My name is Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian I am a Senior Elder to a Kabi Kabi clan
/family group. This honor was bestowed upon me by my late father and the Elders
Council of my people. He was our Patriarch. On my mothers side I am a Terabalang
Bunda Elder in my community and an Elder of the Goreng Goreng peoples. The
Gurang people who are members of the Bundaberg community also acknowledge me
in these positions. I am also a Director and the Chaplain of the organisation I work in
called IWC Bundaberg.
IWC is located in Central Queensland, and our services stretch deep into our
communities. Our staff deal with Domestic and Family Violence and attempted
suicides most every day.
My question has always been simple - “Surely there has to be a better way to deal
with Violence in the Aboriginal community? “
I did the research most of which is not written by our peoples researchers and
academics and others. I also researched the theories that have been used to explain
the violence of suicide and in every case, I did not find what was being said about our
people and this violence until I came upon research that has been done by our own
people. The key factor that my peoples research exposed was how since 1788 our
people lived in this country as people who have been conquered. I also learned that
most of what has been researched about us as a conquered people was written by
the people who conquered us. That led me to look into my Aboriginal culture and
question the validity of the programs and projects used to address violence in
Aboriginal families. The answer that was gifted to me by my Aboriginal elders, my
brothers and sisters, across Australia, revealed wisdoms about this issue that they
kept speaking about in the 20th Century and are still speaking about today. However,
so often they are ignored. And here we are in the 21st Century and what I have
learned from my Peers is finally being taken on by those who ignored our Aboriginal
wisdoms and stifled our voices about the issues of violence. One form of violence
that is underpinned by Lateral violence is the violence of suicide.
In 2009, Uncle Brian Butler, an Elder in South Australia, asked me to help bring Lateral Violence into the public arena. In the mid to late 1990’s I had spoken with my West
Australian skin mother Aunty Josie Boyle, and my cultural Mentor Aunty Beth Woods, both Wongi Elders, and to Uncle Clarrie Isaccsk, a Noongah Elder now deceased,
and to my two skin Noongah brothers from two different Collard families who back in the 1990s were talking more openly about this ‘hidden violence’ that erupted
suddenly in a person, in relationships, in families and in communities where FV, feuding, and community violence was escalating not just among Aboriginal adults and
teenagers but also among children as young as five. We were beginning to see younger and younger people attempt to commit suicide, and we saw the consequences on
families and communities. In some cases we were burying somebody on a Tuesday and crying with a family the next day because one of their loved ones had either
attempted or committed suicide.
In an incident I witnessed where no drugs or alcohol were involved, the violence a group of children were using against each other was devastating. One moment they
were playing the next instance, a girls left eye was gouged out and she retaliated by stabbing the boy with a steel pike. Police, hospitalisation, child safety, and the
criminal justice system once again became involved in the life of the families and our community. Our discussions were around our brothers and sisters who had
attended therapeutic programs around Suicide Prevention, anger management, Zero Tolerance for Violence, Family Violence, family relationships and self-
empowerment. It seemed that for a time, the issues of violence committed by an individual against themselves, in families, and in communities were being addressed and
resolution, reunion, recovery, even redemption and reconciliation was effectively happening with support from other families, the communities and various agencies.
Then the Violence started up again, and the same brothers were returning to prison, some never to return, the same sisters were returning to hospitals and the same
children were entering the Child Welfare system all over again. We called it the “hidden” violence. Uncle Brian Butler and his granddaughter Nicole named it Lateral
Violence because it came up out of us, up and around us and down inside us, and surrounded us. And it drove some of our people to commit the worst kinds of acts of
violence. They took their own life. And we as a people once again attended another funeral, within a week of burying another victim.
The definition as presented here came out of those discussions and the hidden violence that we saw erupting almost every day among our Aboriginal people was finally
given a name – Lateral Violence.
This definition takes its form from the legacies of violence that our ancestors passed down to us, their descendants, in the historical stories and oral histories. It helps us to
look into issues of power, control, authorities, disconnectedness, and the normalising of systems that perpetuate Lateral Violence not just in the Aboriginal world but in
the world of any person whose birthright to their spiritual and cultural heritage is manipulated, whose spiritual connection to their own Spirit, their Sacred Country’s Spirit,
their family, and Creator has become disconnected. Lateral Violence disempowers them and distorts their thinking and their emotions. There are many theories about
Suicide, but it is my understanding that at the heart of suicide is Lateral Violence, motivated by culturally nuanced violence.
Suicide comes out of Lateral Violence which, within the Aboriginal community, is a direct result of being conquered. It is also a trait of people who have conquered or
colonised other people. So here in Australia we have two forms of Lateral violence, Conquered peoples’ Lateral Violence and Conqueror Peoples’ lateral violence. The
people who came here in 1788 and whose descendants govern our country, continue to ignore their own expressions of Lateral Violence and that is to our peoples
advantage. If we can understand this insidious thing called Lateral Violence we can better understand how government policies, government programmes and projects are
developed for us but not for our good. A Sister called Anna Haebich way back in 1992 wrote a book about a moving history of Aboriginal people in the south west of
Western Australia covering a time when they experienced profound changes in their way of life, and the status of their communities. Their independent life in the bush, on
stations and on their own small farms was progressively eroded by discriminatory laws, bureaucratic interference and overt racism. That is the way the Conqueror people
express their Lateral Violence. Isn’t that the way the Closing the Gap policies happened? In my view, Anna exposed how the people who came here and tried to conquer
us used laws and policies to open up the deep wounds and scares we Aboriginal people carry inside of us. These wounds and scars have never been given a place for
healing to take place. We have to find a way to come together ourselves so that we can heal for our own sakes and the generations to come. What we have seen should
encourage us to find a way, because what we see is our people expressing the pain and hurt from the wounds and scars they carry by lashing out in violent acts against
themselves, their families, and others. Those wounds are at the core of Lateral violence perpetrated against us by other peoples and perpetrated by us towards
ourselves, and our own people.
There are many theories about suicide. It is a subject that has been researched in
this country for a long time. The one thing that I have found missing from the
theories about this painful subject is an acknowledgment of the cultural nuances, the
cultural factors Australia’s First Nations people have knowledge of about this subject.
A lot has been written about Australian Aboriginal and Islander suicide but generally
it has been written about from an outsider’s perspective based upon a non-
Aboriginal perspective that comes from an alien worldview. That is not okay if you
are Aboriginal. Accepting the worldview about us that others cultures have does not
bring out into the open what many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who work
closely with us know. There are a few non-Aboriginal people who work with us and
they are guided by our people because they are respected by us, and we do not talk
bulldust with them because they have become aware of Lateral Violence from our
wisdom and knowledge about suicide.
I can only understand this thing called suicide if I am courageous enough to examine
my thinking within an Aboriginal Terms of Reference Framework. When I did my
research, I discovered many cultural nuances of just how Lateral Violence has done
something from inside of me. What I found was Lateral Violence filled up and hid the
empty places inside my mind and my emotions. It hid the place where my spirit was
disconnected from Creator Spirit, from my cultural identity, from my Sacred lands, my
family, and my people. These empty places inside of me were so dark, so painful, so
sick, and it was like I was always being drawn back to living on the edge of this big
empty black hole swirling with nightmares that were waiting for me to fall and get
swallowed up. I used to think that the only option that was viable for me to take was
to take my own life. That is stinking thinking and having researched the theories like
the ones on this slide my big empty black hole in side of me grew bigger and darker
until somebody told me that I could love myself and I could flood my life with the
light that love brings into my life.
It is time to move beyond the surface of Violence and tackle the real issue – Lateral
Violence – which is driving our Aboriginal people to commit heinous acts on
themselves and those that they love. If you have a scar on your arm and you see pus
on your skin from the scar, it is easy to wipe the pus off with a tissue and get on with
your life. However, you may need some other intervention to help you understand
where the pus in the wound is coming from so that you can get on with your life in a
The failure to address Lateral violence in Aboriginal Australian families has been that
we have looked at the pus on the skin thinking that if we deal with the pus the
violence will stop. It won’t. We think that our programme, or the therapy, or the
project will take violence away and it will for a time. But it won’t be sustainable or
long term, because we have looked at the scars of violence in a person or a family
but we have not looked into the scar in the person or the family to find the source of
where the puss is coming from that fuels the violence.
Lateral Violence in any relationship will expose itself as a symptom of violence, like
the pus on the skin. What is required is that we acknowledge the symptom, then we
look at the scar which represents life experiences firstly of the parents, and where
they experienced violence being played out. Then we have to look into the scar to
see what is feeding the scar to excrete the pus that we see on the skin. When we do
that we will find ourselves looking into the layers of energies of Lateral Violence.
Where I work we are using the Ancient Aboriginal Healing Circle Work to deal with
Lateral Violence with our people in Bundaberg. My Booringoo Aunty Josie Boyle
taught me her way of creating a Healing Circle and that is what I do now. We are
finding that this way of working helps because it is not based on a theory or a
therapy. People come into a Healing Circle and they learn how to empower
themselves to heal. It is very intense work and it is very personal. One of the biggest
things that have come out of this work is teaching people to Meditate for
Manifestation for their highest good. I can only thank Aunty Josie for taking the time
to teach me her way. People who have come through the Circle are now asking me
to teach them., so I am researching and writing a Manual that our people can use in
the remote, the rural, the regional, the urban, places in which they live.
In 2008 I had the privilege of working with a young Aboriginal person who was about to enter university and study medicine and
science. I was working in academia. The student had a brilliant mind, and was gifted with wisdom and intelligence. On top of
that the student was amazingly beautiful physically, but there was also an inner beauty too. When this student walked into a
room every other student stopped what they were doing and just looked. I used to look out my window and watch when this
student was walking across the quadrangle and I would see male and female students just look at her. Her presence was so
powerful. One day she came to me and asked me to help her find her family history. She wanted to know more about her
family and about her roots. So we kept contact with the new findings we made. Each time the students came on campus I
could see her excitement, and her sadness about her search for her family’s roots.
Whilst studying in my course and also doing subjects in other Courses we lecturers were blest to mark the students work with
High Distinctions for every assignment that the student handed in. At the end of Second Semester the student was fast tracked
into the Medical & Science 1st year Courses. Again impeccable assignments and other Lecturers were talking about the student.
The last semester of the year came around and the student came to say goodbye. We hugged and the student said, “ See you
next year Aunty.” Standing at my door the student turned around and said, “ Aunty can I ring you over the break?” Of course I
said yes. She looked at me and smiled a sad funny smile. She then said, “ Aunty, thank you for helping me be me. “ I said, “
You will always be you Little One.” She came back and hugged me again, and with youthful grace she ran to my door again,
turned and gave me a brilliant smile., and laughed. “ See you Aunty.” January 2009 came I received a phone call from the
students mother. “ Aunty it’s Maizy here” and she started to cry, deep heart wrenching sobs. I waited. Then, “ Aunty Manu
(not the student’s name) is dead. She went out into our backyard last night and hung herself.” I think I screamed, I think I
howled like an animal. I know I cried with her mother over the phone. We were inconsolable. The mother and I kept in daily
contact at my workplace. I asked if she and her husband could come and see me. They travelled down to Bundaberg and when
they came to my office, we all just fell into each other. In all of our conversations we tried to make sense of this young girls final
act. Her parents told me that another child of theirs had hung themselves around the same time. Was that the trigger? What
was the trigger? We are still left with unanswered questions. In my on-campus group work, I asked students about thoughts
that cause despair, internal misery, desolation, hopelessness, self anguish, gloom, depression, despondency, dejection and they
gave me what you see in this slide. As you can see, disconnection from Spirit and from Creator Spirit was high on their list.
Lateral Violence if left unaddressed and not understood will see us continue to see our loved ones living on the edge of the
black hole that swallows them up when they choose to take their life. That black hole is as real as my standing here talking with
you. It is real and so many of our people can tell you their own stories of the black hole inside of them. It is no respecter of
person, religion, creed, educational achievements, being rich with money, or being poor. Unless we talk with each other about
how and where we are disconnected our people who know it is real will turn on themselves and do the most heinous act of
violence to themselves. They will attempt to suicide. Some will succeed. Others will not succeed but will be deeply scarred for
All IWC’s services are underpinned by our unique Transformational Management
Model and not a Biomedical model. If we followed the principles of a Biomedical or
Welfare Model our workers would be disempowered and disenfranchised. If our
workers were required to follow the principles of these two models, the training they
have undergone to hone their skills and their abilities could not accommodate the
spiritual and cultural elements of Best Practice and holistic assessment. Assessment,
and understanding of the cultural nuances each client expresses in the dis- ease that
has bought them to the attention of a government or an outside agency who has
referred them to us, means that we can work with them from their own spiritual and
cultural knowledge and wisdom base, and that is what we do. It is easy to yarn about
personal hurt and personal pain when our people know that the workers do
understand about the disconnections that cause their hurt and pain. Our way of
working assists the clients to better understand how they think, and why they think a
certain way. That is one of the important things that they learn. It is through this
way of working that people begin to see the inside of their cultural nuances and find
their way of understanding how they work with their thinking and their emotional
responses and reactions. How we do it, is only one way of going back to cultural
practices and bringing a healing paradigm into a persons way of life.
My father taught his eight children about Kabi Kabi Aboriginal Law as was taught to
him by his grandmother and mother. He taught us seven General Principles. We
know that there are Aboriginal Laws that cannot be taught to children, and are taught
to those who go through Law. This Principle that I share with you, has taught me to
respect my own life, other peoples life, the life that is expressed in our Spirituality, in
our sacred lands, the environment and Mother Nature. As a teenager, when I was
offered drugs, alcohol and other illicit substances, this Law Principle kept me from
experimenting, or even wanting to take substance that would damage or change my
life in some way. My children teach their children now and I am grateful that this Law
has enabled me to live life rather than just exist. Family members, and others can
talk with their own people and learn how Aboriginal Law assists us all to make wise
choices in our lifetime. Younger ones tell me, that when they are in a dark place, or
when they feel isolated, rejected or alone this Law comes into them from their
memory bank and it helps them reach out for help. I hope and pray that what I have
shared with you today will open up your hearts to think about how we can work
together to support our next generations in compassionate and loving ways so our
younger ones can strengthen their courage to walk away from taking their life and
walk into living their life.
Let me finish this presentation with a blessing.
These sacred land hear and understand Terabalang Bunda, Gooreng Gooreng and Kabi Kabi
peoples languages, because this is where my peoples language was spoken from out of
Dreaming. That Great Red Rock has heard all the languages of First Nations peoples from
way back, because to my Kabi Kabi clan/family, it is the heart of Mother Earth. The people
who are responsible for caring for Mother Earth’s Heart, can hear my peoples language when
they put their hearts close to the heart of Mother Earth. I offer this blessing as a prayer up to
Creator Spirit on your behalf in a language that this country knows and understands.
My words are true and the blessings I offer you are words that have been true for 40,000
years. I will sing this blessing because I want to sing some of you into my country.
“Junjarin-nga dhar’guna yau’eembai’ya ngoolam’bula dhar’kun yar war gow”
These are words from my Kabi Kabi cultural heritage. They are words given to my people to
honour and bless others and they mean: “May the spiritual forces of Mother Earth guide
and protect your inner self and truth”.
This blessing is offered to each and every one of you and it is offered from the spirit of my
country’s love. Thank you!