Tag Archives: aboriginal

‘The killing has to stop:’ Canada’s missing women’s inquiry

National Aboriginal Day and Canada's deep wounds. © Deborah Jones 2016

Each Valentine’s Day the Women’s Memorial March is held in Canadian communities. It began in the early 90s in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to honour, remember and protest the scores of women who have gone missing from the area, including the victims of serial killer and pig farmer Robert Pickton. Above, marchers in Vancouver on Feb. 14, 2016. © Deborah Jones 2016

PENNEY KOME: OVER EASY
August, 2016

“The killing has to stop,” said Nicole Robertson, naming the most urgent goal of Canada’s inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) at a panel discussion in Calgary.

Robertson, a Cree, won the 2009 Aboriginal Woman Entrepreneur Award of Distinction for her media work, and also has a daughter old enough to attract attention from the police as well as from men she doesn’t know. “I monitor how she dresses,” she said. “I scan crowds to see if a man is paying attention to her.”

“First Amnesty fought to find out what happened to 600 Stolen Sisters, then the figure was 1,200, and now the inquiry is saying the number is more like 4,000,” said diversity strategist Deborah Green, also Cree with a strong Piapot connection. One of the missing women belongs to her family.

“Thirty-four years ago,” she said, “the police came to my house and picked up my aunt. They drove her out to the edge of the city, in the middle of winter, and threw her out of the car. She froze to death, trying to reach a farmer’s house.” Such police excursions were so common they had a nickname: “starlight tours.”

The discussion was held two short days after the August 14 shooting death of Colten Boushie in a farmyard near Biggar, Saskatchewan, in disputed circumstances. So there was some tension in the air, mainly in the discussions around who should investigate the RCMP.

While the First Nations participants recognized moderator Jill Croteau as a media ally, somebody who is interested in Indigenous stories, they also asked her some tough questions. Robertson, another media specialist, asked “Jill, do you ever question what the police tell you?”

Croteau paused and acknowledged, “You have that default trust in authority. But as journalists, we’re supposed to be critical.” She paused again. “I didn’t really feel that shred of distrust until the Robert Pickton story. Sex trade women had told police over and over about this guy, and the police did nothing. They could have saved so many lives. I guess I feel there has to be accountability, and that’s our job as journalists.”

Green added, “There are other media too. There are Aboriginal media like APTN. And social media are powerful. Think, though. If four white boys drove a tractor onto a reserve looking for help and one of them got shot, what would the coverage be like?”

“The media are who they are because of who’s at the table,” contributed the fourth person on the panel, the Hon. Richard Feehan, Alberta provincial Minister of Indigenous Relations. “The families of the murdered and missing women need to have a voice, but not only them. Every community needs to have a voice. We need to start asking Indigenous communities, ‘Who does speak for you?'”

Feehan pointed out that the MMIW inquiry is the first truly national inquiry, in that every province and territory will undertake their own inquiry at the same time. He noted that the inquiry’s mandate is quite open and sweeping, including “systemic causes” and “historical, social, economic, institutional or cultural factors.”

They’re directed to examine the impacts of policies and practices of government institutions, including “policing, child welfare, coroners and other government policies/ practices or social/economic conditions.” The inquiry also has the power to call witnesses and to compel them to testify.

Four out of five commissioners leading the inquiry are women; four out of five identify as First Nations. The Honourable Marion Buller, Chief Commissioner, is a B.C. Provincial Court Judge, from Mistawasis First Nation, Saskatchewan. Commissioner Michèle Audette is a former President of Femmes autochtones du Québec (Québec Native Women’s Association), based in Mani Utenam, Québec. Commissioner Qajaq Robinson grew up in what is now Nunavut and, as a lawyer, works with a special 70-person Team North dedicated to First Nations issues. Commissioner Marilyn Poitras teaches law at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and has shown a lifelong passion for First Nations issues. Finally, Commissioner Brian Eyolfson hails from the Couchiching First Nation (Ontario) and now serves as acting deputy director, Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, Legal Services.

Richard Feehan pointed out that the Inquiry needed so much expertise because the issue was buried for so long and only came to light after First Nations families agitated and demonstrated and raised a fuss for more than a decade. “I want to thank the First Nations women and their families for their persistence,” he said. He praised the new inquiry commissioners for agreeing to serve on such a demanding team.

Globalfest panel members spent some time discussing whether the MMIW inquiry would really make a difference. They pointed out deep-rooted stereotypes about Native women and First Nations people generally, that have proved hard to clear away. Still, as mothers, Green and Robertson said they are constantly working towards the day when their daughters can be safe walking alone after dark, regardless of why they are out walking.

“Not in my lifetime,” said Green, “and maybe not in my daughter’s lifetime, but I hope someday Indigenous women will not be at risk for simply being in Canada.”

Indigenous women can’t do the job alone, said Richard Feehan. “This is a Canadian tragedy,” he said, “and if you’re a Canadian, that’s you. The commission can’t make the past disappear. It’s the community that will make things change. So come do your part!”

Copyright Penney Kome 2016

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com   Read more F&O columns by Penney Kome here

Links:

Government of Canada Launches Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, press release: http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=1023999

Related on F&O:

Canada’s National Aboriginal Day, by Deborah Jones

Time, some vast and today unfathomable sweep of time, may eventually heal the wounds in the people, families and communities left by Canada’s treatment of its first peoples; of even the theft, abuse and murder of generations of children. For now, on the first day of summer each year, Canada celebrates National Aboriginal Day.

Canadian Court Expands Aboriginal Rights. By Deborah Jones (archives, 2014)

Canada’s top court greatly expanded aboriginal rights in Canada’s westernmost province, in what may stand as a landmark decision affecting control of a vast swath of land and resources, in British Columbia and beyond. The case, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, was sparked in 1983 when the provincial government licenced a commercial company to log the Chilcotin. The licence was disputed by the Chilcotin residents who lived there long before the mid 1800s when — without their consent — England claimed the land as a colony, and named it British Columbia.

The Case of the Serial Killings: Gruesome details in Pickton pig farmer trial. By Deborah Jones. (archives, 2007)

Wedged between white-capped mountains and sparkling blue ocean, Vancouver is lauded for multicultural livability, ranked worldwide as a top travel destination and is preparing to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. But lately a grim pall has blanketed the western Canadian city of 2.2 million, for reasons far worse than the freak winter storms. The harrowing details of a grotesque serial killer case are bringing to the surface the city’s seamy underworld, usually confined to the squalid 10-block open drug and sex market known as the Downtown Eastside. The seaminess surrounds the trial of pig farmer Robert William Pickton, charged with murdering 26 drug-addicted prostitutes.

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Penney KomePenney Kome is co-editor of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books 1986), with a foreward by the Nobel-winning presidents of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

Read her bio on Facts and Opinions.

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com

 

 

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Illegal Gold Mining in the Amazon

An area the size of Switzerland belongs to the Yamomani people. But in their lust for gold illegal miners — who in the 1980s used guns and disease to kill 20 per cent of the population — continue felling trees and poisoning rivers with mercury. Authorities stage raids and destroy the miner’s equipment. But who are the illicit business interests behind the miners?

Uraricoera River is seen during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

Uraricoera River is seen during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

By Bruno Kelly
April, 2016

After trekking nearly two hours through dense jungle, Brazilian government environmental special forces burst into a clearing where the trees had been sawn and a muddy crater dug: an illegal gold mine on indigenous land in the heart of the Amazon.

An illegal gold mine burns during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

An illegal gold mine burns during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 17, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly 

The miners and gold were already gone, scattered by the whir of helicopter blades, but armed troopers in camouflage burned tents and generators. When there was nothing left, they moved on to the next.

The five-day operation last week, coordinated by Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama and Indian foundation Funai, located 15 air strips and destroyed 20 barges used to transport equipment and supplies by the estimated 5,000 illegal miners in the vast remote region.

At more than 23.5 million acres (9.5 million hectares), the Yanomami people’s territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indigenous people.

The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but miners continue to exploit the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold.

The mercury has become a growing cause for concern. While miners once killed the Yanomami with guns or disease – nearly 20 percent of the population was wiped out in the 1980s – today the threat is the toxic liquid metal used to separate gold from grit.

A study published last month by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a public biomedical research group, found that in some Yanomami villages, 92 percent of residents suffered from mercury poisoning. The results shocked experts, who believe mercury is entering the food chain through fish in polluted rivers.

High mercury exposure harms the nervous, digestive and immune systems, can lead to impaired vision and hearing, and can be fatal.

Last week’s raid was considered a success but Ibama’s operation leader Roberto Cabral said the miners will probably be back.

“The aim is to destroy their equipment. We’re not able to arrest them, there’s no space in the helicopter,” he said, sweat pouring down his face in the middle of the steamy jungle.

When miners were caught, they were grilled for information and released. Beyond the equipment, authorities have been hunting for clues on the illicit business interests behind the miners.

The region’s remoteness is a constant challenge.

From a base in the Tepequém mountains on the frontier with Venezuela, three helicopters flew the 35-person team for an hour and a half to the banks of the majestic Uraricoera river.

From there it was another hour or two on foot, cutting aside branches and wading through waist-high mud, to reach the mines. It is expensive and rare for the arm of the law to reach this far.

It might become rarer still. With Brazil suffering through its worst recession in a century, Funai’s budget for 2016 was cut by 24 percent, while Ibama had its spending reduced by 30 percent.

For Fiona Watson, who works for the activist group Survival International and has campaigned for the Yanomami since 1990, any long-term solution must be based on having more people on the ground, graver punishments and a focus on those hiring the miners and supplying equipment.

“These miners are like ants,” Watson said. “They just keep coming back.”

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Copyright Reuters 2016

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Australia’s other ‘flying doctors’

How can modern medicine include traditional bush healers whose spirits fly around at night diagnosing people’s problems?

GEORGINA KENYON
April, 2016

The stifling outback heat of the early evening feels just ripe for trouble.

It’s Friday night and still over 35°C in the town of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. It is market night, and the pubs and streets are full of people.

I hear glass shattering and a man and woman yelling at each other in the front yard of a nearby house. A group of young white men walk past me: “It’s going down!” they laugh.

More yelling comes from inside the house as the police pull up.

Pikaringkupai,” an elderly indigenous man says quietly. It means ‘fight’. “Drugs, marijuana,” he adds, shaking his head. He walks past me, heading down to the Todd river, typically empty of water, where indigenous people are camping among the old red gum trees. Many have come for cultural reasons, such as attending funerals and ceremonies that go on for weeks, sometimes longer. Others have come to visit relatives in hospital and have nowhere else to stay.

Heading away from town, I hear a woman screaming. Dingoes and wild dogs start howling from the nearby MacDonnell Ranges; police cars, sirens deafening, speed past and stop at a row of houses ahead, all hidden from view by tall corrugated iron barriers.

The following morning I pay a visit to the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation (NPYWC). Their one-storey rectangular white building, built around a shady courtyard, is a tiny oasis of tranquillity in Alice Springs. I have come to hear about the work of the ngangkari – Aboriginal healers of the deserts of central Australia – and how they might be able to help ‘close the gap’ in the health and wellbeing of indigenous people.

One of the ngangkari I meet is Josephine Watjari Mick: “I can help with pain, I help people with pain in their heads,” she tells me through a translator. “So many young people here are in pain, mental pain.”

Mick was born in Pipalyatjara in the outback, more than 500 km south-west of Alice Springs. Like most ngangkari, she is a senior member of her community, over 60 years old, although she can’t be sure of her age exactly because people born in the outback often don’t have records of their births.

“We grew up in families where we watched each other, kept an eye on our family and kids,” she says. “But now, drugs and TV have started the breakdown of family. Also, the cost of these drugs, like marijuana, adds to the stress when someone gets hooked – it puts families under more stress when there is no money left.”

Domestic violence, drug abuse and mental health problems are challenges in many outback communities, as well as in Alice Springs. Arguments and threats often spiral out of control very quickly, she explains.

Ngangkari treat mental health and physical problems using plants, minerals, animal products and spiritual healing, drawing on knowledge passed down verbally from generation to generation for an estimated 60,000 years. The NPYWC ngangkari tell me they do not directly treat drug addiction or other diseases such as diabetes that they say were unknown in indigenous communities before European settlement brought new social problems and diets high in processed sugar and flour. But they will treat people suffering from mental distress or physical conditions such as injuries and trauma, muscular diseases, and issues surrounding pregnancy.

Their approach to mental health in particular has been praised in Australia and beyond. But although their role in helping indigenous communities is acknowledged by parts of the medical establishment, some ngangkari advocates believe more formal integration is needed to address entrenched health inequalities between indigenous and white Australians.

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that the life expectancy of indigenous people is about 10 years less than that of nonindigenous people (69.1 years compared with 79.7 for men; 73.7 compared with 83.1 for women), and indigenous people generally have worse health throughout their lives.

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There are many reasons for this gap: some cultural, some genetic (such as a greater propensity for developing diabetes) and many social. In these very remote areas, people rely on small health clinics; often staffed by nurses, not all of these clinics have a permanent doctor, but the Royal Flying Doctor Service is available to fly people to hospitals in Alice Springs or Adelaide if required. Even so, indigenous people often delay turning to Western medicine, sometimes due to cultural tensions (although there are efforts to introduce more indigenous health workers and community-led healthcare services across Australia), other times due to a simple lack of transport. As a result, poor remote communities tend to have lots of problems with skin and eye infections, while diabetes, kidney disease and pneumonia are also particularly common.

Successful treatment is more difficult to achieve if there is a delay before seeing a doctor, but there can be other challenges to indigenous people’s health, such as a lack of money, lack of work, or the feeling that they have to live in a foreign culture. If someone continues to be ill despite getting medical attention, indigenous people will often say that person has ‘lost their way’, lost their connection to their homeland, and that maybe a ngangkari will be able to help them instead.

By Ben Tillman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10485001

“To the ngangkari, the outback’s semi-arid landscape is a rich kitchen and pharmacy – a medicine chest to heal body and soul.” Alice Springs. Photo Ben Tillman via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

To the ngangkari, the outback’s semi-arid landscape is a rich kitchen and pharmacy – a medicine chest to heal body and soul. Different plants are used to treat everything from headaches to respiratory problems like colds. Even caterpillar nests are used as a kind of burns dressing.

Pantjiti Unkari McKenzie, another ngangkari, tells me about some of the treatments she uses with her patients. Heating the leaves of the desert fuchsia, a scrubby plant also known as emu bush that grows to over a metre and a half high, produces steam that people can inhale to treat chest infections, or it can be used to make a rub to help sore muscles and joints.

“We call it irmangka-irmangka,” she says. In the office at the NPYWC, they are making up a batch. The plant has been cooked with oil (butter or beeswax can also be used) and the result is sitting in a bucket on a large table. I dip my finger in the lurid yellow-green gel-like substance: it smells fresh and sweet. It will be spooned into small glass jars and sold in shops and tourist hotels around Australia for people to massage into their skin to treat sore muscles and headaches.

Rubbing, massage and touch – pampuni – are all important in ngangkari practice, along with singing and dancing – inma – and a blowing technique that is a bit like soothing a child by blowing on a graze. But plants are a vital component. The desert fuchsia is also known as ‘medicine number one’ and, like many of the plants used by ngangkari, it contains active compounds with medicinal potential.

Plants from all over the world have provided treatments for mainstream medicine, not least Australia’s native eucalyptus tree, which has decongestant properties. In recent years, scientists have identified antibacterial compounds in the desert fuchsia, and the World Health Organization has reported on the antiviral potential of the Casuarina tree, native to Australia and other countries. An Aboriginal ‘pharmacopoeia’ documenting indigenous medicines, their active compounds and their traditional uses was published in 1988, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is currently working with indigenous people on a new atlas of medicinal plants to preserve more of this knowledge in print.

Medicinal activity and 60,000 years of practice are not enough for ngangkari treatments to be recognised and regulated as part of mainstream healthcare, however, and some campaigners feel this is a big problem for the health of indigenous people.

According to the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, compounds require rigorous clinical testing or a proven record of over 75 years of safe use before they can be marketed and used as medicines. Traditional use by Aboriginal people is not in itself proof of safety, and it is impossible to show effectiveness without extensive documentation – not practical in a culture with an oral tradition and no written records. An alternative approach would be to register ngangkari healing as a complementary therapy, which requires only proof of safety. Although this route led to the acceptance of acupuncture in the Australian healthcare system, it is an expensive, laborious process, and it would be difficult to account for different practices among the ngangkari.

 

But perhaps the biggest disconnect between the ngangkari and the mainstream Australian health system is the ngangkari’s concept of reality, which can be described as magical realism or a spirit world. “If you ever see a ngangkari shouting and beating a tree with a stick, it could mean that the tree has bad spirits hiding there. We know it is there because the hair on the backs of our necks stands up,” McKenzie tells me. “Many people are sad and distressed because of harmful spirits.”

A lot of indigenous people still feel part of this reality, although they integrate it into modern life, freely switching back and forth between thinking they are in the spirit world and functioning in the present. Like many people, regardless of spiritual or religious beliefs, they can hold seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time: “It’s like when my Christian husband died,” says McKenzie. “He went to heaven.”

Their tolerance is not fully reciprocated. Ngangkari have received awards for their work, notably the 2009 Mark Sheldon Award for contributions to indigenous mental health in Australia or New Zealand and the 2011 Sigmund Freud Award from the City of Vienna. But while the Australian government recognises and respects many traditional practices, the regulatory systems that have developed around Western medicine have no room for the spiritual dimensions of traditional healing, and the medical profession has profound concerns about such approaches.

Eva O’Driscoll, Director of Communications for the Australian Medical Association (AMA) in South Australia, says the AMA would be “wary” of recommending ‘alternative’ therapies, including ngangkari, unless the treatments had been fully regulated. “There have been instances of some tragic outcomes when people have not followed the guidance of doctors when they have been diagnosed, for example with cancer,” she explains.

So while acupuncture, part of traditional Chinese medicine, has been integrated as a regulated complementary therapy in Australia, the homegrown ngangkari continue in an ad hoc way. A general practitioner is free to recommend that a patient see a ngangkari if they are depressed or feel disconnected from their culture, but the cost is not covered in the same way as medical treatments, and fees paid to healers can vary widely. If they are contacted privately, or working in the bush, the fee is often set by the ngangkari according to what the patient can afford, which sometimes means the ngangkari works for free.

Even in states like South Australia, where the state health department often does cover ngangkari treatments, there is no coordinated payment system. Some ngangkari do not have bank accounts to pay cheques into, and many live in poverty, even though they are working, because payment is so irregular.

Ngangkari feel they are highly trained, having learned so much about medicinal plants and health. Inconsistent pay and a lack of acceptance of their work are all part of the ongoing unfairness, they say, between indigenous and nonindigenous people in Australia. Although some ngangkari, like the NPYWC group in Alice Springs, are happy enough with the current system, other campaigners say change is urgently needed if their knowledge, skills and culture are to be effective in helping to improve the physical and mental health of indigenous people.

Born in Rome, Francesca Panzironi came to Sydney to study law. After 10 years in academia, she is now an independent researcher and the Chief Executive Officer of the Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC) in South Australia. ANTAC advocates for the rights of ngangkari, pushing for their methods and practices to be absorbed into mainstream healthcare, or at least for them to receive consistent government funding to practise.

Panzironi lives for part of the year in Adelaide and for part in Fregon in the remote north-west of South Australia in the APY lands (where the indigenous languages Anangu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara are spoken). Permits are needed to travel through the area if you do not live there. After many emails and phone calls, I finally set up a meeting with her and some of the ngangkari she works with so that I can arrange a visit to the APY lands myself.

Ngangkari healer Maringka Burton © David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Ngangkari healer Maringka Burton © David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Unfortunately, it is not to be.

“Bad time to travel to the APY lands,” Panzironi informs me when I arrive at her home in Adelaide. “Men’s business time, cultural time, the roads can be closed.”

And the ngangkari I’d been expecting to meet, stopping over on their way to an indigenous conference in Peru, are out shopping. I say nothing; perhaps I had misunderstood on the phone.

Two small pale blue desert finches chirp in a small white cage by the window in Panzironi’s modern home–office apartment. I ask her why she thinks she has been accepted by the ngangkari as an advocate even though she is European and not of their culture.

“I ask for nothing and I want nothing from them, I fit in,” she replies. She talks about the APY lands being a place of mercenaries, misfits and missionaries, a wild frontier. What the local people dislike, it seems, is when white people go and get paid a lot of money in Sydney using their ngangkari knowledge to write a PhD and become an expert. “Whereas I’ve gone the other way: from academia to the APY lands.”

Panzironi is convinced the ngangkari are needed to bring down the high rates of morbidity and mortality among indigenous people. The fact that ngangkari often already live in remote communities means they are more accessible and could help people get earlier treatment. Ngangkari, she says, have a ‘team-based approach’ to healthcare, meaning they accept that both Western and traditional methods can be beneficial when a person is ill. After treating a person spiritually and psychologically, the ngangkari might treat the person’s physical problems as well, but will just as often recommend they see a Western doctor, too.

“Ngangkari are kind of like a mixture between a general practitioner and a psychiatrist all in one,” she explains. “Their medicine is holistic in nature, concerned with a person spiritually and physically, and this is important to many indigenous people.”

In particular, Panzironi says mainstream doctors can misdiagnose mental disorders among indigenous people because of a lack of understanding of their culture. Spiritual disorders, grieving and palliative care are all culturally sensitive, but can be misinterpreted by Western doctors – she has heard of people being diagnosed with psychosis when they believed “a bad spirit had been put on them”, a belief that would be understood very differently in indigenous culture.

Her vision, therefore, is a ‘two-way’ healthcare model that provides spiritual healers “hand in hand with Western medicine”, and she has called on the government to take on board her ideas. She believes the gap will close when both the traditions and healthcare of indigenous people are taken seriously by the government.

Her proposals would require funding for the systematic provision of Aboriginal traditional healers in the South Australian health system, and a consistent fee-for-service payment schedule, negotiated in partnership with the ngangkari, Aboriginal community-controlled health services and mainstream health services. Another important recommendation is a database of ngangkari consultations, akin to a patient’s records held by their general practitioner, to document treatments and results.

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, 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 recognises a number of organisations providing ngangkari services, including ANTAC, and these organisations 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, Programme 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, travelling great distances, and coming back home in time for breakfast.”

Lynch asks them to explain more about what happens at night. “Just our spirits travel, our bodies remain sleeping on the ground and our spirits join together as we fly,” replies Burton.

I realise now why my questions about whether the ngangkari will become regulated are somewhat baffling.

“They believe they fly at night, checking on all the people in their community, seeing who is sick and who is not,” says Lynch. “In the morning they come back to ground. How can anyone regulate flying spirits around the sky?”

The ngangkari laugh. They know that to a Westerner like me, flying around at night is unbelievable. But to them, it is real and a vital aspect of what modern therapies lack for many of Australia’s first people: a deep understanding of their cultural and spiritual lives.

The stifling outback heat of the early evening feels just ripe for trouble.

It’s Friday night and still over 35°C in the town of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. It is market night, and the pubs and streets are full of people.

I hear glass shattering and a man and woman yelling at each other in the front yard of a nearby house. A group of young white men walk past me: “It’s going down!” they laugh.

More yelling comes from inside the house as the police pull up.

Pikaringkupai,” an elderly indigenous man says quietly. It means ‘fight’. “Drugs, marijuana,” he adds, shaking his head. He walks past me, heading down to the Todd river, typically empty of water, where indigenous people are camping among the old red gum trees. Many have come for cultural reasons, such as attending funerals and ceremonies that go on for weeks, sometimes longer. Others have come to visit relatives in hospital and have nowhere else to stay.

Heading away from town, I hear a woman screaming. Dingoes and wild dogs start howling from the nearby MacDonnell Ranges; police cars, sirens deafening, speed past and stop at a row of houses ahead, all hidden from view by tall corrugated iron barriers.

The following morning I pay a visit to the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation (NPYWC). Their one-storey rectangular white building, built around a shady courtyard, is a tiny oasis of tranquillity in Alice Springs. I have come to hear about the work of the ngangkari – Aboriginal healers of the deserts of central Australia – and how they might be able to help ‘close the gap’ in the health and wellbeing of indigenous people.

One of the ngangkari I meet is Josephine Watjari Mick: “I can help with pain, I help people with pain in their heads,” she tells me through a translator. “So many young people here are in pain, mental pain.”

Mick was born in Pipalyatjara in the outback, more than 500 km south-west of Alice Springs. Like most ngangkari, she is a senior member of her community, over 60 years old, although she can’t be sure of her age exactly because people born in the outback often don’t have records of their births.

“We grew up in families where we watched each other, kept an eye on our family and kids,” she says. “But now, drugs and TV have started the breakdown of family. Also, the cost of these drugs, like marijuana, adds to the stress when someone gets hooked – it puts families under more stress when there is no money left.”

Domestic violence, drug abuse and mental health problems are challenges in many outback communities, as well as in Alice Springs. Arguments and threats often spiral out of control very quickly, she explains.

Ngangkari treat mental health and physical problems using plants, minerals, animal products and spiritual healing, drawing on knowledge passed down verbally from generation to generation for an estimated 60,000 years. The NPYWC ngangkari tell me they do not directly treat drug addiction or other diseases such as diabetes that they say were unknown in indigenous communities before European settlement brought new social problems and diets high in processed sugar and flour. But they will treat people suffering from mental distress or physical conditions such as injuries and trauma, muscular diseases, and issues surrounding pregnancy.

Their approach to mental health in particular has been praised in Australia and beyond. But although their role in helping indigenous communities is acknowledged by parts of the medical establishment, some ngangkari advocates believe more formal integration is needed to address entrenched health inequalities between indigenous and white Australians.

Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that the life expectancy of indigenous people is about 10 years less than that of nonindigenous people (69.1 years compared with 79.7 for men; 73.7 compared with 83.1 for women), and indigenous people generally have worse health throughout their lives.

There are many reasons for this gap: some cultural, some genetic (such as a greater propensity for developing diabetes) and many social. In these very remote areas, people rely on small health clinics; often staffed by nurses, not all of these clinics have a permanent doctor, but the Royal Flying Doctor Service is available to fly people to hospitals in Alice Springs or Adelaide if required. Even so, indigenous people often delay turning to Western medicine, sometimes due to cultural tensions (although there are efforts to introduce more indigenous health workers and community-led healthcare services across Australia), other times due to a simple lack of transport. As a result, poor remote communities tend to have lots of problems with skin and eye infections, while diabetes, kidney disease and pneumonia are also particularly common.

Successful treatment is more difficult to achieve if there is a delay before seeing a doctor, but there can be other challenges to indigenous people’s health, such as a lack of money, lack of work, or the feeling that they have to live in a foreign culture. If someone continues to be ill despite getting medical attention, indigenous people will often say that person has ‘lost their way’, lost their connection to their homeland, and that maybe a ngangkari will be able to help them instead.

To the ngangkari, the outback’s semi-arid landscape is a rich kitchen and pharmacy – a medicine chest to heal body and soul. Different plants are used to treat everything from headaches to respiratory problems like colds. Even caterpillar nests are used as a kind of burns dressing.

Pantjiti Unkari McKenzie, another ngangkari, tells me about some of the treatments she uses with her patients. Heating the leaves of the desert fuchsia, a scrubby plant also known as emu bush that grows to over a metre and a half high, produces steam that people can inhale to treat chest infections, or it can be used to make a rub to help sore muscles and joints.

“We call it irmangka-irmangka,” she says. In the office at the NPYWC, they are making up a batch. The plant has been cooked with oil (butter or beeswax can also be used) and the result is sitting in a bucket on a large table. I dip my finger in the lurid yellow-green gel-like substance: it smells fresh and sweet. It will be spooned into small glass jars and sold in shops and tourist hotels around Australia for people to massage into their skin to treat sore muscles and headaches.

Rubbing, massage and touch – pampuni – are all important in ngangkari practice, along with singing and dancing – inma – and a blowing technique that is a bit like soothing a child by blowing on a graze. But plants are a vital component. The desert fuchsia is also known as ‘medicine number one’ and, like many of the plants used by ngangkari, it contains active compounds with medicinal potential.

Plants from all over the world have provided treatments for mainstream medicine, not least Australia’s native eucalyptus tree, which has decongestant properties. In recent years, scientists have identified antibacterial compounds in the desert fuchsia, and the World Health Organization has reported on the antiviral potential of the Casuarina tree, native to Australia and other countries. An Aboriginal ‘pharmacopoeia’ documenting indigenous medicines, their active compounds and their traditional uses was published in 1988, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is currently working with indigenous people on a new atlas of medicinal plants to preserve more of this knowledge in print.

Medicinal activity and 60,000 years of practice are not enough for ngangkari treatments to be recognised and regulated as part of mainstream healthcare, however, and some campaigners feel this is a big problem for the health of indigenous people.

According to the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, compounds require rigorous clinical testing or a proven record of over 75 years of safe use before they can be marketed and used as medicines. Traditional use by Aboriginal people is not in itself proof of safety, and it is impossible to show effectiveness without extensive documentation – not practical in a culture with an oral tradition and no written records. An alternative approach would be to register ngangkari healing as a complementary therapy, which requires only proof of safety. Although this route led to the acceptance of acupuncture in the Australian healthcare system, it is an expensive, laborious process, and it would be difficult to account for different practices among the ngangkari.

But perhaps the biggest disconnect between the ngangkari and the mainstream Australian health system is the ngangkari’s concept of reality, which can be described as magical realism or a spirit world. “If you ever see a ngangkari shouting and beating a tree with a stick, it could mean that the tree has bad spirits hiding there. We know it is there because the hair on the backs of our necks stands up,” McKenzie tells me. “Many people are sad and distressed because of harmful spirits.”

A lot of indigenous people still feel part of this reality, although they integrate it into modern life, freely switching back and forth between thinking they are in the spirit world and functioning in the present. Like many people, regardless of spiritual or religious beliefs, they can hold seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time: “It’s like when my Christian husband died,” says McKenzie. “He went to heaven.”

Their tolerance is not fully reciprocated. Ngangkari have received awards for their work, notably the 2009 Mark Sheldon Award for contributions to indigenous mental health in Australia or New Zealand and the 2011 Sigmund Freud Award from the City of Vienna. But while the Australian government recognises and respects many traditional practices, the regulatory systems that have developed around Western medicine have no room for the spiritual dimensions of traditional healing, and the medical profession has profound concerns about such approaches.

Eva O’Driscoll, Director of Communications for the Australian Medical Association (AMA) in South Australia, says the AMA would be “wary” of recommending ‘alternative’ therapies, including ngangkari, unless the treatments had been fully regulated. “There have been instances of some tragic outcomes when people have not followed the guidance of doctors when they have been diagnosed, for example with cancer,” she explains.

So while acupuncture, part of traditional Chinese medicine, has been integrated as a regulated complementary therapy in Australia, the homegrown ngangkari continue in an ad hoc way. A general practitioner is free to recommend that a patient see a ngangkari if they are depressed or feel disconnected from their culture, but the cost is not covered in the same way as medical treatments, and fees paid to healers can vary widely. If they are contacted privately, or working in the bush, the fee is often set by the ngangkari according to what the patient can afford, which sometimes means the ngangkari works for free.

Even in states like South Australia, where the state health department often does cover ngangkari treatments, there is no coordinated payment system. Some ngangkari do not have bank accounts to pay cheques into, and many live in poverty, even though they are working, because payment is so irregular.

Ngangkari feel they are highly trained, having learned so much about medicinal plants and health. Inconsistent pay and a lack of acceptance of their work are all part of the ongoing unfairness, they say, between indigenous and nonindigenous people in Australia. Although some ngangkari, like the NPYWC group in Alice Springs, are happy enough with the current system, other campaigners say change is urgently needed if their knowledge, skills and culture are to be effective in helping to improve the physical and mental health of indigenous people.

Born in Rome, Francesca Panzironi came to Sydney to study law. After 10 years in academia, she is now an independent researcher and the Chief Executive Officer of the Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC) in South Australia. ANTAC advocates for the rights of ngangkari, pushing for their methods and practices to be absorbed into mainstream healthcare, or at least for them to receive consistent government funding to practise.

Panzironi lives for part of the year in Adelaide and for part in Fregon in the remote north-west of South Australia in the APY lands (where the indigenous languages Anangu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara are spoken). Permits are needed to travel through the area if you do not live there. After many emails and phone calls, I finally set up a meeting with her and some of the ngangkari she works with so that I can arrange a visit to the APY lands myself.

Unfortunately, it is not to be.

“Bad time to travel to the APY lands,” Panzironi informs me when I arrive at her home in Adelaide. “Men’s business time, cultural time, the roads can be closed.”

And the ngangkari I’d been expecting to meet, stopping over on their way to an indigenous conference in Peru, are out shopping. I say nothing; perhaps I had misunderstood on the phone.

Two small pale blue desert finches chirp in a small white cage by the window in Panzironi’s modern home–office apartment. I ask her why she thinks she has been accepted by the ngangkari as an advocate even though she is European and not of their culture.

“I ask for nothing and I want nothing from them, I fit in,” she replies. She talks about the APY lands being a place of mercenaries, misfits and missionaries, a wild frontier. What the local people dislike, it seems, is when white people go and get paid a lot of money in Sydney using their ngangkari knowledge to write a PhD and become an expert. “Whereas I’ve gone the other way: from academia to the APY lands.”

Panzironi is convinced the ngangkari are needed to bring down the high rates of morbidity and mortality among indigenous people. The fact that ngangkari often already live in remote communities means they are more accessible and could help people get earlier treatment. Ngangkari, she says, have a ‘team-based approach’ to healthcare, meaning they accept that both Western and traditional methods can be beneficial when a person is ill. After treating a person spiritually and psychologically, the ngangkari might treat the person’s physical problems as well, but will just as often recommend they see a Western doctor, too.

“Ngangkari are kind of like a mixture between a general practitioner and a psychiatrist all in one,” she explains. “Their medicine is holistic in nature, concerned with a person spiritually and physically, and this is important to many indigenous people.”

In particular, Panzironi says mainstream doctors can misdiagnose mental disorders among indigenous people because of a lack of understanding of their culture. Spiritual disorders, grieving and palliative care are all culturally sensitive, but can be misinterpreted by Western doctors – she has heard of people being diagnosed with psychosis when they believed “a bad spirit had been put on them”, a belief that would be understood very differently in indigenous culture.

Her vision, therefore, is a ‘two-way’ healthcare model that provides spiritual healers “hand in hand with Western medicine”, and she has called on the government to take on board her ideas. She believes the gap will close when both the traditions and healthcare of indigenous people are taken seriously by the government.

Her proposals would require funding for the systematic provision of Aboriginal traditional healers in the South Australian health system, and a consistent fee-for-service payment schedule, negotiated in partnership with the ngangkari, Aboriginal community-controlled health services and mainstream health services. Another important recommendation is a database of ngangkari consultations, akin to a patient’s records held by their general practitioner, to document treatments and results.

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, 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 recognises a number of organisations providing ngangkari services, including ANTAC, and these organisations 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, Programme 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, travelling great distances, and coming back home in time for breakfast.”

Lynch asks them to explain more about what happens at night. “Just our spirits travel, our bodies remain sleeping on the ground and our spirits join together as we fly,” replies Burton.

I realise now why my questions about whether the ngangkari will become regulated are somewhat baffling.

“They believe they fly at night, checking on all the people in their community, seeing who is sick and who is not,” says Lynch. “In the morning they come back to ground. How can anyone regulate flying spirits around the sky?”

The ngangkari laugh. They know that to a Westerner like me, flying around at night is unbelievable. But to them, it is real and a vital aspect of what modern therapies lack for many of Australia’s first people: a deep understanding of their cultural and spiritual lives.

Creative Commons

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence. Visit photographer David Maurice Smith’s site here. (Images used here with permission.)

References and further information:

You can find out more about the work of the NPYWC’s Ngangkari Program on their website.

Panzironi’s ‘Hand-in-hand’ report is available from ANTAC.

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Pope to Canonize Friar Serra: a halo stained with blood? 

Decorative crucifixes are displayed at the gift shop at Mission San Diego de Alcala in San Diego, California, September 14, 2015. Pope Francis will declare Friar Junipero Serra a saint at a Mass celebrated at the National Shrine in Washington on September 23 during the pontiff’s first visit to the United States. The Franciscan friar from Spain built a series of missions along the Pacific coast in the 18th century, in what is now California, to spread the faith among Native Americans. His advocates say he supported the Indians, introducing cattle and crops to their land. The Vatican has defended Serra against accusations that, as part of the Spanish colonial system, he suppressed Native Americans. Serra’s resting place is inside the Basilica at the Carmel Mission south of San Francisco. REUTERS/Mike Blake PICTURE 24 OF 35 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "POPE TO CANONISE FRIAR SERRA". SEARCH "SERRA NATIVE" FOR ALL IMAGES

Decorative crucifixes are displayed at the gift shop at Mission San Diego de Alcala in San Diego, California, September 14, 2015. Pope Francis will declare Friar Junipero Serra a saint at a Mass celebrated at the National Shrine in Washington on September 23 during the pontiff’s first visit to the United States. The Franciscan friar from Spain built a series of missions along the Pacific coast in the 18th century, in what is now California, to spread the faith among Native Americans. His advocates say he supported the Indians, introducing cattle and crops to their land. The Vatican has defended Serra against accusations that, as part of the Spanish colonial system, he suppressed Native Americans. Serraâ’s resting place is inside the Basilica at the Carmel Mission south of San Francisco. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Reuters 
September, 2015

Was he a saint or a sinner, an evangelizer or an enslaver?

During his visit to Washington, Pope Francis will preside over one of the most controversial acts of his papacy. He will confer sainthood on the 18th century Spanish missionary Friar Junipero Serra, and in doing so, dive into a cultural battle in the United States.

Serra founded nine of the 21 missions in California that later were the basis of what is now the modern state. He is a household name in California, where streets and buildings bear his name and children study his legacy in schools.

Critics say that legacy has more darkness than light, that his halo is stained with blood.

Many Native Americans were appalled when the pope announced the canonization in January, calling Serra a great evangelizer. The late Pope John Paul beatified Serra in 1988 and Francis waived Church rules that normally require a second miracle between beatification and sainthood.

Detractors say Serra, who arrived from Mexico in what is now San Diego in 1769, beat and imprisoned Native Americans in the closed communities known as missions. They say he suppressed their cultures and facilitated the spread of diseases that heavily reduced the population.

But last May, the pope praised Serra’s missionary zeal and said he had “defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers”.

“He was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church’s universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country,” the Argentine-born pope said.

Corine Fairbanks, director of the Southern California chapter of the American Indian Movement, opposes the canonization, which takes place on September 23, the day after the pope arrives in the United States from Cuba.

“The pope stating that this person is someone saintly, or someone to be looked up to, or even revered or prayed to is giving the international message that what happened (to indigenous people), was by divine right,” Fairbanks told Reuters Television.

“Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people were killed all in the name of Catholicism and progress, so to speak.” Corine Fairbanks

In Bolivia last July, the pope said “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God” and asked forgiveness “not only for the offences of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

Vatican sources said Francis may make another apology during the canonisation ceremony outside a Washington church, where some Native Americans say they hope to be able to protest.

Supporters say Serra loved the “Mission Indians”, as they are known, and believed that spreading the gospel to them and ensuring their salvation, was part of that love, even if it meant barring them from leaving the missions.

Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of the Mexia Movement, which promotes indigenous rights, said such assertions appall him.

“Our protest is to tell the Pope that by canonizing Junipero Serra, they want to canonize colonialism, they want to canonize white supremacy and they want to canonize the genocide of our people. And that is an immoral act,” he told Reuters Television in Los Angeles.

Much of the Church’s defence of Serra revolves around the explanation that “he was a man of his times” in a much broader historical context.

Father Vincenzo Criscuolo, a Franciscan at the Vatican department for the causes of saints, said that corporal punishment was commonly used as an educational tool at the time, particularly by Spaniards, but rejected accusations from some Native Americans that in Serra’s case it amounted to genocide.

“It (corporal punishment) can’t be excluded but it certainly was not genocide,” he said.

Guzman Carriquiry, a member of the Vatican’s commission for Latin America and a personal friend of the pope, criticised proposals that a statue of Serra be removed from the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.

“They want to remove the only Hispanic there, exactly when the first Hispanic pope in history will canonise him. That would not be an extraordinary welcome in a land that puts itself forward as an example of multi-cultural tolerance,” he said.

Monsignor J. Michael McKiernan, rector of Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, California, acknowledged that Serra had “human flaws and difficulties and struggles” but that overall his legacy was a positive one.

“It’s not all happiness and grace,” he told Reuters Television. “There were some difficult times as well.”

“So some of the things that some of our brothers and sisters and Native Americans are concerned about, are very real and we don’t want to deny those, but also recognising that his legacy also brought beautiful things as we celebrate here every single day.”

Copyright Reuters 2015

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