Discussion paper

Aboriginal spirituality: Aboriginal philosophy, the basis of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing

13 Jan 2010

This discussion paper argues for the centrality of Aboriginal Spirituality in the practice of social and emotional wellbeing and for applications in all areas of Aboriginal development.

Although often mentioned in the literature on Aboriginal health and social and emotional wellbeing, Spirituality has been in danger of becoming one of the undefined terms—like wellbeing, community, identity—that are used in various contexts and with various meanings attached, and in ways that obscure the reality of Indigenous Australian knowledges, philosophies and practices. In common with terms such as the Dreaming, it has lost significant meaning when translated into English.

This discussion paper importantly defines Aboriginal Spirituality by privileging the voices of Aboriginal people themselves and those of well-respected observers of Aboriginal culture. It demonstrates how those who are well exemplify Spirituality in everyday life and cultural expression. Having commonalities with international Indigenous groups, it is also deeply appreciated by non-Aboriginal people who understand and value the different ontologies (understandings of what it means to be), epistemologies (as ways of knowing) and axiologies (the bases of values and ethics) that Aboriginal philosophy embodies, as potential value to all peoples.

Spirituality includes Indigenous Australian knowledges that have informed ways of being, and thus wellbeing, since before the time of colonisation, ways that have been subsequently demeaned and devalued. Colonial processes have wrought changes to this knowledge base and now Indigenous Australian knowledges stand in a very particular relationship of critical dialogue with those introduced knowledges that have oppressed them.

Spirituality is the philosophical basis of a culturally derived and wholistic concept of personhood, what it means to be a person, the nature of relationships to others and to the natural and material world, and thus represents strengths and difficulties facing those who seek to assist Aboriginal Australians to become well.

This discussion paper questions the advisability of approaches that incorporate an Aboriginal perspective or cultural awareness as an overlay to the Western practices of dealing with mental health issues. Western practices have developed out of an entirely different concept of personhood, development of the individual and relationships to the wider world, and further research in this area, particularly incorporating the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is critical to ways forward.

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