But, Panzironi says, the government has yet to respond to her recommendations and has not made any comment about her 2013 publication “Hand-in-hand: report on Aboriginal traditional medicine.”
South Australia Health (SA Health), the state government health department in Adelaide, says it already provides strong medical and cultural services. “We are committed to ensuring the South Australian health system is responsive to the needs of Aboriginal people through supporting Aboriginal people’s access to culturally respectful, appropriate and relevant services,” says April Lawrie-Smith, the director of its Aboriginal health branch.
SA Health also says that some of the recommendations in Panzironi’s report were addressed in 2011, when it established its Traditional Healer Brokerage Program. This enables referrals for indigenous clients to access the services of traditional healers. SA Health recognizes a number of organizations providing ngangkari services, including ANTAC, and these organizations can bill SA Health to cover the cost of a healer.
This is not true in all of Australia’s states, however, and formal regulation and inclusion in Medicare, Australia’s universal healthcare scheme, would be an issue for the federal government. When I ask the national health department in Canberra, it confirms that the federal government is not currently considering including the ngangkari in Medicare.
Treating social and mental health issues is a cultural activity as much as a medical one. For tens of thousands of years, the ngangkari have played a significant role in their communities, and they still do today. Back in Alice Springs, where the ngangkari are content with their current role and status, I ask Angela Lynch, the program manager at the NPYWC, if she has heard of Panzironi’s campaign.
“Yes,” she says, “but our views and outlook are very different.”
While Panzironi’s group seem wary of outsiders visiting their lands but are calling for much greater inclusion in the health system, the NPYWC would like more people to visit their cooperative in Alice Springs but are proud to be separate from mainstream healthcare.
Indeed, Lynch says she cannot see how ngangkari could ever integrate with mainstream medicine, as they are completely different in the ways that they approach illness. “The ngangkari here are part of an old belief system. They don’t want regulation, but prefer to operate as a parallel health service,” she says. “Many are happy not to be part of the health system.”
To help me understand, Lynch asks some of the NPYWC ngangkari to tell me how they became healers.
“I knew I was going to be a ngangkari. In a dream I saw fire, a tongue of fire and a bright light,” explains Mick.
Maringka Burton, from Indulkana in the APY lands, says her father was a ngangkari: “When he gave me the ngangkari power I could see everything differently and I was able to travel into the skies with other ngangkari, soaring around the sky, traveling great distances, and coming back home in time for breakfast.”