Empowering First Nations Health: Highlights from the 8th Ngar-wu Wanyarra Conference

The 8th Ngar-wu Wanyarra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Conference took place on Wednesday 11 October at the University of Melbourne Department of Rural Health, Shepparton campus, on Yorta Yorta Country.

220 people attended the 8th Ngar-wu Wanyarra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Conference held on Yorta Yorta Country (Shepparton) on 11 October.

It was a fantastic day of storytelling and hearing from so many wonderful speakers; their inspiring stories and important messages about First Nation’s Health.

Ngar-wu Wanyarra means 'listen and act’ in Yorta Yorta language and the conference aims to change how we talk and understand First Nations Health and to prioritise First Nations voices and the strengths and successes of First Nations people.

The morning of the conference started with a smoking ceremony by Michael Bourke and Wulumbarra, with all conference attendees cleansing in the gum leaf smoke on arrival followed by a touching traditional performance by the Galnya Yenbena dance group.

Galnya Yenbena dance group.

Michael Bourke and Wulumbarra, an Indigneous grass roots led community organisation in Mooroopna, provided a beautiful smoking ceremony as attendees arrived in the morning. 

In the lecture theatre, Professor Barry Judd, Vice-Chancellor Indigenous at the University of Melbourne, kick-started the presentations, with both Barry and keynote speaker Roy Ah-See touching on the Voice to Parliament.

Professor Judd pointed out the toll the referendum has taken on First Nations people. Despite this and the following ‘no’ result that came after the conference, so many First Nations individuals took the time to attend the conference, prepare their presentations and generously share their work.

Professor Barry Judd, Vice-Chancellor Indigenous at the University of Melbourne opened the conference, outlining the new Murmuk Djerring Indigenous strategy and discussing the Voice to Parliament.

Presenters Jaki Adams, Director at the Fred Hollows Foundation, and keynote Shelley Ware spoke on being a good ally and the importance of allyship accountability.

Professor Lisa Bourke, Director at the University of Melbourne Department of Rural Health echoed the importance this sentiment in her closing speech: “Allyship is not just showing support, it is also recognising that we will never fully understand, comprehend or experience the perspectives of others.  It is about walking beside, being there for someone to lean on, opening the door and giving the podium. It is about giving voice.”

Across the day, speakers covered topics such as education, its value, curriculum design, barriers to entering university, knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. Professor Barry Judd talked about the University of Melbourne’s Murmuk Djerring strategy designed to implement First Nations teaching, research and cultural safety across the university, beginning with truth-telling.

The strategy includes a significant local focus, with a key priority to strengthen the University’s partnerships and commitment to promoting the social, economic and cultural advancement of the Yorta Yorta people in the Goulburn Valley region.

Speakers also talked about specific issues in their communities, such as gambling, wellbeing, sleep and shared how they have addressed them with trust, engagement and in partnership.

Like Shelley Ware, others talked directly about engagement, connection, ally-ship and co-design.

Some shared their own stories that provided real and raw insight, connection and understanding. Dr Raelene Nixon’s story as a mother who suffered the worst tragedy a parent could experience and how the justice system has served to add trauma highlighted to the audience that we must do better.

Through the generous sharing of personal stories, it was a sobering reminder for attendees to carry the messages from the conference to help change the narrative of First Nations health.

Speakers at Ngar-wu (from left to right): Dr Zubaidah Mohamed Shaburdin, Jaki Adams, Tala Mitchell, Dr Raylene Nixon, Noha Merchant, Dr Tui Crumpen, Gwenda Freeman, Shani Crumpen, Alice Pettit, Abe Ropitini, Christina Ponting, Carli Ellinghaus, Ellie White, Dr Prabhathi Basnayake Ralalage, Sarah Large, Carol Wynne, Nick Wilson.

Department of Rural Health staff with keynote speaker Roy Ah-See (from left to right): Noha Merchant,  Alice Pettit, Gwenda Freeman, Roy Ah-See, Dr Zubaidah Mohamed Shaburdin, Dr Raylene Nixon, Professor Lisa Bourke.

Throughout the day, while there was a feeling of strength and warmth in the room, there was also an undertone of discomfort.

“We need to have these conversations and celebrate these successes, but there is a discomfort that it is overdue, necessary and sad that we need these”, said Professor Lisa Bourke.

“We can dwell on this but I want to focus on the hard work, the perseverance, achievements in First Nations health and wellbeing. You deserve to celebrate these.  There is so much pride here in what has been done.”

Lisa went on to say “the Department of Rural Health would like to express our heart-felt gratitude to the effort and commitment of every speaker during what has been a difficult time. We would like to thank all attendees, our colleagues, partners and suppliers who have supported this conference and contributed to making the event happen.”

"This conference fills me with hope and optimism, that health and wellbeing are improving and that the next generation of leaders will be unstoppable."

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Giacinta Caione