Better health and ageing for all Australians

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework - 2010

2.17 Indigenous people with access to their traditional lands

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Why is it important?:

Loss of traditional land has been associated with trauma, illness and poor social outcomes experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians today (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991; Northern Land Council & Central Land Council 1994). Ongoing access to traditional land is also seen as a determinant of health status, particularly where bush tucker can be accessed, physical exercise is part of daily life, and alcohol/drug use is low (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2005).

Some quantitative evidence exists to support such views. Several studies demonstrate that where Aboriginal peoples have returned even temporarily to their land and adopted a semi-traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there is a marked improvement in Type 2 diabetes and a reduction in the major risk factors for coronary heart disease. These changes can occur over a relatively short period of time (O'Dea 1984).

One aspect of this may be a reduction in harm caused by excessive alcohol consumption; e.g. the 97 ‘dry’ areas in the Northern Territory, where possession of alcohol is illegal, are all situated on Aboriginal-owned land (Northern Territory Licensing Commission 2008).

Contrasting with this positive view of the health implications of living on traditional lands, however, are data showing that children living in ‘rural communities with an Aboriginal local council’ in the Northern Territory had increased prevalence of infectious diseases and were shorter and lighter than urban Aboriginal children (Mackerras et al. 2003). The relative lack of medical services outside cities and regional centres can impact negatively on health status for those living on country (McLaren 1996).

An important difference is between the larger centralised communities and the decentralised smaller homeland communities/outstations. Both types of communities can be officially classified as ‘remote’, but the smaller homeland communities are distinguished by the closeness of family/kinship ties and the fact that they are situ­ated on land to which all members have a direct cultural connection. The social makeup of the larger centralised communities, on the other hand, reflects their origins as missions, cattle stations or government settlements where many different groups were mixed together. In these situations, traditional governance structures have been confused and the relationship of residents to land has become indirect and diluted.

A study comparing the health of Aboriginal people living on homelands/outstations in Central Australia with that of Aboriginal people living at the surrounding, larger centralised communities showed homelands residents had significantly lower prevalence levels of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity, significantly lower mortality rates, and were significantly less likely to be hospitalised for any cause including infections and injury (particularly injury involving alcohol). They were also likely to live, on average, 10 years longer than residents of the centralised communities. The positive asso­ciation with health was more marked among younger adults (McDermott et al. 1998).

It has been argued that the distinctly Aboriginal form of social capital exemplified in traditional kinship structures plays a much more prominent role at small home­lands/outstations than at the larger centralised commu­nities (where such structures have been damaged and distorted in the colonisation process) (Christie & Greatorex 2004). This Aboriginal, traditional aspect of governance contributes to the greater social cohesion, availability of social support and psychological wellbeing often associated with homelands/outstations (Morphy 2005). Greater social cohesion has long been associated with improved health outcomes in non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (Stansfield 2006).

A recent long-term study has found that health outcomes are better at Utopia, a remote Aboriginal community, relative to the Northern Territory average for Indigenous populations. Features of this community include: people living a traditional lifestyle, including hunting, on out­stations away from the community store, which has led to better diet and exercise; the community-controlled health service providing regular health care services to outstations; and the community having mastery and control over life circumstances. Residents are in control of community services and connected to culture, family and land, with the community holding freehold title to their land (Rowley et al. 2008).

Findings:

In 2008, approximately 72% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians aged 15 years and over reported that they recognised their homeland or traditional country. Approximately 25% reported they lived on their homelands, 45% were allowed to visit their homelands, and less than one per cent were not allowed to visit their homeland/traditional country.

Those who lived in remote areas (44%) were more likely than those in non-remote areas (19%), to live on homelands/traditional country. The majority of Indigenous Australians who recognised, but did not live on home­lands, were allowed to visit (41% of those in remote areas and 46% of those in non-remote areas).

As in 2002, results from the 2008 NATSISS provide inconclusive evidence about the impact of access to traditional homelands on self-reported health, risk factors and social cohesion.

Implications:

While evidence from research studies lends support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to return to live on their traditional country, for many people this is no longer an option, particularly in south-eastern Australia. In this situation, occasional and infrequent visits may be the only realistic possibility. An emerging body of literature is improving knowl­edge about how relationships with Country are main­tained by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in urban and metropolitan centres, and the effects of these relationships on health, wellbeing, cultural ex­pression, heritage and education (AIATSIS 2009).

The NSFATSIH’s Key Result Area Four: Emotional and Social Wellbeing has as one of its objectives ‘reduced impact of grief, loss and trauma resulting from the historical impacts of past policies and practices, social disadvantage, racism and stigma’. The Commonwealth Government provides funding to 11 Link Up organisations to facilitate family reunions and return to country for members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants (see also measure 1.16).

Figure 111 – Access to homelands/traditional country, by remoteness area, Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over*, 2008


Figure 111 – Access to homelands/traditional country, by remoteness area, Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over*, 2008[
* Excludes ‘Not known’ responses
Source: AIHW analysis of 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey
Text description of figure 111 (TXT 1KB)

Figure 112 – Self-assessed health status by whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons recognised/did not recognise homelands/traditional country, Australia, 2008


Figure 112 – Self-assessed health status by whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons recognised/did not recognise homelands/traditional country, Australia, 2008
Source: AIHW analysis of 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey
Text description of figure 112 (TXT 1KB)

Figure 113 – Presence of neighbourhood/community problems by whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons recognised/ did not recognise homelands/ traditional country, Australia, 2008


Figure 113 – Presence of neighbourhood/community problems by whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons recognised/ did not recognise homelands/ traditional country, Australia, 2008
Source: AIHW analysis of 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey
Text description of figure 113 (TXT 1KB)

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