A Contrast in Culture
Working with Indigenous communities has allowed Daniela Heil to apply her anthropological expertise in rewarding and practical ways.
Spending 18 months with an Aboriginal community as part of anthropological fieldwork for her PhD gave Dr Daniela Heil a rare insight into the way those Indigenous people understand wellbeing.
"Aboriginal people consider wellbeing not just in terms of health but their connection to the land, their spirituality and their relationships with other people in their families and community," Heil says.
"When policymakers talk about wellbeing they are often, not necessarily intentionally, equating it with health. However, in Indigenous understandings these are two distinctive concepts."
With health statistics showing poor outcomes for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, including life expectancies of up to 15 years below those of non-Indigenous Australians, Heil's work has illustrated that such cultural differences are major factors in explaining why mainstream health intervention is not embraced by Aboriginal peoples in the same ways.
Heil, a researcher aligned with the Research Institute for Social Inclusion and Wellbeing, has built on her PhD research to address the question of whether the distinctive characteristics of Indigenous cultures can be successfully accommodated in health policy and practice, in Indigenous peoples' terms.
Heil first took an interest in Indigenous peoples when studying her undergraduate degree in Germany, completing with a Masters thesis based on archival material of Aboriginal cultures in Arnhem Land. She came out to Australia in 1997 to undertake a practical, ethnographic study for her PhD.
An Aboriginal ethics committee directed her to an all-Indigenous community in NSW that is home to about 250 Ngiyampaa people.
Heil originally intended to focus on diabetes but discovered that local people did not relate to her proposed project in the same way.
"People expected I would turn up with a magic pill and fix things," she says. "So, I started to ask why, and how, their understandings were different to mine."
Heil observed that the Aboriginal people in the community she lived and in whose lives she has participated put a relatively low priority on their physical health, and a much greater priority on their social engagements and relationships with others.
"If someone explained to a person with diabetes that they need to take their medication and eat breakfast before leaving their house, that advice wouldn't necessarily be taken up. However, if a relative turned up and wanted a ride into town, that person's needs usually took priority over their own," she says.
"That is a nightmare for healthcare workers and it is very hard to set out a step-by-step plan for mediating those differences, but that is where the research I am doing can inform health policy and practice.
"Applying anthropology is about addressing cultural difference and translating them into practice."
Heil's PhD was awarded in 2004 and she has maintained regular contact with the community, visiting regularly as she continues to expand on her research into Indigenous wellbeing. She has also worked with Indigenous peoples in Western Australia and the Torres Straits.
"I work with real people who face real problems of cultural difference as a constituent part of their everyday lives," she says. "It's a huge responsibility and a huge challenge but it is work that is worthwhile and I am gratified that people are prepared to welcome me into their lives and contribute to that work by offering their perspectives and understandings."