Bush Medicine and Sign Language

I barely know the indigenous people of this country, on this journey I will meet with them and get to know these remarkable ancient and wise people. Here is a taste of what they know.


Creative Medicine

The suffering of the European Explorers who trekked through the hostile Red Centre of Australia has been well documented. The centre of Australia is a place of violent extremes. Charles Sturt and his men marched into one of the most appalling summers ever recorded. Temperatures rose to 132 degrees in the shade and 157 degrees in the sun. The hot wind filled the air with an impalpable dust and all the vegetation seemed dead. The men’s hair ceased to grow and their finger nails became as brittle as glass. Scurvy broke out in the camp and one man died. The desert assumed a menacing aspect as waterholes evaporated in front of their eyes. The flies and mosquitoes were so bad that the men wore veils but these had little effect.

To deal with such ailments, Aboriginal people used a range of remedies – wild herbs, animal products, steam baths, clay pits, charcoal and mud, massages, string amulets and secret chants and ceremonies. Crushed bulbs of the Onion Lily were used as a wash for infected skin

Some of these remedies had no empirical basis, but it is clear from the accounts of colonists that they worked. Many of the remedies worked by healing directly through their chemical or physical action. Aromatic herbs, tannin-rich inner barks and kinos have well documented therapeutic effects.

Other plants undoubtedly harboured alkaloids or other compounds with healing effects. Aboriginal remedies varied between clans and in different parts of the country. There was no single set of Aboriginal medicines and remedies, just as there was no one Aboriginal language. Unfortunately, much of the knowledge of traditional Aboriginal medicine has been lost.

Very little is known of medical practice in southern and eastern Australia, where traditional Aboriginal culture was largely obliterated more than a century ago. In recent years there have

Quirky Examples of Bush Medicine


The camel tree (Bardirri) is used for bush medicine. You burn the outside bark in a fire and rub the ashes in your hands. Put it on your body to keep yourself cool.

Snakebite was treated in some areas by a poultice from a coolibah tree (the coolibah of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ fame – Eucalyptus microtheca). Also used for this purpose plus fomentation for bites of stingrays, spiders etc. were the leaves of a native convolvulus Ipomoea pes-carpae.

The itching of insect bites was treated with the juice from young bracken stems.

Crushed bulbs of the Onion Lily were used as a wash for infected skin

Bush Medicine for Artistic Block

Develop a set of symbols about daily activities. Observe the marks made by sitting on the ground, footprints, etc, and develop a “sign language” of symbols.

Paint river stones with dot designs. Make an arrangement on the floor or playground, telling a story.

Gloria Petyarre has been one of the most consistently creative artists at Utopia over the last fifteen years. Her leaf or “Bush Medicine” series, depicting the rushing movement of leaves with terse rhythmic brush strokes has been heralded as one of her most successful stylistic developments to date. Gloria utilizes close tonal values of color together with the rhythmic patterning of her brush strokes to imply the movement of a tree’s leaves as seen blowing in the wind. The leaves of this tree are an important form of bush medicine, which are gathered by women. Find out more about her creative style.

Born around 1946 at Pikily west of Yuendemu, in Central Australia, Michael Neslon Jagamara grew up in the bush and remembers hiding in fear at his first sight of white men at Mt Doreen station. He is a senior Warlpiri tribesman and custodian of many Dreaming stories. He believes it is his responsibility to preserve, in paint and print, the stories which can assist the teaching of others about his tradition and culture.

He lived at Haasts Bluff until his parents took him to the mission school at Yuendemu for a European education. He left school at thirteen, after initiation, and worked at buffalo shooting, driving trucks, droving cattle and in the army, before returning to Yuendemu and then settling at Papunya in 1976. In Papunya he observed the work of older artists and by 1983 he had began to paint regularly. He paints Possum, Snake, Two Kangaroos, Flying Ant and Yam Dreamings from the area around Piklyi as well as lightning, rain, shields and sacred sites.

Michael displayed an intuitive response to colour symmetry and design. He gradually developed an “infill” technique where fields of colour transformed the canvas into a coherent image without an obvious foreground or background. He paints several Dreaming stories on a single work: “I thought to myself – I’ll do different way to them mob instead of copying them. Do my own way”.

Remember to do it your own way.

Research animal tracks, especially those from your local region. Develop stories around the tracks as they move across a landscape. Look for signs of feeding, and begin to assemble a mental picture of animal diets, lifestyles, dangers, and environmental requirements

Our story is in the land… it is written in those sacred places, that’s the law. Dreaming place… you can’t change it, no matter who you are. Big Bill Neidjie, Gagadju Elder, Kakadu, ‘Australia’s Kakadu Man Bill Neidjie’ 1986.

Dreaming tracks trace the creative journey of the Spirit Ancestors as they formed the land and laid down the Law. Dreaming tracks are sometimes called ‘songlines’ and record the travels of the Spirit Ancestors who ‘sung up’ the country into life. It is believed that performing the right songs and ceremonies at points along the Dreaming track gives people direct access to the Dreaming.

Stop to take notice of your land and mark your own dreaming tracks.

Over thousands of years Indigenous people have lived in Australia developing a unique system for signposting and marking the land. This system is interconnected with stories of the Dreaming and Spirit Ancestors. Indigenous people use natural features of the landscape to identify and mark the land and its significance. Many Indigenous children learn these “mental maps” of their countries and about how places relate to each other and to people. Make a mental map of your interior world.

Aboriginal Remedies

The Boab has been a bounteous tree to the Aboriginal people. Almost every part of the tree is used in one way or another. The seed pods have a woody casing with a velvety covering that is scraped off to create artwork on the pod. The seed kernels are eaten raw or roasted, and are a highly nutritious food source. Leaves and roots are used for medicinal purposes, primarily gastric and chest complaints. The Boab’s bark is used to make string, rope and twine, and the gum of the tree can be used as glue.

Oleum Melaleuca is a traditional Aboriginal remedy from Australia, which has become well-known for its healing and antiseptic properties. Research has demonstrated that it acts on the micro-organisms that cause common skin infections such as acne, canker sores, herpes, insect bites and nail fungus.

Rheumatism cures included cunjevoi juice, which is also recommeded to relieve the pain induced by the leaves of stinging tree (Dendrocnide, a member of the stinging nettle family). The stinging tree leaves themselves have also been used – I can’t help wondering (having been stung more than once) if this was a genuine cure or a means to stop people from complaining about their rheumatism.

EUCALYPTUS Species of eucalyptus constitute more than three quarters of the vegetation of Australia. The roots store water, and they are a source of an emergency water ration in the outback. Eucalyptus oil is derived from the leaves, roots, and bark. If you rub the leaves of the eucalyptus together, the pungent odor of camphoraceous eucalyptol oil is released. It has a spicy, cooling taste. For the plant, it is a secondary metabolite that wards of plant-eating predators. Some animals such as the koala bear have adapted to the eucalyptus and now dine exclusively upon it. Eucalyptus trees survive in Australia because of their adaptation to the climate and the ability of the seeds to survive fire. Eucalyptus leaves are a traditional Aboriginal herbal remedy. The essential oil found in the leaves is a powerful antiseptic and is used all over the world for relieving coughs and colds, sore throats and other infections. The essential oil is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter cold remedies.

Earth, mud, sand, and termite dirt were also taken as medicines. In the Channel Country, healing mud for packing wounds was taken from the cold beds of water holes. In many parts of Australia, wounds were dressed with dirt or ash. Arnhem Land Aboriginies still eat small balls of white clay and pieces of termite mound to cure diarrhea and stomach upsets. Clay and termite earth probably share the properties of kaolin, which is the white clay used in western medicine. They may also provide essential nutrients: some termite mounts are extraordinarily rich in iron -as high as two percent. But whether this can be absorbed through the stomach has yet to be determined.

“They (the aboriginals) gave us some stuff they call bedgery, or pedgery. It has a highly intoxicating effect, when chewed in small quantities. It appears to be the dried stems and leaves of some shrub.”
extract from Will’s diary.

Mohandas Gandhi

“God has no religion”