There’s spirits in the heavens, and then there’s the spirits in a bottle. Alcoholics often call on one to kick the other—Alcoholics Anonymous is built on this premise. But Australian Aborigines have adapted the concept in their own unique way.
In Australia, “rivers of grog” and their related ills are seen as having run rampant through Aboriginal peoples. Statistics suggest that Aboriginals as a whole are less likely to drink than Australians overall. The same statistics, though, suggest that for Aboriginals who do drink, 15 percent will drink to excess or binge drink, twice the rate of the overall population.
Starting two years ago, the founders of Mullum Mullum Indigenous Gathering Place for Melbourne-area Aboriginals, decided to try to address the problem of Aboriginal alcohol and drug abuse. They wanted to apply traditional religious and cultural practices and see if they helped. There had been similar programs in rural areas of Australia, but the Gathering Place’s Healing Program was the first such effort in an urban part of Australia.
The first one started in August 2010, serving 44 men and women. A second group began recently.
A reporter from the newspaper The Age’s starts his piece “Coming full circle to heal the hurt” at one of the weekly men’s circles (men and women have separate groups). He participates in a traditional purifying ritual and calling of spirits representing compass points, animals, the sky and the earth. It’s led by an Aboriginal elder named Uncle Reg Blow, who does indeed blow on an Aboriginal didgeridoo as part of the circle.
The men also talk about their spirit totems, animals like turtles, fish and wallabys. One goal of the Healing Program is to help Aboriginals find their personal spirit totem.
Calling on animal spirits is definitely out of vogue in Western culture. As the writer notes, “That does not translate easily to a Western mindset focused on client outcomes and objectives.”
But Melbourne-area judges have begun requiring reprobate Aboriginals to attend sessions at the Healing Program, because it seems to work.
”We have met people who are participants who have engaged in significant behavior change and it looks like lasting behavior change,” Jelena Popovic, Melbourne’s Deputy Chief Magistrate, told The Age. She added that she had seen nothing like it in decades spent in the Australian justice system.
The Healing Program doesn’t just involve traditional rituals. It includes typical Western medical services and counseling. The program also aims to help its participants get jobs, a challenge for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. So courses in literacy and other basic skills needed for jobs are also offered.
One participant, an Aboriginal man named Leister Ross, was sent by court order to be in the program. He was skeptical, having been through many such programs. But he feels encouraged by the program; though he’s only been alcohol free for two months. “…this program has been about understanding Aboriginal spirituality; I have had a sniff of it now, a spirituality that people must have had many hundreds of years ago for the earth, and understanding that there was a power much greater than themselves.”
Ross has already achieved an important goal from being in the program; he got to see and talk with his six-year-old son.