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Healing body, mind and spirit - it's about time we took a stand

By Mick Dodson - posted Sunday, 11 August 2002

Perusal of available statistics and some of the literature suggests that, generally speaking, Indigenous Australian men are not travelling well. In fact as men we have been spectacularly unsuccessful in many pursuits.

According to the draft National Framework for Improving the Health and Well Being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Males:

  • we misuse alcohol and other substances at alarming rates;
  • our health is deplorable;
  • with an average life expectancy of about 57 years, we die 15-20 years earlier than our mainstream Australian counterparts. Our median age is just 18 years of age, compared to 33 years for non-Indigenous men;
  • violence is rife in some of our communities and we are more likely than women to be the perpetrators;
  • we suffer high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide;
  • we are much more likely to be imprisoned;
  • we are less likely to be employed or to have post-school qualifications; and
  • we have lower personal and household incomes.

This is not to say that other Australians, particularly men, do not suffer from these maladies. However, such statistics are more likely to be used to define Indigenous Australian men.

This in itself is a tragedy because – far from the picture painted – we are not all alcoholic and violent gamblers, wasters, deviants and criminals.

I believe these appalling statistics are symptoms of the devastating blow dealt to our identity and self-esteem over the past 200 years. In that time, we have seen a serious breakdown in our traditional roles. As a consequence of historical factors including racism, dispossession and the removal of Indigenous people from their families, many Indigenous men are demoralised and confused about their roles as fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sons and grandsons. We have gone from warriors to victims. This has to change. The blow dealt to us has been crushing but it need not be fatal. We must acknowledge our problems and do something about them.

I am not an expert and I do not pretend to know the answers but, as an Aboriginal man with considerable life and professional experience, I believe the keys to breaking the cycle, rebuilding our self-esteem and spiritual wellbeing, and re-defining ourselves include acknowledging that the pressures on us throughout history have been immense and our mere survival is a significant achievement. But we cannot rest there and use historical factors as foundation for our inactivity and idleness, or worse, as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. The time for being accountable is well past.

We should also seek to draw inspiration from our past. Our warrior ancestors and more contemporary leaders are many. Yagan, Pemulwuy, William Cooper, William Ferguson, Eddie Gilbert, Vincent Lingiari, David Unaipon, Rob Riley and Charlie Perkins to name but a few.

Furthermore, we need to be honest with ourselves. Above all we have to honestly and unreservedly take ownership of our flaws and shortcomings. Violence is never the fault of the victim – violence as a response to any perceived wrong can never be acceptable.


We must also remember that the perpetrators are not always other men, sometimes we are the perpetrators. In some instances, we have been the "men behaving badly". We behave badly by our silence. Saying nothing implicates us with the act of violence. We have to take a stand. There is no shame in acknowledgment. In fact, to acknowledge is to show strength and courage, not weakness.

As David Patterson has said:

"…men deny their true feelings and the macho man image has prevailed … Men who express their feelings are seen as being less than a man."

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This is an edited version of a speech to The National Indigenous Men’s Issues Conference at Coolangatta on 25 October 2002.

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About the Author

Dr Mick Dodson is Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre.

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