The use of alcohol and other drugs is not a traditional part of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture. Although people did consume weak alcohol made from various plants, traditional rules controlled how and when it was used. In some communities, traditional beliefs may lead people to think that sickness is not caused by alcohol or drug use but happens because of sorcery and black magic.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities had traditional healers with extensive knowledge and methods, passed from generation to generation. They provided treatments that included bush medicine and spirit balancing to heal pain, suffering, grief, sadness and sorrow. Over time, traditional healing methods have been lost for many communities, and alcohol has become a way to cope, survive and resist.
The ‘poison grog’
The arrival of the British to Australia in 1788 drastically reduced the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population through violence, the introduction of diseases, and prevention of access to land that had provided them with food and resources.
The British also introduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to western alcohol. Within weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet, the first pubs opened. That shaped the way Australian society developed over the next few decades.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labourers were paid in alcohol or tobacco (if their wages were not stolen). In the early 1800s, the white settlers in Sydney found it amusing to ply Aboriginal men with alcohol and encourage them to fight each other, often to the death. White settlers also gave alcohol to Aboriginal people to pay for sex.
The problem now
The following video outlines some of the statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander use of alcohol.
The impact of alcohol and other drugs use
The impact of alcohol and other drugs use
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are less likely to drink alcohol than non-Indigenous people, but those who do drink are more likely to drink at harmful levels.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are 1.2 times more likely to drink at levels of high risk of lifetime harm than non-Indigenous people.
In 2018-2019 37% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and older identified to smoke daily. In 2018-2019, 57% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0-14 years lived in households with a daily smoker.
Illicit drug use in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet’s Summary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, 2020 states that:
Surveys consistently show that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not use illicit drugs.
The (following) information is from the 2020 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). Similar results were found in the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), but the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the NDSHS was small, leading to some concerns about the accuracy of the results.
Source: Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, Summary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health status, 2020.
The following video provides a graphical representation of illicit drug use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The impact on children, family and culture
When it occurs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, problematic use of alcohol and other drugs:
- affects the spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing of children, women and men, causing deep pain and disconnection that continues the cycle of alcohol and other drugs use
- influences the way parents are able to fulfil their traditional roles in raising their children and the way young people are initiated in becoming women and men
- models a way of life that becomes the community norm (Aboriginal ethos is based on community and shared living), which will include sharing alcohol and drugs
- can have a negative effect on the whole community.
The impact on women’s business
Prior to colonisation, women were responsible for raising children and participated in the spiritual life of their people. This was disrupted by colonisation, when the land was taken away, people were killed and children were taken. Women could no longer fulfil their role, and this has been an enduring pain for children and women for generations across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Alcohol and other drugs use may be one way an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman chooses to cope, resist and survive.
An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman may experience the impacts of alcohol and other drugs through her own use, through living in a community where alcohol use permeates daily life, and through the high rates of alcohol-related violence and domestic violence within her family and community.
Things that may make an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman more vulnerable:
- She may be deprived of support from kin because of social upheaval, dispossession, or early death.
- She may not have alcohol and other drugs workers or services that include all aspects of Aboriginal wellbeing (spiritual, emotional and physical).
- She may not know about the impacts of alcohol and other drugs use on herself or her children.
The impact on men's business
There are a number of ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s roles and values in the family and community have changed since colonisation. Alcohol has had a major impact on this.
'Our people would go to the mines and after work they see the whitefella drink beer. A lot of Yolngu men thought that was the way to be. They thought alcohol made them more powerful.'
Kathy Balngayngu Marika, traditional Elder and artist-in-residence at Bangarra Dance Theatre, SMH October 2011
Other impacts include:
- an inability to carry out their role as men, or mentor young boys, because they have not been taught or traditions have not passed down
- a change of their traditional role as providers of the family. For example, welfare payments see women getting more than men (because of children).
Not being able to carry out their men’s business as providers and leaders can lead Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to feel a loss of identity and to feel disempowered, disconnected and devalued.
Alcohol and drugs can become a way of numbing this. Men who are numbed in spirit and identity are unable to show and teach young men that these things are not normal.
We acknowledge and are sorry for past policies and practiceNext
Growing up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
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