Yarning with the RAN

[A RAN is a Remote Area Nurse. This is a transcript of a chat between we two Aboriginal professionals. The nurse's comments are in quotes, mine are not.]

We’re talking about a remote Aboriginal community where they did some really good work for the young people. Maybe for the older people, too – was good for their hearts, eh?

“Yeah, yeah. It was good. In some communities I’ve seen they have tried to incorporate their traditional ways – hunting and gathering. They’ve tried to reconnect some of the younger Aboriginal men to Country. They had great success with that.”

I was in a community where people used to go hunting and gathering every Sunday. And what they got they would share, traditional way.

Sometimes community members came to the clinic on Monday or Tuesday morning, walking seven foot tall because they’d got an emu –


Or they’d got an emu and a kangaroo. And they’d been able to feed some of the old people. It was really good.


“Yeah. You know, I attended a lecture about 4 years ago. A well-respected Aboriginal man put the health story to us in terms of a time-line. This is an Elder with three degrees in Arts, Science and Politics, who spoke four or five different Indigenous languages, plus English. He said that the introduction of chronic disease can be pinpointed to the 50’s and the 60’s. He said there’s a continuum between chronic disease in the Indigenous population and the introduction of technology."

So you’re talking about Central Australian people?

“Yeah. Aboriginal contact there with Europeans’ ‘modern’ technology dates back to 1949 and the 50’s. From then onwards they’ve seen this explosion in chronic disease.

“What he’d said to his people was, ‘Okay, how about you get away from the tv, get off the video games. Instead of taking the Landcruiser to go hunting, take the gun and the spear – and go for a walk!’ “

You’ve gotta be able to look for those clues in the landscape, don’t you? That’s interesting.

“He was amazing. I knew him and his family. I said to him, ‘I’ve been working in Indigenous Health for twenty years. No one’s ever explained it to me like that.’  

“I felt like he put an umbrella over all this – showed the way to solutions to some of the problems.”


“He knocked us all over with his way of seeing things.
“It was incredible. He’s seen the effects of technology. He’s seen the kids, he’s seen the younger generation come through, with video games, x-boxes, mobile phones – y’know texting, all this sort of stuff. He said he’s seen the decline in their activity. He’s tried to reinvigorate them.

“He’s tried to reinvigorate them, not by taking the technology away from them, but by compromising with them, so that they have options.”

Aboriginal cultures are dynamic. We need to keep incorporating different cultural influences, but still keep maintaining Aboriginal cultures and Aboriginal values.

“Mmm. Yeah, that’s really important.
Up in the Torres Straits they’re still using traditional hunting when they go out to get the dugong.
They’ll go out in a dinghy with an outboard motor on it. But they’ll still hunt the dugong with a wap. So they’ll still do it traditionally, but take what they need from the technology.”

“It’s still very traditional way when they bring the dugong back and it’s divided evenly among the community.”

They’re still respecting the animal’s spirit --

“Yeah, yeah.”

-- as part of the environment.

“Yeah. You can see the dichotomy between the two cultures. This technology catches up to them, as well. Some people, they live on islands, they work on islands. They don’t come off.

“When I moved onto the island, I heard about this guy. He was 32 years old. He was 160kg and was a walking time bomb. He had very poor cardiovascular status. I’d never met him.

“He walked into my clinic one day and introduced himself.

“I said, ‘Wow!’ He was 85kg.

“What happened to him was simple. He saw a 12 or 13-year-old child who was 100kg. He couldn’t walk from school to home.  

“So he got this kid (while the two of them were overweight) and they both walked up a hill and down, everyday.  They did it for 12 months. And then they changed what they ate. And the kid lost weight, got to his normal BMI.

“The man lost about 75kg.”

Hmm, half his body weight.


When I was in the Pacific, one of the popular snacks there was 2-minute noodles with the pack of salt and flavouring sprinkled over them – uncooked. People would buy that as a snack to eat through the day.

The people traditionally used coconut oil and the grandmothers still knew how to make it and still made it. But now most people are eating food cooked in cheap palm oil. There’s a danger the oils are rancid. They’re imported in plastic bottles in hot ships from far away.  There’ll be free radicals in the oils. The boiling temperature of the oils gets lower as the oil is re-used too, so the food is not cooked safely when the oil gets old.

It occurred to me that the people there really had no concept that food could be dangerous for you. Before those introduced foods came, no foods were particularly dangerous. Like, there wasn’t something that you would get addicted to in a way that would be harmful.


Sugar and flour or bad oils can be harmful. Nothing was harmful in that way before colonisation. That made me think about people who are 1st or 2nd or 3rd generation since Contact. It’s a huge thing to learn that some of the food is poisonous.

They had a Royal Commission in London in the late 19th Century, because there was lead in the wine and strychnine in the beer.

The idea that some of the food wasn’t good for you took time to be understood.

“Yeah. I was in a privately run supermarket in the Bush about eight years ago. A lady came in, one of the elder women of the community. The whole fridge in the shop there was full of Coke – it was dedicated to Coke.”

It was a Coke fridge.


Seven different kinds of Coke.

“She walked into the shop and started taking all the Coca-Cola out. I knew what she was doing and so did everyone else, but the shop-owner. He had no idea. He just saw profit coming off the shelf, literally.

“She was throwing it out into the street.”

[Laughing] In the bottle or out of it?

“Throwing the bottle out the door, into the street. With anger.”

I would pay money to see that!

taylor-swayze- soft drink.jpeg

“We were all just sitting there watching her. I knew exactly what she was doin’. I was a manager of a health centre at that time.”

You were tempted to get up and give her a hand! [Laughing]

“Yeah, it was funny. We used to run a massive primary health campaign. We – meaning my health workers and other colleagues – used to go and say to them, ‘This is how much sugar is in this, This is what it’s doing to you.’

“The noodles story is good too. In Queensland, in a community I worked in, the local dietician came and actually demonstrated how much sodium was in those noodles. They took the noodles off the shelf in the shop, got rid of them completely. I’ve seen stores where Coke, all fizzy drinks, have been banned. They don’t have them anymore – or sportsdrinks. Anything that’s got sugar in it, they don’t have it.

“You know, in the Kimberley some of the communities had major problems with obesity, childhood obesity. They were struggling to contain it. The emphasis in primary health care is back onto the community. And then back onto the individual to be pro-active. That’s the mind-set of primary health care. There’s ownership and responsibility between the individual and the health service.

“But how can you establish that relationship when you’ve got temporary staff, locum doctors, with no connection to the people or the Country? It’s flawed.”

And the people are dealing with historical forces of the biggest proportions Humanity’s ever seen. If you think about Industrial food and the problems it’s caused all over the world.

“Yeah. Anyway, better go look after some sick people, eh.”

Let’s go make ‘em better.