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University of Sydney | B Design [Arch] | Design Practice 3A | March 2006. The role of health and fitness in traditional & contemporary Aboriginal society. By Alina McConnochie, Martin Hall, Michelle Mo & Phuong Le. Definitions of Health.

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the role of health and fitness in traditional contemporary aboriginal society

University of Sydney | B Design [Arch] | Design Practice 3A | March 2006

The role of health and fitness in traditional & contemporary Aboriginal society

By Alina McConnochie, Martin Hall, Michelle Mo & Phuong Le

definitions of health
Definitions of Health

‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’

World Health Organisation (1946)

‘not just the physical well-being or the individual but the social, emotional and cultural well-being of the whole community’

National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party (1989)

The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 1999, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Commonwealth of Australia


The presentation will address changing perceptions and practices of health and fitness in Aboriginal society in three main eras.

  • Traditional society before imposition of western culture
  • Contemporary society from white settlement to the present day
  • The future
traditional approach to health
Traditional approach to health
  • Health and fitness was integral to traditional aboriginal society and their nomadic, hunter gatherer lifestyle.
  • Their entire society was self sustained using only resources from the land, and this self sufficiency gave the people a sense of pride and strength.
  • They had a holistic approach to health and wellbeing encompassing the Body, Land and Spirit.
  • Evidence from impressionistic observations of early explorers, historical references and studies among people who had minimal contact with Europeans suggested that Aboriginal health status was much higher before settlement, when their traditional lifestyle was uninterrupted.
  • They had an active lifestyle of hunting and gathering, mobility and a balanced diet based on fresh foods, mainly fruits and vegetables.
  • Other physical activities such as dancing were an important aspect to life and tradition which contributed to the maintenance of a healthy body.
  • Early explorers observed their strong and muscular physique.
  • Their diet and lifestyle produced very low body fat, resulting in excellent cardiac health.
  • Therefore, many of the lifestyle related diseases prevalent in sedentary modern society like heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, lifestyle related cancers like bowl cancer and lung cancer, would have been non-existent.
diagnosis and treatment
Diagnosis and treatment
  • Spirituality was a contributing factor to their perception of health and how they treated illness and disease.
  • Health issues prevalent in traditional Aboriginal society include
    • Diarrhoea, lice, hookworms
    • Common colds, influenza
    • Skin diseases
  • Initially, herbal remedies were used to treat these ailments. For example, “the eucalyptus tree formed a significant part of the Aborigines pharmacopeia, with poultices of bruised and heated leaved for the treatment of rheumatism, inhalation of heated leaves for relief of headaches, infusion for relief of colds and flu’s, the oil applied locally for the treatment of ophthalmia, and the bark as a poultice for snake bites.”1

1S. Saggers “Aboriginal Health and Society” Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1991, p44


Traditionally, an Aboriginal healer/doctor would identify disease with one of four basic explanations2 and healing would be undertaken with a spiritual ritual.

  • loss of vita substance from the body (soul loss)
    • introduction of a foreign and harmful substance into the body (spirit intrusion or possession)
    • violation of taboos
    • witchcraft
  • Aborigines were also aware of the function social disputes played in ill-health and would often diagnose conflicts between people in the group as the cause of specific illnesses.3

2 Clements 1932 from S. Saggers “Aboriginal Health and Society” Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1991, p42

3S. Saggers “Aboriginal health and society” Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1991, p43


About Sicknesses

By Kunmanara Nelson

Long time ago the people had many healthy animals to hunt and eat in their country. The game that they hunted and ate kept them healthy and strong. They were nomadic people and travelled around in their own country in search of wild game and bush foods.

Then recently, Europeans came and gave the people food of their own; they gave alcohol too, which led people to becoming heavy drinkers. Then others became diabetics from eating and drinking too much sugar, others got diarrhoea and became very sick. There were many other diseases which Aboriginal people started to get. Many people repeatedly became sick and had to be evacuated to Alice Springs on the Royal Flying Doctor plane to receive treatment and medicine.

Long ago the people lived on good healthy food and clean water. People only drank clean rock-hole and soakage water and ate good food without salt; this was why they did not have any sickness and skin sores. Their skin was healthy and scabies free. But today people have scabies and diabetes.

Healthy Aboriginal Life Team “Anangu way” Nganampa Health Council, Alice Springs, 1991, pp 70-71

repercussions of white settlement
Repercussions of white settlement
  • Since the imposition of western social, religious and medical practices on Indigenous Australians, there has been a constant battle between adopting western values and maintaining traditional values.
  • This has led to a loss of identity for Aboriginals who now have an inbuilt suspicion of a culture which contributed to the downfall of their own. It is therefore hard for Aboriginals to assimilate to this new way of life, which has left them as second class citizens.
  • With high unemployment, discrimination in society, poor housing and social problems such as alcohol abuse, all resulting from this distinct change in lifestyle, it is easy to see why health and fitness are also considerably behind that of the rest of the nation.
contemporary health issues
Contemporary health issues
  • Diseases prevalent amongst Indigenous Australians are
  • Chronic diseases
  • Circulatory illnesses
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer
  • Renal disease
  • Infectious disease
  • Hib
  • Gastrointestinal
  • Hepatitis A and B, C
  • Tuberculosis
  • STIs
  • The higher incidence of circulatory and respiratory illnesses can be attributed to
      • Low socio-economic status
      • Poor education
      • Smoking
      • Poor nutrition leading to obesity
      • Alcohol
      • Lack of exercise
cultural barriers to western healthcare
Cultural barriers to Western Healthcare
  • Barriers to an effective healthcare system for Indigenous Australians could include
    • Differences in the delivery of healthcare also pose problems resulting in Aboriginals being unlikely to accept treatment from medical staff of the opposite sex.
    • Language barriers.
    • Exclusion from the countries main opportunity structures because the delivery of western education is culturally inappropriate and therefore poorly received by Aboriginal people.
    • Confusion/misunderstanding about western medicine leading to patients abandoning treatment before completion.
aboriginal perception of health
Aboriginal perception of health
  • Poor mental health also has a high incidence in Aboriginals because of the exclusion of their culture, beliefs and way of life from contemporary Australian society, which results in a loss of identity and place.
  • Struggles with the direct results of drug and alcohol abuse, and their indirect effect on family and the community lead to a vicious cycle that is inherited by next generation.
  • The poor state of Aboriginal health care lead to a defeated mentality where Indigenous Australians, especially the younger generation, have the perception that their current health status is predetermined.

FitnessInsight from interview with Michael, co-ordinator of The Settlement, a community based centre for disadvantaged children in the Redfern area.

  • Western ideas of fitness revolve around strict rule based games, regularity and repetition.
  • Aboriginal children respond to an informal environment where education is delivered in a non-threatening, integrated mode.
  • Fitness is revolves around enjoyment rather than an extrinsic part of life
  • The Centre focuses on providing activities such as:
  • Basketball (that foster team spirit, give sense of identity and pride)
  • Girls Business and Boys Business (which integrate education on drug abuse, healthy lifestyle practices, life choices, crime etc)
  • Bushwalking and canoeing camps (which give children an opportunity to embrace their heritage and learn about their culture)
  • General sports like trampolining, handball etc
Large outdoor areas are also likely to encourage fitness related activities, as they are not restricted to specific activities or games.
  • Aboriginal sporting role models are also held in high regard, giving youths something to aspire to.
  • The Centre works on empowering Aboriginal youth to make informed choices.
reinstating sense of identity ownership in aboriginal society to improve health fitness
Reinstating sense of identity & ownership in Aboriginal Society to improve health & fitness
  • Institutions such as The Settlement provide a sense of community and ownership to the Aboriginal population in Redfern, giving them the belief they need to lift crucial issues such as socio-economic status, housing, family life, unemployment, drug and alcohol issues and social acceptance.
  • The new development of the Community Centre and the proposals for community and housing buildings on The Block, provide an example of how Aboriginal communities are improving with resources and facilities that give a sense of ownership back to the community so that they can practice their culture, lifestyle and traditional medicine.
  • Basic improvements in the pragmatic parts of society (housing, access to healthcare, education) will affect an improvement in the health and fitness of Indigenous Australians.