‘As Indigenous people of this country, our stories are precious. They have survived generations… As Aboriginal people, we have always told stories about our lives, and we know how important it is for people to be connected to their own stories, the stories of their family, their people, their history… Our people understand the significance of our stories, and the importance of taking care to tell them in the right places, to the right people and in appropriate ways. Once these stories begin to be told we can then listen for the moments of change, the times when people are moving their lives in positive directions… As Indigenous Australians we’re going to keep telling our stories in ways that make us stronger.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.v-vii)
Founded on practices of cross-cultural partnerships, the influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia on narrative therapy and work with Communities has been highly significant, with a history stretching back to the early 1990s (Denborough, Wingard & White, 2009; Denborough, 2012).
This is not so surprising: narrative practice believes that stories shape life. It is interested in the stories of people’s lives, the broader contexts that surround these stories, and the differences that can be made to the lives of children, families and communities by telling and re-telling these stories in particular ways.
The problem is the problem
In narrative practice, the child, family or community are not the problem, the problem is the problem. In other words, problems are always separate to people – they are seen as impacting on people’s lives, rather than as being internal and inherent to the child, family or community.
This practice of ‘externalising’ is reflected in the language used to talk about problems, as well as through ensuring the context of problems is visible – the local context surrounding the child and family, as well as the broader context of historical trauma and ongoing colonisation (Drahm-Butler, 2015).
‘It is about taking the shame away from the person. Whatever the problem is, we try to find ways to make it separate from the person so that they can actually talk about it and resolve their own thoughts and feelings about it.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.29)
‘When people present for counselling, a problem story has often convinced them of negative ideas about their identity. This problem story might be influenced by ideas of Western normality that lead our people to feel bad about themselves. Behind this problem story though, is an alternative story, a strong story. This strong story tells of the ways that a person has stood up to the problem.’ (Drahm-Butler, 2015, p.26)
Useful stories are ‘double stories’. They are stories not only about the problems and difficulties faced by First Nations children, families and communities, but also of how people are responding to these hardships.
‘We are listening for our people’s abilities and knowledges and skills. We’re trying to find ways to acknowledge one another and to see the abilities that people have but may not know they have. Without putting people on pedestals, we are finding ways of acknowledging each other’s stories of survival.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.64)
‘Wherever there are stories of hardship, there are also stories of resistance to this hardship that continue to sustain us and link us to the stories of our ancestors.’ (Drahm-Butler, 2015, p.27)
Skills, knowledge and what’s important
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities respond to difficulties, they are drawing on skills and knowledges that are linked to their hopes and to what is important to them. These responses may not be enough in themselves to overcome the difficulty, but they remain very significant.
Narrative practice encourages the identification of these skills and knowledges, particularly those that might otherwise be easily overlooked or downgraded. By making these more visible to the families themselves, as well as others, and then exploring their links to local community and cultural traditions, practitioners can find additional solutions (Denborough et al., 2006).
‘It is listening for the ways in which people have got through difficult times. It is listening for their special skills or special relationships that have helped them. If we can get people to talk about these things, often life becomes a little easier to live.’ (Wingard, 2001, p.64)
‘Aboriginal narrative practices encourage us to seek detail within our people’s strong stories through distant history, recent history and the present and even the future. This way of telling stories can enable the storyteller to experience strong stories again, in new ways.’ (Drahm-Butler, 2015, p.43)
If you’d like to further explore narrative practices with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities, Dulwich Centre offer a number of key resources:
Free online course: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/courses/aboriginal-narrative-practice-course/?v=6cc98ba2045f
Video series featuring creative projects drawing on narrative practices in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/lessons/06-supporting-families-and-communities/?v=6cc98ba2045f
Wingard, B., Johnson, C., & Drahm-Butler, T. (2015). Aboriginal narrative practice: Honouring storylines of pride, strength and creativity. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
Wingard, B. & Lester, J. (2001) Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.