Addressing First Nations Health from First Nations Perspectives

The Department of Rural Health at the University of Melbourne delivered a successful 7th Annual Ngar-Wu Wanyarra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Conference on Wednesday 12 October. Held for the first time at the University of Melbourne Shepparton campus on Yorta Yorta Country, over 300 guests attended the event both in-person and online.

Meaning to ‘listen and act’ in Yorta Yorta language – the Ngar-Wu Wanyarra conference privileges First Nation knowledges and voices, providing an opportunity for First Nation health professionals to share their work, their passions, and their knowledge.

Described by one attendee as “one of the most uplifting and calming conferences I have ever been to” - it was a coming together of community On Country to discuss First Nations health from the perspective of First Nations peoples.

Presenters, staff and special guests at the 7th Annual Ngar-Wu Wanyarra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Conference in Shepparton.

“The Ngar-Wu Wanyarra conference provides those working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health in different rural and remote regions of Australia to connect, yarn and network” says Professor Lisa Bourke, Director of the University Department of Rural Health at the University of Melbourne.

A traditional smoking ceremony by local, grassroots community group, The Wulumbarra Community Group, commenced the event by cleansing the space and connecting attendees with Yorta Yorta culture. This was followed by a warm Welcome to Country by Yorta Yorta Elder Aunty Faye Lynam with Councillor Greg James providing a welcome from the Greater Shepparton City Council. Pro Vice Chancellor (Indigenous) Professor Barry Judd from the University of Melbourne closed the session by welcoming guests on behalf of the University.

The Wulumbarra Community Group providing a tradition smoking ceremony to commence the event.

Keynote speaker, Adam Goodes, kicked-off the presentations with a powerful morning address identifying the importance of calling out racism and the detrimental impacts that racism can have. It was a timely reminder that eradicating racism is a responsibility for all, a message to many non-First Nations people in the room.

Presentations then followed from First-Nation speakers and their colleagues across three concurrent sessions discussing community health programs, research and First Nation knowledges. Topics included ‘Culturally tailored health care’, ‘Strength based approaches’, ‘Health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’, ‘Rejecting a deficit approach’, ‘Community action and reflection’, ‘Students giving to their communities’ and ‘Innovations in First Nation healthcare’. Discussions on the day focused on anti-racism, healing, culturally tailored health care and Aboriginal ways of knowing and doing.

Belonging to the Gunggari people of South-West Queensland and working on Yorta Yorta lands for more than 20 years; Dr Raylene Nixon, Lecturer in Rural Aboriginal Health from the University of Melbourne delivered a moving presentation, addressing the important question of – “how do we stop Aboriginal deaths in custody?

Raylene highlighted three areas where substantial change could happen.

Firstly, calling for policy level change from state and commonwealth governments, and embedding cultural practices into the western law of policies and practices.

Secondly, to ban the ‘Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR) – a controversial technique that has long drawn criticism and blamed for the death and asphyxiation that most often involves non-white victims.

And finally, addressing the legacy of racism in Indigenous Australian identity within the justice system.

“The first step is to acknowledge the context of which First Nations people have inherited institutional and structural racism and how absolute ignorance must be challenged,” said Raylene.

“A part of this conversation is about race, power, and white privilege. It can’t be about another intervention that changes us or our behaviours but goes to the heart of all of our problems.”

From left to right: Chanoa Cooper (Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-Op), Helen Everist (The University of Melbourne), Jessie Barnes-Hill (The Bridge Youth Service), Gwenda Freeman (The University of Melbourne) and Dr Raylene Nixon (The University of Melbourne).

Sue-Anne Hunter, Commissioner for the Yoorook Justice Commission and second keynote speaker, closed the presentations with a look into the work of the Yoorook Justice Commission – the first formal truth-telling process into injustices experienced by First Nations peoples in Victoria. Speaking about the importance of truth and justice in the health space and the role culture plays in healing and health responses, Sue-Anne delivered an inspirational and compelling speech, asking non-Aboriginal health clinicians in the room - “how ready are you to hear our truths?”

“The many presentations given on the day, make clear that First nations peoples are improving health outcomes and know the way forward if we can only listen and respect” says Professor Lisa Bourke.

“From these discussions, connections, and emerging networks, it is anticipated that the work of these dedicated professionals will continue to expand.”

Kaiela Arts provided traditional craft workshops which included weaving and  turtle making.

The Department of Rural Health plan to deliver the 8th Annual Ngar-Wu Wanyarra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Conference in 2023.

“We are grateful for the contribution and support from the University of Melbourne colleagues, the wider community and partnering organisations within the Goulburn Valley region and look forward seeing the conference evolve next year.”

Watch the event overview below!

The Department of Rural Health acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the lands on which of our campuses are situated and where this event took place on Yorta Yorta Country. We pay our respects to their Elders both past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who have contributed to the life of the University community.

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Giacinta Caione

0402 282 884