For Aboriginal groups in North East Arnhem Land, tobacco was seen as holy, only smoked by Elders three times a day. When cigarettes were later introduced by western culture and promoted as good for young people too, they moved away from their traditional beliefs. Now the smoking rates of Aboriginal people are over 3 times the national average. This starving (craving) for cigarettes is a new phenomenon, extending to drugs and alcohol as well. Richard Trudgen, author and CEO of “Why Warriors” has been a pioneering figure in community education and development, working alongside the Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land for over 40 years.
“Yolngu people want to know the why and the how. Don’t just tell us not to smoke cos our bodies are hungry for it! We need to know how the nicotine affects us; how the other chemicals in the cigarette smoke affects us. How is that different from our traditional tobacco?”
If you break traditional law and take something holy, like tobacco and use it in a common way, Yolngu people believe you become like a sick tree. You are eaten up inside by white ants. These ants would leave their clay house constructions in your trunk (body) which is very similar to the look of emphysema, or chronic lung disease that can be caused by smoking. Richard uses this example when working with remote communities to show them what cigarette smoke does to people in a way they can relate to. By communicating in this cross-cultural way that relates to people’s traditional beliefs, smoking rates in these communities dropped by 40%. With more funding going towards educational tools that embrace this cultural competency, and with an understanding of the world view of the people, smoking rates would drop drastically across Arnhem Land and other indigenous communities across Australia.
See Richard Trudgen’s Q&A video no.35 on smoking.
For more information, see our first concept video showing how a series of health videos could be created and made available directly to Yolŋu people. The would also be used by medical staff who are working to explain different health conditions to Yolŋu patients and their families. More funding would allow more of these to be created and duplicated across indigenous communities throughout Australia.