Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions: monograph series no. 65

7.2 Using Indigenous culture - painting, relationships and initiation

Page last updated: 2008

This section describes the use of Indigenous cultural practices as vehicles for preventing VSM. The practices span a range of functions such as teaching, counselling, cultural revival and strengthening communities. The impact of such interventions on VSM is difficult to assess, and to our knowledge virtually none have been evaluated. Such interventions do, however, offer the potential to influence ways in which people think about substance misuse through harnessing resources to be found within Aboriginal culture, as well as through promoting family and community ties and systems of care.

Canadian solvent treatment programs often combine Indigenous and Western healing techniques. One program is structured around the Medicine Wheel, with young people participating in four phases through their treatment cycle. Young people attend both schooling and traditional ceremonies (Coleman, Grant, & Collins, 2001).

The Healthy Aboriginal Life Team (HALT) in Central Australia used traditional paintings with specific reference to petrol sniffing. In 1984 Andrew Spencer Japaljarri, an Aboriginal member of the team and Warlpiri leader, painted a picture using Western Desert symbolism to portray petrol sniffing in some Aboriginal communities. This painting, according to HALT, redefined the problem of petrol sniffing in Aboriginal terms, and suggested that solutions be sought within the social structures that had been damaged by sniffing (Healthy Aboriginal Life Team, 1988). The painting served as a health promotion instrument which triggered recognition that traditional styles of problem solving—consultation to achieve consensus, social cohesion and cooperation—would generate effective controls to stop the sniffing.

The 'Brain Story' developed by the Petrol Link-up team (1994) follows the HALT tradition of using Aboriginal art styles. It has been widely used in Central Australian communities as a catalyst to get people talking about petrol sniffing in their community. It depicts the effects of petrol sniffing on the brain in term of successive loss of functioning of different faculties. Cairney and Maruff (2007) have written an engaging chapter on the challenges involved in developing health education tools for Aboriginal people which make sense from both the perspectives of Western science and Australian Indigenous cosmologies. They use the Brain Story images to illustrate the possibility of combining Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems within one resource.

The 'Sniffing and the Brain' flipchart (Cairney & Fitz, 2005) is a further educational tool developed by the Menzies School for Health Research, designed to assist health and community workers explain the effects of petrol sniffing on the body to Indigenous audiences. Evaluation of the flipchart found that it was viewed positively by stakeholders, who emphasised that the storytelling format and use of images to explain the effects of petrol sniffing on the brain made it an effective tool (Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia, 2006).

Telling young people stories can function as an expression of care and instruction. For instance, participants at a workshop on petrol sniffing held in Alice Springs in 1998 identified telling stories as a strategy for dealing with petrol sniffers (Central Australian Rural Practitioners' Association, 1998). Another report explains how two young women who had been sniffing petrol were taken out bush and sung back to health (Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service, 2006a). Learning traditional artistic techniques may also be therapeutic in itself. At Ngukurr, a remote NT community, a petrol sniffer was encouraged to develop a painting style which would enable him to communicate his ideas about petrol sniffing to others around him (Senior, Chenhall, & Daniels, 2006).
Top of page
Numerous accounts exist of Indigenous families and communities managing to stop young people sniffing, either temporarily or in the long term, through activating caring relationships. In an anthropological study of relationships between men in the Kutjungka region of Western Australia, McCoy has argued that petrol sniffing is attractive to some young men because it offers social company and a right of passage into manhood (McCoy, 2004). He found that 40% of petrol sniffers in one community had fathers who were absent or deceased. Erosion of traditional caring relationships between older and younger men (Kanyirninpa) left young men relatively unrestrained and without a clear and recognised way to negotiate their changing roles as they mature: 'Younger people were separated from important nurturing relationships with older people; older people felt helpless to watch over and protect the younger and following generation' (McCoy, 2006, p. 2). Restoring and supporting caring relationships, argues McCoy, offers a way to draw young men away from risk or damaging practices such as VSM. One young man involved in the study was able to turn his life around when his stepfather demonstrated an interest in his welfare, suddenly stopping petrol sniffing, returning to school and playing football. Others stopped on the advice of an older man, even, in some instances, prison wardens.

The Intjartnama Group's Western Line Project, based on a concept from Elva Cook's painting in Story About Intjartnama, was an attempt at cultural healing through mobilising networks and relationships of care across country and between families: 'Knowledge of and ability to work within these "lines" is an essential part of the Intjartnama strategy and is a privilege based upon the Intjartnama family's own connections' (Cook & Cook, 1997).

Writing in the early 1980s, Morice, Swift and Brady observed that petrol sniffing among boys often ceased with commencement of the initiation process. More recently, however, McCoy has pointed out that young men do not always cease petrol sniffing after initiation (McCoy, 2006).

The interventions discussed above are, in the main, controlled by Aboriginal people. Governments and organisations outside Aboriginal communities must be sensitive to the possible impact of the way in which they endorse programs aiming to reinstate Aboriginal 'culture' or 'tradition' in order to strengthen community responses to problems such as petrol sniffing. O'Malley (1994) points to some problems inherent in government-controlled efforts of this nature. In one such program, officials emphasised aspects of 'tradition' consistent with their program aims, and ignored or discredited others (such as the use of violent punishment or tolerance of sniffing). He concludes that the government department involved 'cannot escape the fact that while setting out to shore up Ngaanyatjarra cultural and social autonomy, paradoxically it is setting itself as arbiter of another people's tradition' (O'Malley, 1994, p. 138).

In all, these projects are both interesting and innovative. How broad their potential appeal may be to various age, language and other groups might be, we cannot gauge. Culturally appropriate evaluation of such strategies would be useful.