the sea. Everything has been laid out carefully in our songs and dances; our guidelines. Woven into our stories are our rules of how to to hunt, the process that explains how to cook and in these ways everything was told in the songs and dances – everything!

Our songs demonstrated the world around us in a holistic approach, a path of balance, with our connection to food in harmony with the land. Much has changed since this time. We find ourselves in new territory, navigating between both Yolŋu and Balanda (non-Indigenous) worlds.

Our people are dying too young from preventable diseases, but we have hope, and in Galiwin’ku we have found a way. We came together as a group of women two years ago after Biritjalawuy (a friend) experienced a health transformation with diet and exercise.

Sitting in circle and drawing from traditional knowledge, we talked about how our way had been confused and how to create a new way forward. We created our program, Hope For Health, based on thousands of years of Yolŋu guidance in our songs and dances. We’re using our traditional knowledge of what we know works with what is now available and accessible.

We created a program based on Yolŋu traditional ways and healing modalities, incorporating the best of Balanda modern nutrition. It is difficult merging Balanda knowledge into Yolŋu systems, restoring our mastery of the world which was lost in facing change after change since Balanda came. We have never experienced this balance since Balanda ways came in, but we need to get there.

It is gawalŋa (a new place), our path to Ngayangu; a place of deep vitality, harmony and connection. Our clans are still grouped and still talk about the way to do things in our setting. Much has changed along the way. New things have come and some Yolŋu laws are no longer followed, which hurts us.

As Aboriginal people, we face new things coming into our culture. We have accepted change but need to discern which pieces we pick up. Today, we still have our blood line connection. Some of us don’t want to know or practice these, however, some of us are helping to revive our story. I believe the answer is out there, and that Hope for Health is a path forward, where food is respected according to traditional laws, enjoyed fresh, in season and the depleted processed foods avoided. In the past, my people did not know which new foods to accept and where to place them in our traditional food structures. This has resulted in much confusion around food, how it is processed, and it has resulted in people passing away too young.

In the beginning, we followed the traditional laws and we were blessed. Our turning point was when we walked into the civilised world, it was a new learning. We have now settled in and we are used to this new waŋgany mulkuru ŋatha (foreign food). It now shapes our desires and cravings, making our new path to Ngayangu a challenging one.

I feel the hardest part is when we crave for the food we have eaten since we were little kids which is no longer healthy Yolŋu food, it is unlearning foods such as damper.

Today we just don’t know where we are with food and there is too much confusion. Some of us do not know how to collect, gather and hunt. We learn the dance, but not many want to follow the actions. We just eat the food from the store, and forget that we now have a choice of what we eat, a choice between healthy and unhealthy foods that have repercussions.

Many are confused and do not understand what to eat because there is not much Yolŋu education. The Yolŋu law of the food is an environmental issue that is aligned with eight seasons of the year. It is already documented as a structure of what is and what is to come. But the children don’t know this dhäwu (information).

Hope For Health Arnhem Land is based on traditional food and law and is an opportunity to encourage my people to eat the right food. To listen to the songs and dances merged with an understanding of Balanda foods and knowing how they fit into the Yolŋu systems.

We are a movement that is governed by the Yolŋu Steering Committee in Galiwin’ku. So far we have had some strong results proving that the program works. Our program needs help to grow some deep roots if we are to grow this movement. Other communities want Hope For Health to come to them, but we need the program to put roots down here first and we need your support.

We have all seen the Closing the Gap report, this is not just statistics, this is people in our community, faces we no longer see, but we have carved a way forward. Together, hand in hand Yolŋu and Balanda we can work together to create a brighter future.

This article was first published by Guardian Australia on Tuesday 18 July as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX

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