“Garihmato—Look after, to Care for”
Melaleuca Alternifolia, commonly called Tea Tree, only grows naturally in the lands of the Bundjalung people from north coast New South Wales. The particular medicinal properties of the Tea Tree have been used for thousands of years, and the Tree and its effects on land, water, and people form part of Bundjalung oral histories and spiritual governance.
This article explores media about Tea Tree from the 1990s to 2020s in print media through agricultural media and magazines, as well as online media through TikTok. This combination highlights the generational positionality between the authors as Mother/Daughter and as different consumers of media, with Kath mainly consuming print and Phoebe consuming online. It also utilises a synergy through timing, with the 1990s being when Kath was in her 20s and the 2020s being Phoebe’s time in her 20s.
Through analysing the tropes and messaging surrounding Tea Tree, we as Bundjalung women unearth the continued colonisation and exploitation of First Nations knowledges by the health and wellbeing sector – from the mainstream pharmaceutical industry to alternative wellbeing to user-generated travel content. This article considers these areas.
Ultimately, acknowledgements of Indigenous land or origins of knowledge are not enough. We call for a structural reaffirmation and recontextualisation of First Nations’ ancestral medicines.
Our family has an audio recording of our Githabal ancestor Granny Dorothy (Williams) Webb being interviewed by Terry Crowley, a linguist who was recording the Bundjalung language in the 1970s. This recording of Granny forms part of the body of language resources published in the Crowley’s The Middle Clarence Dialects of Bandjalang.
In one section of the recording, Crowley quizzes Granny on the names for different trees. When he asks about Tea Tree, Granny quickly responds “bulam” (also sometimes spelt “bulihm”) and then attempts to begin a story on how the bark “bulam-ga” was used for shelters. Crowley abruptly stops her reminiscence as he has no interest in the ethnographic detail, just the linguistic material. Had he allowed her to speak further, he would have known that Granny had much more to say on Tea Tree.
Some parts of her knowledge would have not been spoken to him, however, as Tea Tree, in particular Ti Tree Lake, formed a part of her women’s knowledge. As Granny’s female descendants, we operationalise our cultural connection to Bulam/Tea Tree in this article while being mindful and respectful of the importance of keeping certain knowledge within our female genealogy. We remain faithful to Granny’s language and to her teachings which we are privileged to know through oral history from her daughters Gertie and Esther Webb and her granddaughter Julianne Butler.
The Context of ‘Wellbeing’
The World Health Organisation states in its Constitution that “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO). While noting that this definition is a significant improvement on exclusively bio-medical definitions, we argue that there is still room for a further expansion. In critiquing the WHO definition, Sartorius (662) notes a third dimension of health, which is “a state of balance, an equilibrium that an individual has established within himself and between himself and his social and physical environment”. The inclusion of the environment resonates more deeply with many Aboriginal philosophies but remains problematic due to its individualistic nature, removed from culture, community, and Connection to Country.
Through industry research, understandings of ‘wellness’ from the ‘health and wellbeing’ sector at large appear to remain fluid to consumer demands. In a 2021 report, “Wellness in 2030”, research shows that “consumers are spending more on wellness than they ever have before. Wellness is now a $1.5 trillion market globally” (Chopra et al.). Rather than provide a definition of what ‘wellness’ means, the report focusses on six ‘wellness categories’ as identified by consumers: health, fitness, nutrition, appearance, sleep, and mindfulness. From this we can understand that the ‘health and wellness’ industry might not promote a secure philosophy of wellness because, as inherently capitalist enterprises, they want to be responsive to social trends in order to secure profit.
For Aboriginal peoples, our understanding of wellbeing is much more concrete. Culture is inextricably connected to Country, and the guardianship of that relationship is a foundation for life and a key indicator of wellbeing (Grieves 2; Oliver 1). Put simply, “if the land is sick, you are sick” (Kenyon). Conversely, the belief that “if you look after the country, the country will look after you” (Weir et al.) has framed a multi-generational cultural governance grounded in The Dreaming. Therefore, this article proceeds on an understanding of wellbeing beyond the limitation of mainstream definitions – we understand wellbeing as being place-based, enculturated, and grounded in action not aspiration. Our case study on the wellbeing representations in media promoting Tea Tree in various forms such as oils and immersive experience speak to this framing.
Bulam (Melaleuca Alternifolia)
Many Australians are familiar with Tea Tree but are unaware that one particular variant, Melaleuca Alternifolia, only grows naturally within the lands of the Bundjalung people. In addition to continuing oral histories, it was noted in various journals in the early colonial period that Bundjalung people used Bulam (Tea Tree) for a range of uses – to cover shelter, to line the coolamons which held jarjum (children), and for a range of medicinal purposes for its antiseptic, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Bulam could also be used as a diluted drink, or as a crushed oil rubbed on wounds, with the added advantage of also repelling insects (Murray 693).
Additionally, Tea Tree occupies a revered place in Bundjalung beliefs and practices through its transformation of Country. We contend that the phrase “Country makes us healthy” is not a metaphor but a deeply held cultural norm with spiritual and physical attributes. In regard to Bulam/Tea Tree, it is important to acknowledge that there are bodies of water in Bundjalung Country which are ringed by Tea Tree, in particular Ti Tree Lake. The healing properties of the water are enhanced by the infusion from leaves into the water, giving it antibacterial properties; these waters are seen as Women’s sites and are particularly important as birthing places.
It is contended that the name Tea Tree comes from the recording of Captain James Cook’s 1770 mapping of the Australian eastern coastline. Coming ashore, Cook and his party witnessed Bundjalung people making a ‘tea coloured’ drink from the leaves of the tree. A number of sailors also used the leaves for tea (Drury 11). Neither the sailors, nor Joseph Banks who collected samples, were aware of the potential health benefits of the Tea Tree. Some early colonists in the north coast region did use the leaves medicinally but it was widely unknown amongst non-Indigenous people until the twentieth century (Drury 19).
It was not until the 1920s that Tea Tree was produced and marketed by Arthur Penfold, an Australian chemist. Marketed as an oil, it is claimed that soldiers during World War II were given Tea Tree oil for use in the trenches (Australian Tea Tree Industry Association). However, with the advent of antibiotics, Tea Tree fell out of favour as a remedy, but recent interest, from both pharmaceutical and alternative medicine sectors, has seen a steady growth in production and promotion of Tea Tree for viable wound care globally (Jones).
Unpacking Ethnocentrism, ‘Common Sense’, and Settler-Colonial Extractivism
Australia has since developed a flourishing market for ‘herbal remedies’ which is dominated by Western and Chinese medicinal products. While Indigenous Medicines are experiencing growing popularity, they have traditionally held a very small market share (Wohlmuth et al.). Interestingly, while some Indigenous medicines have been used to develop Indigenous-owned micro-economies (Oliver), Tea Tree products have predominantly been distributed by non-Indigenous people. This is problematic because it removes the product from its broader cultural context and does not recognise Indigenous Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights. In fact, the marketing of Tea Tree oil in some contexts displays a distinct ethnocentrism.
We understand ‘ethnocentrism’ to refer to individual and systemically entrenched beliefs in the perceived ‘rightness’ of the perspectives and processes of a person’s own group. Ethnocentrism also identifies that this belief in the ‘rightness’ of their own community acts alongside an aversion and disdain for ‘outsiders’ and their ways. This belief often enforces loyalty along ethnic lines in order to consolidate power, wealth, and resources in order to deprive the ‘outsider’. Notions of ethnocentrism have been present in the Australian social, cultural, and political consciousness for centuries (Cole)
Another idea to consider with Australian ethnocentrism is theorist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘common sense’. He argues that, while individuals of a social group may hold its conception of the world, the same group may repeat rhetoric that is not their own due to the ideas' prevalence in ‘normal times’. This is when the repetition of ‘common sense’ understandings becomes “not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate” (Gramsci).
Many of the media representations we unpack later in this article can be understood as repetitions of settler-colonial ‘common sense’ which reinforce and value the supposed ‘supremacy’ of white non-Indigenous understandings while trivialising or disregarding First Nations ways.
Consequently, this brings the issue of ethnocentrism beyond individual acts to highlight the extractive nature of settler-colonial nations, which premise themselves on the ‘elimination of the native’ and our ways of being, knowing, and doing (Kauanui). This elimination does not have to be purely genocidal but also includes the appropriation and assimilation of First Nations people, resources, and knowledge.
Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Simpson from northern Turtle Island (Canada) argues that
extraction and assimilation go together. Colonialism has always extracted the indigenous … every part of our culture that is seemingly useful to the extractivist mindset gets extracted … and assimilated into the culture of the settlers without regard for the people and the knowledge that created it. (Klein)
In our analysis of media representations below, we will see many examples of what this section seeks to explain. Media will trivialise or dismiss First Nations people and knowledge through extraction, appropriation, and assimilation of our resources into their own ethnocentric understandings.
Tea Tree Oil Use in ‘Australia’, 1990s-2020s
In the 1990s, as Tea Tree oil began to expand in the market, the Australian Financial Review published an article entitled “Bringing Tea-Tree Oil Out of the Swamp” (Brown). The article’s provocative introduction asserted:
the world's first big plantation producer of tea-tree oil discovered early that its product's folksy image was not easy to shed. Decades of labelling as a bush remedy was a disadvantage when the product was eventually promoted as scientifically proven medicine. However, the company has succeeded in convincing consumers that the native product is a quality one, and the result has been the birth of a new industry.
In deconstructing these assertions through a Bundjalung lens we have much to say!
Firstly, it is a peculiarly Western lens which denigrates swampland. The late anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1996) gave voice to many of the Aboriginal perspectives which she had heard, contending that ‘wilderness’ is a construction of the West. For Aboriginal people, swamp is still sacred: it is the home of the Tea Tree and is not perceived as lesser, but rather as an interdependent element of the broader landscape, of the health of waterways, teeming with food and medicines.
Secondly, we note the usage of “folksy image” and “bush remedy” as hurdles to be overcome. Given that both of these, particularly ‘bush medicines’, are coded to Aboriginality, this presents another layer of disconnection of the emplaced and enculturated nature of Tea Tree. In fact, later studies have shown that there is strong uptake and identification with traditional medicines exactly from that basis. For instance, interviewees from clinics distributing traditional remedies recall, “blackfellas and whitefellas come and tell us, ‘I’m feeling better from your bush medicine, can I get some more?’” (Oliver). Additionally, if we consider the global market, the WHO estimates that “60% of the world’s population relies on herbal medicine and about 80% of the population in developing countries depends almost totally on it for their primary health care needs” (Khan). Therefore, we contend that the ‘disadvantage’ is in targeting the ethnocentric Western market, which is masked by an apparent global outlook.
This year, in “Three Tales from Tea Tree Farmers”, an article published in The Farmer Magazine, the developing ‘Australian’ Tea Tree industry is foregrounded in the by-line with “First Nations people have understood the value of Australian tea tree oil for thousands of years” (Hadgraft). This is particularly ironic given the content of the article itself: white face after white face come through the editorial shots of farmers with their crop, and not another whisper of the Aboriginal people and knowledges the article leads with. In this and other business-focussed articles, the Tea Tree narrative transcends its literal grounding.
In contrast, a range of alternative medicine commentators do acknowledge the centrality of Bundjalung culture to Tea Tree’s curative potential, but place Aboriginal knowledges in a liminal space – a kind of choose-your-own-adventure – which samples across belief systems and practices to create a hybrid model which weakens Aboriginal cultural authority. We note that these erasures and slippages are not necessarily made from malice, but nevertheless constitute a problematic narrative through an Aboriginal lens.
For example, Madelaine West, in “The Only Way to Create a Kinder World Together”, lauds the Tea Tree-infused lake waters in the Bundjalung nation as a kind of New Age transformative landscape. She comments:
since time immemorial, these lakes have been a sacred Indigenous birthing place and meeting ground of the First Nation tribes of the Arakwal-Bundjalung people. Historically a ‘girls only’-type affair, many Indigenous men still observe this practice.
It should be noted here that ‘girls only’ seems to hearken to the literary tradition of girls' adventure fiction – the self-sufficient tomboy who challenges gender norms. While this trope has, and can, continue to serve to empower young women, there has often been a racialised element to this narrative (McRobbie and McCabe 1981). In the context of Tea Tree, it is salient to note that Women’s Business transcends the girls-only trope as the framing of spiritual authority with severe consequences for those men who transgress this element of lore (Bird-Rose 36-8). Thus West’s contention of the personified Lake sits in direct contravention to her stated position that “it is not for me to interpret nor appropriate the culture of the traditional custodians of this region”.
The warm, soothing waters of these lakes offer up their healing properties to one and all ... they don't discriminate along lines of colour, creed, residence or orientation. They just hold you in their fluid, forgiving embrace, wash you clean, heal your hurts and soothe your soul. (West)
We note that there is no problem in personifying the body of water as this directly correlates to international movements to the legal personhood of waterways, such as the Whanganui River in Aotearoa (New Zealand), or recognition as a living entity such as the Yarra River in Victoria. What should be noted, however, is that within the context of international instruments like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and various national and state policies, First Nations people (in particular Traditional Owners) are central to the representation of engagement with water (Pelizzon et al.). In this context it would include a culturally mediated guardianship on who may bathe in the waters, which speaks to a respect for cultural traditions and consultation for permission to use the waters.
There is an ongoing tension for First Nations people attempting to negotiate this preferred power-sharing with local, state, and national governments while their Country continues to be desecrated by ignorant and selfish visitors.
Despite lack of support from the state, First Nations peoples regularly attempt to exert their own environmental governance and authority over sacred sites on their Country, with one way being through the use of signs informing guests of the nature of the area. Similar to our special lakes in Bundjalung Country, Kuku Yalanji people from the Daintree have the Blue Hole Pool, which is a healing and birthing place reserved for women’s business.
Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners have struggled for years to protect this site, as non-Indigenous people have decided to make the pool a regular swimming spot. Multiple erected signs are constantly dismissed and a boom gate installed to stop vehicles has been broken multiple times by disgruntled visitors. (Hollis)
Protecting these lakes has hit another obstacle with the rise of #traveltok in the 2020s, a subsection of media on the user-generated short form video-sharing app TikTok dedicated to sharing the best spots to travel. All someone has to search for is ‘swimming hole daintree’, and videos show overwhelmingly non-Indigenous tourists (of all genders) sharing their travels to the Blue Hole Pool. One video shows a girl with her friends trespassing past the aforementioned boom gate (TikTok a), and another video shows a young man filming himself in the sacred women’s pool with the caption “Add this to your bucket list in Queensland!” (TikTok b). Ironically, a number of commenters note that he would have had to ignore numerous signs warning him to not swim. However, the video still garnered 2,200 likes, and over 700 people have saved the video.
A similar search for ‘Ti Tree Lake’ reveals comparable content. The first video belongs to a young woman, Rhiannon, presumably in her early 20s, who declares in a voiceover that “this is one of the best places to swim in Australia”, before listing off the health and wellbeing benefits of the Tea Tree-infused lake (TikTok c). While she acknowledges in the second half of the video that the lake is “valued” by Indigenous women after birth, she fails to name Bundjalung people for her audience of 508,000 views, and instead closes her content on how nice her hair felt afterwards. Through this type of media content creation, a young white woman has assumed the right to promote one of Bundjalung Nation’s most significant sites. Another video nearby in the search list shows a young man bathing in our women’s lake (TikTok d).
West and Rhiannon are certainly not alone in their shaping of the lake as a natural healing place through a lens of wellbeing language. A letter to the editor complaining of men using the lake took a far different approach to a gender prohibition, adding dismay that the lake was being used by men seeking random sexual hook-ups. In speaking of the significance of the Country, the author writes, “once upon a time it was an Aboriginal birthing ground. Yeah fellas, a sacred women’s area”. Ironically the concern of what had been ‘lost’ was also framed through a nostalgic appreciation where
20 years ago I used to come here with my girlfriends and we would swim in the tea-tree lake, dive deep to retrieve the mineral rich mud from the bottom and lie in the sun until it had dried. It was the ultimate day spa. (Leonard)
While noting this conversational tone, there is nevertheless a deep disjuncture between a sacred women's area and a day spa. We argue that the significance of Tea Tree lakes is not open to appropriation through reinterpretation, not through a female empowerment and revitalisation agenda nor a neo-spiritual agenda which arose in the 2015 media discussion on a non-Aboriginal Victorian couple’s decision to give birth in Taylors Lake, reported by the Byron Shire News. In the paper’s next weekly edition, they gave voice to Arakwal custodians who commented:
Taylors Lake or Ti Tree Lake is the most significant Aboriginal women's site in the Byron Shire … . The lake belongs to all Bundjalung women and holds deep spiritual significance to us, and our men never go there out of respect … . This woman speaks about her respect for Aboriginal culture but did not ask our permission. We were horrified when we saw the picture in the paper of this man in the sacred women's lake. (Kay cited in C222morrow)
This last example particularly exemplifies the attempted ‘elimination’ of First Peoples through the attempted appropriation and assimilation of Indigenous practice. This absorption of the practice of bathing in these lakes into non-Indigenous practices attempts to displace Indigenous peoples from our Country, our sacred sites, and our knowledge. Through the re-framing of these places as ‘wellness’ tools or feminist liberation, we are experiencing the continued colonisation of our special places, which are our birthright as encultured female members of First Nations groups.
Calls to Action
There is a trend in academic literature which provides the scope of problems which plague Indigenous peoples. Our article concludes not with a restatement of the issues, but with a series of Calls to Action. Every day that we do not empower Traditional Owners in the management of their own Country is another day that sites such as Ti Tree Lake are desecrated and culturally significant plants like bulam are exploited. This requires individual and broader systemic change:
- Non-Indigenous peoples seeking healing and enlightenment from Country must be mindful that they are guests in those spaces. Wilfully ignoring Indigenous protocols or seeing protocols as a “pick and mix” option devalues Country.
- Social media guidelines for platforms such as TikTok must include avenues to flag or remove or add warnings for culturally insensitive content. This requires ongoing collaboration with First Nations people to further refine what content breaches these guidelines. Content creators must also adapt to community feedback.
- There must be legal recognition of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) regarding First Nations’ knowledge of Country.
- First Nations people must be empowered to economically benefit from their knowledge as business owners and entrepreneurs utilising their individual, familial, and communal knowledge.
- Local, state, and national governments must empower Traditional Ecological Governance systems.
- Acknowledgement is not enough, sovereignty and land back.
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