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Jaide Vidafar

Jaide Vidafar is a sterilisation supervisor, a former emergency dispatcher and an aspiring doctor.

3 minute read

Understanding health through an Indigenous lens

What’s in this article

For NAIDOC Week, Jaide Vidafar interviewed Papa Cygnet, a respected elder from the Torres Strait Islander community. Here he shares his wisdom and insights on health from an Indigenous perspective.

In celebration of NAIDOC Week, we have an incredible chance to learn from one of our most respected elders in the Torres Strait Islander community: Papa Cygnet.

His wisdom and insights are priceless, and we are honoured to share his knowledge on traditional health practices, the challenges faced by his community, and how we can better understand and respect these practices to improve health outcomes for Torres Strait Islander people.

What does being an elder mean to you and how do you see your role in community?

Being an elder is a bloody handful! Joking. But seriously, an elder is sort of a beacon where we can keep everything in order, in place and help lead the way forward. An elder is someone that the community should be looking up to and asking for advice and, you know, the important questions that we don’t ask normal family members. An elder has those type of answers.

What are some of the big health problems faced by Torres Strait Islander communities today?

Chronic health is the most challenging problem factor we have out there. And because we’ve been diverted from our local diets to an artificial diet, chronic health disease is the most challenging. We’re not eating what our bodies were made to eat. We’re eating foreign substances, you know, taking in foreign food into our bodies, and that means we have to rely on foreign medication and everything is, you know, foreign. So that’s a big danger for an Islander.

What are some traditional health practices used in Torres Strait islander culture today?

One traditional health practice we still use is the noni fruit. It’s an all-year-round remedy that we use for many ailments. If we have a sore throat, we eat the fruit. When we have a cold, we eat the fruit, and if we have a blocked nose, we inhale it. Our elders taught us to use every part of the noni plant, from making juices to drying the leaves for sores.

How important is understanding culture in giving good healthcare to Indigenous people?

It’s really important. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural practice and is taboo for an Islander male to undress in front of a woman, even for medical reasons. From a very young age, Islander males are taught not to show their genitals to anyone apart from males. Even when I was down there, the doctors were telling me to get everything off. And I was, ‘Can you send the nurses away, please?’ They said, ‘No, the nurses need to help you here.’ So that will always be a challenge. Islanders like me will stick to the Island way, but if that’s going to save a life, I guess we have to break the Island cycle. Sometimes, Islander people die from sheer shyness, from not feeling comfortable with the surroundings. That affects the lifestyle and can bring the life down towards the end. Respecting this cultural sensitivity in healthcare settings, like having male nurses for male Islanders, can make a big difference and help Islanders feel more comfortable.

How can communication help in making healthcare decisions?

We Islanders need to be patient and really consider our answers before answering. Always have assistance nearby to help retell or ask the question again. Answer what we really understand, rather than just saying yes or no. Most Islanders, when you ask them a question, will just say yes or no, because they want to get the appointment over and done with. But when they come to people like me and other uncles and aunties, we really talk with them. The last say should be up to the patient. You’re supposed to have the last yes or no. Having a family member there to make us feel comfortable can make a big difference. Most of the time, doctors talk to patients to a point where they feel sort of cornered into an answer and just have to say yes. Our health should be decided from within, we should have a family discussion about it and think before making quick decisions.

What do you hope for the future of health in Torres Strait Islander communities?

I hope we see more medical help on the outer islands, with local doctors instead of just visiting. It is also important to slow down the availability of unhealthy, processed foods in our shops. We need to go back to gardening and growing our own food. We stopped eating from within the ground, you know, to without the ground, to anything that is out, up and above the ground, instead of the stuff that we plant from the ground up.

How can young people continue traditional health practices?

By going back to their roots, listening to their elders, and learning the old ways. Speaking language and understanding our cultural practices are important. This knowledge should be passed down through generations to keep our traditions alive.”

How can people from all walks of life make for a healthier and more inclusive future for Indigenous Australians?

Patience and respect are key. Everyone has their own culture, and understanding and respecting these differences is important. If we all respect each other’s lifestyles, we can create a more inclusive and healthier future for everyone.

We are immensely grateful to Papa Cygnet for sharing his invaluable insights and wisdom. His words remind us of the deep knowledge and cultural richness that Indigenous communities possess. As we celebrate NAIDOC Week, let’s commit to better understanding health through an Indigenous lens and spread awareness and support for the health and well-being of Indigenous people.


About Papa Cygnet

From the culturally rich Mabuyag Island in the Torres Strait is Cygnet Repu, a respected elder and cultural pillar. His community revolves around singing and dancing, forming the vibrant Tribe of Wagadagam, with clan groups each having its own totem.

As an elder, Cygnet preserves and shares cultural traditions and knowledge. He is dedicated to language preservation, particularly the Mabuyag dialect of Kala Lagaw Ya, creating apps to maintain traditional languages. His leadership in the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and involvement in initiatives like Voices of Country highlight his commitment to cultural preservation and education.

Papa Cygnet

Growing up across the Cape with a single mother who served as a nurse, Jaide Vidafar developed a profound respect for healthcare from a young age. Now an aspiring doctor, Jaide is passionate about improving healthcare accessibility in rural and remote communities.