The Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health has reported on the importance of cultural identity and cultural participation as key protective factors essential to the development of strong and resilient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. International research shows that cultural programs conducted with Aboriginal young people has led to improved self-esteem, school attendance, school completion rates, reading skills and academic performance.
It was these key pieces of research combined with relationships with the young Aboriginal women at Newcastle High which sparked Wesley Young Healthy Minds Service, in conjunction with Cherie Johnson, an Aboriginal woman, teacher and artist, to create a possum cloak* program with students at Newcastle High School for better mental health outcomes via connection to culture.
We met with the young Aboriginal women and started a ‘circle of enquiry’. Questions raised and answered pertained to their own knowledge of cloaks, meaning and history behind cloak making and the local land on which we gathered, which is traditionally owned by the Awabakal people. The group gathered on the School site for over ten weeks to establish trust, gain knowledge and to test their skills with pelts, burners and Ochre paint.
After the knowledge was bedded down and a foundation of trust was created, the program went off site for 3 consecutive days. The young women were taken to an important Aboriginal site and were taught to harvest their own Ochre, which they later used to mark their cloak. Local plants and their traditional uses were explored and collected to inspire the cloak design and deepen their knowledge of traditional practices.
The young women then spent the next 3 days cutting and stitching their own pelts to make the cloak, whilst diarizing their thoughts, experiences and design ideas. At the end of this process the young women were incredibly proud to show their school their cloak. This cloak will now be used by the young women, their peers and principal at important ceremonies; this is a living document that will be passed down to other Aboriginal young people in the school to continue the learning and connection to culture.
* Traditionally, a mother-to be, and her family would have prepared a baby sized cloak in preparation for the birth of a baby. The skin used would have been from the main animal group of that area, for Newcastle, New South Wales, it is the possum. The skins once stitched together would act as a baby blanket for the new child. Over time, more pelts were added until it was large enough for an adult. Markings displayed on the leather denoted a personal lineage, country and the owner’s personal journey.
Written by Amy Clark and Laura Hincks, Wesley Mission