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Possum skin cloak fosters reconciliation

03 June 2019

As part of National Reconciliation Week, Dental Health Services Victoria (DHSV) took a significant step towards cultural safety with the creation of the possum skin cloak, woven together by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff and patients.

The culturally significant item was created during a series of Baagon Walert Walert workshops, meaning “coming together with the possum cloak” in the Taungurung language. The workshops were held at The Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne during National Reconciliation Week.

The workshops were facilitated by Vicki Couzens, a Gunditjmara woman and artist who has been making possum skin cloaks for 20 years.

“It’s an incredibly important practice that supports the revitalisation of culture,” Vicki said.

“It’s an honour and privilege to work with community to create these cloaks, and it’s an opportunity for strengthening, empowering and healing First Peoples,” she said.

The idea of making DHSV’s very own possum skin cloak came from DHSV Aboriginal Liaison Officer, Carleen Miller, who felt it was important to start conversations around awareness and understanding of reconciliation.

“Integrating cultural practices into workplaces signifies a slow but significant shift towards reconciliation,” Carleen said.

“Possum skin cloaks are important in facilitating spiritual healing and continuing traditional practice,” she said.

Members of the Aboriginal community, including Elders Aunty Liz Pinner from Tasmania, Aunty Esther Kirby OAM from Swan Hill, and Aunty Cody from Warrnambool, and Aunty Margaret Martino joined the workshops. Aboriginal patients who had dental appointments also joined in. An important part of Aboriginal culture and identity, the possum cloaks are incised and painted with ochre. The cloaks also mapped the identity of their owner, holding stories of clan and country.

In 2017-2018, 11,561 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients received dental care in Victoria, a 6 per cent increase in the number of patients compared to the previous year.*

DHSV CEO Dr Deborah Cole said DHSV was committed to provide a welcoming and culturally appropriate environment for its Aboriginal patients.

“We want our Aboriginal patients to see that DHSV is working towards becoming a culturally safe space where they can feel comfortable,” Dr Cole said.

*Source: DHSV 2017-2018 Annual Report, page 4