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Triggering trauma: the bushfire crisis

I recently overheard an Aboriginal man say:

“They stole our land and I thought that was enough, but now they just let it bloody burn, our mother earth is dying and all we can to do is watch her die and hear her scream. She is angry at not being looked after and I am angry she wasn’t looked after”.

We must acknowledge and understand the traumatic colonial practices of the past 240 years. The traumatic legacy of dispossession, assimilation and racism lives within us, and continues to impact our communities. These past traumatic experiences of grief and loss remain within us and remain unresolved for our people today.

The bushfire crisis adds another layer of trauma and complexity to our people and can trigger past traumas. Not only as individuals, but as a collective community.

As with all Australian people who have been and will continue to be affected by the current bushfires, we must acknowledge there will be significant mental health and wellbeing issues to address during and after the current bushfire disaster.

For our people, many of our needs will be similar to others impacted by the fires, but we also have unique and specific needs that require a different understanding given the cultural relevance of land and the current layers of trauma our communities hold because of past policies and practices.

We need to understand the complexities of the grief, loss and trauma that we hold from the past, and the complex relationships with Country and culture that will emerge after the fires for our peoples. We need to understand the health inequalities that may leave our communities more vulnerable to mental or physical health impacts, less able to respond in a way you may expect other communities to respond.

Our connection to Country, culture and community is extremely important and needs to be understood even more so now given the current crisis. As we watch our Country burn, we are grieving the loss of Country that holds such significance for us culturally. Our unique relationship with the land extends back to our Dreaming.

Mandy Nicholson, founder of Djirri Djirri and cultural authority and linguist, explains that it’s a connectedness with Country that guides, warns, heals and teaches us. This is also integrated with cultural practices, spirituality, duality of body (both physical and spiritual), language, ceremony and law. Culture and Country are intertwined – it is what forms a strong cultural identity for our people both individually and collectively.

Our lands were taken. We were then excluded from caring for them. As the fires continue to burn, I can feel a level of Anger rise in our communities and peoples. The Anger of not being listened to and again not being heard. Again, our people are being moved off Country, not knowing if or when they can return. This leads to anxiety for what is coming next, and brings up issues of the past dislocation of our people.

Our sacred sites are being lost. These sites connect us directly to our past, our ancestors and our practices. These sites are the inheritance of our future generations. Some of these are now gone forever, lost.

Our sacred plants used for ceremonies, healings, adornments, totems, food and other resources necessary for economic, spiritual, and physical wellbeing are being devastated.

Our native wildlife numbers are dissipating. Animals hold a significant place in our Dreaming stories, they are also totems, ceremony and a food source. Some of these animals could be on the border of extinction.

We know that practicing and engaging in cultural ceremonies is protective and has a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. We need safe access to our lands during this devastating time to engage in these activities and to start the healing of our lands.

We ask that our people are leaders and the experts in the collaboration and coordination of any disaster response to First Nations communities. We ask that there is respectful understanding that externally imposed emergency response procedures can result in failure to use local expertise, and may also remind communities of traumatic colonial practices of the past.

The engagement with, and involvement of, our communities would be one of collaborating in a meaningful partnership. And in some instances, the best response is for non-Indigenous people to stay away completely to allow Indigenous people to respond, as they know how to best. What should always remain the focus is that the response clinician is assisting and supporting our communities to heal and rebuild in their time, in their own way. By maintaining this focus, clinicians will be promoting self-determination, which assists greatly in our healing process.

We do need to acknowledge specialist expertise in areas of disaster response that are required, and the expertise that is held outside our First Nations communities. Our hope is that the people administering these responses are culturally respectful and that the responses are safe and grounded in a form of cultural accountability.

During and after the fire crisis, group therapies are much more likely to engage our people rather than individual therapy on mental health and wellbeing issues. This is especially the case in an emergency response situation where there has not been time to form a therapeutic relationship.

Aboriginal practitioners are best placed to deliver interventions and if not possible then being utilised as support within the group setting. Trusted Aboriginal practitioners will assist in making the group feel safe and encourages engagement.

If individual therapeutic work is required, it is best to have options to offer the individual that are available in an emergency response scenario. The options may be male or female, as well as Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal clinicians.

Despite these challenges, our communities can use the time following the fire crisis to pursue self-determination and decolonisation by adopting leadership roles during disasters. This involves clarifying Traditional Owner boundaries, implementing Indigenous ways and means of healing, developing response plans and making agreements with state and federal governments. We foresee being, and request to be – equal partners in the governance and operations of all emergency management.

As we move forward, our hope as First Nations people is that we lead in the nurturing and caring for Country. As we see her scars begin to heal over time, this is where we begin to heal and strengthen our own spirit, culture and communities.

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