"In the past non-Aboriginal doctors would do their work, yet they didn't know about us traditional healers. Our traditional healers were always busy healing people at home, looking after the entire community, while the doctors did their work in their clinics. But neither knew how the other one worked." Maringka Burton
FLYING spirits, sacred tools, treatment by touch ... the traditional healers of central Australia explain their extraordinary skills. The Australian, May 2013.
I was only a teenager when I received the gift, which initially scared me! This power just came to me alone. I'd wander around at night with my powers, and return to my camp early in the morning. All I could think was that I must have become a ngangkari [traditional healer] for some reason.
I asked my mother, "Mother, why do I drift around at night so much?" and she replied, "You must be a ngangkari then." My reaction was, "What?" and she said, "Yes, it seems that you have become a ngangkari all by yourself!"
We say wirunymankula waninyi - which means, to declare someone well and to banish the illness. The illness, or pain, can take the form of phlegm, or back pain, and this is what I specialise in. My work was as a healer, mostly helping women and children. Very often they didn't need to tell me what was going on, because I'd know already. So I'd give the appropriate treatment and I know they were good. Women and children were healed by me countless times, especially children.
In Ernabella [mission, in far northwest South Australia], people would go and see the white doctors after they'd seen a ngangkari. They'd tell the doctor they'd seen a nangkari already and the doctors encouraged this, because it made people stronger. The white nurses would be happy as well. The only difference was, they were on a salary and I was not. I would tell them that I didn't get paid for my work. Ngangkari have always worked for free.
The touch of my hands has a healing effect. I give a firm, strong touch, and remove the pain and sickness, and throw it away from the sufferer. After their treatment they will stand up and tell me how they feel and, of course, there is always an improvement.
At night I see spirits. The kurunpa spirits talk to me. Spirits separate from the body when someone is unwell or suffering and I see them. This is how I find out they are not well. I have dog friends that help me, as well. These dogs are my friends. At night I travel around by myself to make sure the women are all right. I see everyone at night, how they are, if they are all right. Sometimes it scares me but it is my work, I have to do it. I travel alone and that is what I do.
Depressed people can feel a lot better within themselves after a ngangkari treatment. That's one of our specialities. Their spirits are out-of-sorts, and not positioned correctly within their bodies. The ngangkari's job is to reposition their spirits and to reinstate it to where it is happiest.
Some people ask me how I do the treatments that I do. I tell them that I have unique skills that are not easily explained, which I developed by myself. After a treatment, it is our task to ensure the sickness doesn't return and pain doesn't return. So we have to dispose of the pain in our special way. Ngangkari know how to do this. We have special powers in our hands. Our work is to mould the shape of the body so that it can accommodate the spirit properly. In that way, people are well.
I ask people afterwards, "Are you feeling better now?" and they tell me, "Yes, I am feeling great!" Ngangkari touch people. We touch, and that is our special art and our skill.
You can purchase Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari (NPY Women's Council) at $49.95. And check out Andy Tjilari's Story.
TEDx Talk, Brisbane, 2011: Frank Ansell is a traditional indigenous healer (ngangkari) and lawman from the Eastern Arrernte desert country in Central Australia. He offers Nangkari Aboriginal healings and wisdom teachings from aboriginal dreamtime and culture to support individuals, leaders and workplaces to open to altjerre or spirit.
My father had been a ngangkari his whole life, and his mapanpa had been given to him by his father. When he finally did give me the mapanpa, I became mara ala - meaning, my hands became open, my forehead became open, and I could see everything differently. I was able to travel into the skies with other ngangkari, soaring around in the sky, travelling great distances, and coming back home in time for breakfast. Ngangkari travel around in the sky, just our spirits travelling, while our bodies remain sleeping on earth. My father taught me that. He taught me everything, carefully and slowly.
We used to go for holidays a long way from the communities, and the white people used to follow us with the ration truck to give us our food ration in exchange for dingo scalps. All that flour and food! Sugar, sweet tinned milk, golden syrup and tins of meat. I know that a lot of our people are on dialysis now. It is from that sugar we ate back then. We all know this now. It is a shame because we have always had wonderful traditional bush foods.
We had all the bush medicines that were used by everybody, it wasn't part of the ngangkari's specialised work. We used the bark on the roots of the wakalpuka bush for a splint if a child broke their leg or arm. We'd put the skin of the nest of the itchy caterpillar onto burns and itchy sores; you take the nest and remove all of the droppings from the inside of the nest and wash it and then you put it on the skin. It was a fantastically good treatment for burns, rather like doing a skin graft! If somebody scratched and itched, we'd put it on that as well.
My mapanpa live in my body. I am a painter, and when I paint, my mapanpa move right up into my shoulder and sit up there, out of the way. If somebody comes to me, needing help, I would have to ease my mapanpa back into my hands again. Sometimes I would push them from one arm to the other. When I am giving a healing treatment, I push with my left hand and I extract with my right.
I work on the head a lot and I heal people if they've got a headache. If there is something serious like a car accident and we are called to attend, we go straight there without delay. People have been hurt and the terrible shock of an accident shakes the kurunpa [spirit] out of a person and so we go there to find the kurunpa and we bring it back and replace it. Without the spirit any bodily healing takes much longer. Afterwards we attend the clinics, and when they call us, we do our work courageously without fear.
In the past non-Aboriginal doctors would do their work, yet they didn't know about us traditional healers. Our traditional healers were always busy healing people at home, looking after the entire community, while the doctors did their work in their clinics. But neither knew how the other one worked. We are unable to do too much work with renal patients; we never touch their kidneys, they are too vulnerable. But we do help with pain and discomfort.
Dealing with the deceased, sometimes we can capture the spirit of the deceased and place it into the living spouse, which is a really caring and strengthening thing to do. Sometimes if a son passes away, and the mother is really sick and bereaved, the dead son's spirit is placed inside the mother. In that way everybody is happier and it ensures that they get back to their normal health more quickly and are happier and healthier during their time of grief, because it is really terrible if somebody is too sad for too long.
Sometimes I can call a spirit with a branch. Using the branch I can usher it along, into the burial place, where the spirit should be. Sometimes the spirit will leave the body and leave the burial ceremony and travel around and make people sick. Sometimes, if I see that, I use a branch to brush it along, to brush it along so it goes back to the cemetery.
See here on my elbow? That's where my mapanpa sits. I've got openings in my hand and an opening in the forehead. We say that ngangkari people are mara ala and ngalya ala, which means open hands and open mind. When you hear someone say, "Oh, he's mara ala," that just tells you instantly that she's a healer, a traditional healer, a ngangkari.
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