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Developing, sustaining and evaluating health programs for Aboriginal men



This men's health project was conducted in partnership with Palyalatju Maparnpa Health, a regional community-based cultural health organisation in the South East Kimberley region of Western Australia (WA). This project built on the PhD research conducted by Brian McCoy in the region between 2001 and 2004, titled Kanyirininpa: health, masculinity and wellbeing of desert Aboriginal men.

The project focused on developing relationships with Aboriginal men in the Kutjungka region in order to identify key issues and support required by men's health programs. Working on an action/research model, a number of areas for project activity were identified early in the process. These included:

A key outcome to date of this project has been to identify some of the obstacles which influence the ways in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men engage and relate to one another.

Abstract adapted from the Lowitja Institute


Dr Brian McCoy
Project Leader
La Trobe University

Related publications

McCoy B (2007)

Suicide and desert men: the power and protection of kanyirninpa (holding).

Australasian Psychiatry; 15(Supplement): s63-s67

McCoy BF (2004)

Kanyirninpa: health, masculinity and wellbeing of desert Aboriginal men.

Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Melbourne: Melbourne, Victoria

Kanyirninpa, or holding, exists as a deeply embedded value amongst desert Aboriginal peoples (Puntu). It is disclosed as authority with nurturance, where older generations assume the responsibility to care for and look after younger people. Kanyirninpa also holds in balance two other key cultural patterns of desert life, autonomy and relatedness. These values are transmitted across generations where they provide desert society with identity, cohesion and strength.

While kanyirninpa can be identified in the nurturance provided a child after birth, its presence and power is particularly disclosed at ceremonial time. Here, the meanings of the ancestral tjukurrpa (dreaming) are celebrated and renewed. Desert society is reproduced as the deeper, social and cosmic meanings around ngurra (land), walytja (family) and tjukurrpa are gathered, ritualised and re-enacted. The older generations of men and women enable this holding to occur.

When boys (marnti) become men (wati) the manner of kanyirninpa changes. No longer do young men seek to be held by their mothers and female relations. Instead, they seek to be held by older men: brothers, uncles and other males. By holding them, older men induct younger men into the social meanings and behaviours of desert, male adulthood. A generative and generational male praxis is disclosed.

Colonialism and mission activity in the south-east Kimberley severely impacted upon desert society. Puntu were dislocated from their traditional lands as a sedentary life in Balgo Mission was accompanied by a dormitory, rations and labour system that effectively and forcibly separated generations of men and women.

The research that was conducted in this desert region investigated how Puntu perceived kanyirninpa, its transmission and how this transmission had been affected by colonial history and experience. Male and female Puntu emphasised that, despite the effects of seventy years of colonial contact, they continued to value holding as an essential ingredient for social and emotional wellbeing (palya). They also revealed that young men continued to explore experiences that offered the possibility of kanyirninpa. Within the social contexts of petrol sniffing, football and prison, particular aspects of male holding could be identified as could risks to men's health.

Finally, the research led to an elucidation of the social circumstances that have been inscribed on the contemporary Puntu male and social body (yarnangu). They reveal the effects of colonisation on transgenerational processes and key social relationships. The Puntu social body can be understood as traumatised. Transgenerational trauma describes how separation has wounded the transmission of kanyirninpa across generations. Intragenerational trauma describes the wounding of kanyirninpa within key social relationships.

Desert people continue to value the importance of kanyirninpa for personal and social relationships. Their creative and persistent use of kanyirninpa has enabled Puntu to hold generations together, and members of families within generations, despite the forces that have worked to separate them. However, expressions of social trauma continue to seriously affect the health and wellbeing of all, particularly young men.

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet abstract


Last updated: 9 March 2016
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