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David Tournier, (nee-Charles) is a Yorta-Yorta man from his ‘Father’s Country’ (around the Deniliquin area in New South Wales & the Victoria region), and Ngarrendjerri from his ‘Mothers Country’  (the Koorrong area in South Australia). He is a Cultural Heritage Education Language Officer for the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative Ltd, http://www.wathaurong.org.au/ 

His skills and responsibilities include performing ‘Welcome to Country’ Ceremonies, delivering cultural sessions to schools, story telling at kindergartens, sessions with individuals 'wanting to know' and conducting ‘Cultural Education Programs for various Organizations, such as Barwon Health and the Department of Health. He also works with the Wathaurong Language to develop resources and strategies to implant the language back into the Wathaurong Community. The Wathaurong Co-operative is a Community controlled organization which assists the Aboriginal Community of Geelong, by providing programs such as a Health & Dental Clinic, Employment Strategies, Alcohol and Drug Programs, Family Violence strategy, Family Services, etc.

Interview by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

In many of the native traditions there is this great importance given to the role of the land. Why is land such a big factor in somebodys health?

We dont see the land as Earth, we see it as the mother. The land provides and we in turn nurture the mother. So we work hand in hand. The country is very important for healing because it is where you are and where you come from and there is a spiritual connection to the land. Land also plays an important part because it is where the medicine comes from. So if we nurture the land, she assists us by providing the medicines we need when required.

But today a lot of these ideas have gone missing because a lot of our people were forcefully removed from the land and became very sick. They were forced to live in missions and reserves. And a lot of the information in regard to healing has been lost because of rules and regulations. That meant that we were not allowed to discuss these topics. However, just because it wasn’t discussed doesn’t mean it wasn’t talked about. This might sound silly but there were times when people would talk and it became a new language. It became a whispering language. So that is how information was passed on. It was whispered.

Even in my tradition the land is considered as the mother. Ive come to the conclusion that in the older traditions there was no separation between spirituality and healing. And that is probably why the land is the healer because land is not only playing the role of a mother in providing medicine but also as the Creator. Would you say it is the same for the tradition that you come from, that healing and spirituality were not separate?

Yes, this is true. Apart from the land also song, dance and story play a part in healing, because with the medicine comes a song of that medicine, so that song about that medicine has to be sung and it tells how the medicine is used. So when you are healing a person, what you are actually hearing is the song about the plant or the medicine. So it is not about the person being healed, it is about the medicine. Some people think these healers are just singing, but they are singing the spirit of the plant. It is the story how it heals, where it grows, how it grows, how it is looked after, how it is cultivated, how it is prepared, how it is used. It is all in that song.

So every interaction a healer had with a patient surrounded a ritual?


So healing was actually a ritual, it was not just a transaction?

No, it was a ritual. It was the way that it had to be done. If you wanted to be healed, you had to do it the right way.

What is the role of the ritual and what was the responsibility of the healer in this ritual?

The role of the ritual was to ensure that the patient recovered. Part of the ritual was also to talk about the medicine that has been used so that the patient knows what is happening to him and doesn’t get scared. The healer prepares the medicine, he passes the medicine on to the patient and reassures the patient through song and dance.

All healers were and are very spirit oriented. Spirit plays an important part to us from the time we are born. And when it comes to healing it is the spirit that is called upon. Because if you are healing someone it doesn’t just means healing them in the the physical domain, but also in the mental and spiritual domain. So this ceremony is needed. Sometimes even artwork is involved in these rituals and they paint certain marks on the body that represent certain aspects. These ceremonies have been given by the Creator and have been passed on since generations, from father to son, mother to daughter, since the beginning of time.

What is spirituality according to you and these traditions?

It is why I am living I suppose. Again it is songs, stories, dance, mother Earth, plants, animals, that is what spirituality is to me. It is a combination of life. Spirit is more than who we are, because our Creator came to us as spirits and gave us everything. So we in turn hour that Creator by nourishing the land and looking after one another, because this is what he dictated to us how we should do things. So spirituality is life, it is all that.

What are the differences in how modern medicine functions and how aboriginal medicine functioned in the past?

In the past it was another form of care that was given to the patient. Today when I am stuck in a hospital I maybe see the doctor once a week. The modern medical system doesn’t really care about the health of people, to be honest. You go to a doctor, you tell him what is wrong with you and they say: “ Oh I give you these tablets. You take them and you come back if you need more.” This is why we started cultural programs in medical schools and work with first year students. We do a cultural education day with them where they come to our clinic and our medical team discusses medical issues with them and I take the group to the bush. And I talk with them about the water and alternative medicines. And I make them think why they are becoming a doctor and encourage them to look at alternative medicines because they are there. And I show them some and what they are used for. This also demonstrates them why aboriginal people do things differently. And I tell them that sometimes listening is what heals a patient. Those things aren’t taught enough today.

In traditional healing you are sometimes not only healing a single person, but you are healing the family. I find this is a huge difference between modern days and the past, because if I go to a doctor today and say that I have a problem, they will most often not involve my family at all.

That is right and that is what we are telling our young students now. You are not only healing that person, you are healing the whole family. And it is only common sense. If one person in the family is sick, the rest of the family worries about that person and usually doesn’t know what to do. This is where ceremony comes in again. So the healer tells the family to perform this or that ceremony and it helps the whole family and empowers them that there is something they can do.

How was somebody trained to be a medicine person?

Let me try to compare it to our life today. Today you have all these kinds of apprenticeships, be it for becoming a doctor or a lawyer for example. We had such kind of apprenticeships as well. The son would normally take on the profession of the father and be out in the bush with his uncles, grandparents and other people from the family and learn. But sometimes healers wouldn’t have siblings or sons or daughters, so he or she would pick someone within the group if they had potential. And then these people would be taken under their wing and go through that apprenticeship or whatever they had to learn. 

Today we have our own medical centers because normal medical centers are not always aboriginal friendly. They are culturally unfriendly to everyone you could say. In these medical centers we deal with our own people by our own people. It is slowly getting back to that old way.

If you say you have your own medical centers, does that mean you are practicing modern medicine there?

Yes. They are working with modern medicine and don’t have the means to practice alternative medicines there yet. But in a couple of years there will hopefully be also alternative medicines available for people.

The healer obviously had to have a huge variety of skills, like skills in communication, in observation, in the knowledge of herbs, in the knowledge of anatomy and also in perceiving really subtle things like spirits. How do you train someone to perceive so subtly?

There are good spirits and bad spirits, but 90 percent are good. It is basically just about recognizing that they are there. In order to look at the spiritual side of things you need to know yourself exceptionally well. You have to know the environment around you. I suppose it is easier for us because of our culture. Our culture reflects that spiritual side of us all the time. Even though today we might live in a modern society, in our houses we often see spirits. In one house I lived for three years and I would see the spirit of a little girl walking there every day. But it is hard to tell people about such things, even though they are there. And they are there to help you with things. It is just a matter of interpreting what they are saying.

All the ancient healing traditions have developed out of a very different lifestyle. But in the last century our society has become extremely fast, everything has to be done yesterday, we are always connected on our mobile phones and the internet, work time has become predominant, etc. So how do you think can traditional methods still be relevant for us today? Im thinking of for example how in the old times when someone was sick, another member of the family or clan would take care of his or her responsibilities and the family so that this person can rest. Nowadays we cant afford to really rest when we are sick, otherwise we lose our job.

For example the birthing methods could be done in the old way. I feel that when the family is around a woman while giving birth to a child, it strengthens the woman.

And in general our modern medical system suffers exactly because everyone is in a hurry. If there would be ceremonies involved in clinics in the healing process, the healing would be much more efficient.

Can you talk a bit more about the trainings that you offer?

These are programs for first year students. They are becoming doctors, nurses or other medical professions. It is a cultural education program for one or two days where one group will go to the medical center and sit with the aboriginal medical staff there and talk about health issues from a professional mainstream perspective. And I take the other group out in the bush and we just walk around and look at alternative medicines. What we are trying to get across is that there are more ways of healing than just one. And we try to instill into people that it is about the healing of a certain person more than about the ways to it. And that there are alternatives for pills!

And we also look at the history and the sicknesses aboriginal people face today because of past policies. Many aboriginal people still process what we have suffered from 200 years ago and many mental problems result of that. It is still engrained in us today because we still don’t have land today on which we can walk. Now with “walk there” I mean hunt and gather, because all lands are either privately owned or corporately owned or owned by state governments. So the only way we have to walk on land is buy that land ourselves.

What is the rule of songlines in healing?

The songline is telling you where things come from, how they came to be, what they were used for, how mother Earth is involved. It is all in that song. A songline in healing is like a map in health.

Are these songs still in practice today?

Not so much in my region. Mainly because many of the healing practices are not practiced anymore or nobody knows about them anymore. Some people know a little bit but it wouldn’t be enough to do the correct job.

It comes again down to what you said earlier, that much of that knowledge was passed on over generations. And I guess not just to anybody and casually, but only to someone that can hold that knowledge. Are there people from the future generations that are passionate about holding that knowledge?

Aboriginal teachings are very peculiar and sometimes harsh. If you didn’t get something right, you would get a slap on your ears, because it was about life and death. So in each stage of life aboriginal people used to watch the young ones grow up and if they are capable or are ready for something then they are given a specific kind of information. You don’t give them another load of information, because they are not ready for that. So at each stage information is given through songs, stories, ceremony. So 13 for example is a very important time in our lives because we become a teenager. In the old times women were married at 12 or 13. For young boys it meant leaving the women and becoming a man. Then 16 to 18 years was another stage. At 21 boys would become hunters and look after their families. So it goes through all these stages. And you only give them the amount of information that is necessary to survive in any of these stages. It is like giving someone a manual, and you only give them one certain chapter at a time. For some information the mind has to be ready and it has to understand the consequences of that information if used incorrectly.

These days because of all the other influences, many young kids move away from their own culture. But when they become a bit more mature, they tend to come back and want to learn. In the end they realize that it is their culture that keeps them sane.

Are there cases where you don’t teach people at all?

I had some people who asked me once to teach them and I looked at them and said: “You got to be kidding.” When you are talking to people you know within yourself about their thinking and sometimes you see in their eyes that they are not interested. So I often say to them that they should come back in two years time and that they will be ready then. But I also do the same thing with my own sons, I told them when they were not ready yet. And the other thing about the teachings is actually about getting the knowledge. Because often times it would come in the form of a story. So for example one time I asked my uncle for 20 dollars. Instead of giving me money, he told me a one hour long story. At the end I thought to myself: “What was that now about?” I never asked him again for money.

But the point is, how you interpret the story gives you information. This is where you as a learner need to decipher the information in that story so you can get on with things.

Are there concepts like love, forgiveness and acceptance involved in the healing of your tradition?

Love obviously is important because it involves everybody, so love was important for the community. But I am talking about another kind of love than the one we often associate with today. As a start a healer has to love his job. And then in a clan there is an acceptance of one another, which is also a form of love.

When it comes to forgiveness I think forgiveness is only possible if there has been an argument. So if there has been an argument between two families and sometimes even physical violence, after the fight was over, both families were involved in the healing. So both families come together and usually the adversaries family would take care of the other familys combattant and care for them. So that was part of the reconciliation of the two families. 

I see a lot of symbols that you are using in healing. Like the snake, the bird, the fish. What is the role of these symbols in healing?

The symbols present the different spiritual creators. So you have Bunjil, the Eagle, he is our Creator, he gave the land to people with his disciples. You have got the snake, Mindi, he was the law enforcer and through him laws were enforced. Or the possum, he is the educator. The different totems represent the different spirits within our life and make us understand where we can get help from. Also way back every person had a totem.  Whatever that patient’s totem is, he would rely on that person’s totem to help him heal himself. It would be his representation of spirit. In my family everybody still has such a totem.

Does this totem come to a person?

Not always. With me the night I was born all these curlews came out of the bush and surrounded the ward where I was born. And usually curlew hate men and don’t want to be seen by men. That is how the curlew became my totem.

Would you share your knowledge on alternative medicines with modern doctors or health professionals so that there can be more synergies in the future?

Only if they are really sincere about the learning. Otherwise I wont teach them. There are many people who hold knowledge, but they don’t tell anything because people are not serious about wanting to learn.

And another problem is the governments. They wont go so much into alternative medicine because they would lose money. The pharmaceutical companies would revolt. So the profit is part of the reason why alternative medicines are rarely used. Medicinal plants can not always be turned into pills. But as long as they cant be turned into pills or liquid forms, the governments wont do it because there wont be profit. So it is first about being serious in learning about these plants. And then second allowing them to be used in a natural state.

If in the next years or decades nobody can hold the knowledge, will the knowledge still survive?

Sometimes when the old people want to pass on knowledge they tell you a story. This storytelling goes way back to creation, because when Bunjil passed on information he spoke in a way that only those who could understand what he was talking about knew what he was saying. Same is true even for the bible as Jesus also spoke in parables. If you look at our creation stories, there are stories within stories. So in order to pass on that knowledge, you tell a story. Now the person might not get it because they are not listening to the story within the story. So this is what we do today and the knowledge is only received when the person is ready.