Starting the conversation

Improving Health and Wellbeing

Research from Deakin’s Institute for Koorie Education has revealed the devastating impacts problem gambling has on Indigenous communities.

Including recommendations for state and Federal authorities in a Masters’ thesis is not the conventional thing to do. But Janis Koolmatrie, a schoolteacher for 40 years, Elder in Residence at Deakin University’s Kitjurra residences for Indigenous students and now a PhD student with Deakin’s Institute of Koorie Education, felt strongly that action needed to be taken on the results of her research into the social impacts of gambling in Indigenous communities.

And it worked. At least one of her recommendations has been taken up, resulting in a powerful documentary, “Starting the Conversation,” and Ms Koolmatrie has talks scheduled with Aboriginal health authorities in South Australia.

“One of my recommendations was that Aboriginal health authorities need to provide resources to address issues of Indigenous gambling under the umbrella of a public health concept,” said Ms Koolmatrie, who also holds a Masters of Public Health from Deakin and a Masters of Education from Adelaide University.

“The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, or ‘NACCHO,’ has done outstanding work in the areas of nicotine, alcohol and nutrition, but now we need similar education campaigns on gambling.”

Ms Koolmatrie also recommended funding for further research into the health and social impacts of gambling within Indigenous communities, and that NACCHO advocates for a “national study to explore culturally appropriate, effective intervention models for Aboriginal people with gambling problems”.

“There’s a lack of published literature related to Indigenous gambling, and population data of Australians’ gambling behaviours doesn’t take into account sufficient samples of Indigenous people to make a reliable assessment of the practices and prevalence of Aboriginal gambling,” she said.

“However, the limited research that has been undertaken indicates growing concerns related to the impact of gambling within Indigenous communities.”

The desire to study the causes and possible preventatives of gambling addiction stayed with Ms Koolmatrie, a Ngarrindjeri woman from the Tangani (Coorong) region of South Australia, for almost two decades after she became aware in the mid-1990s that something was very wrong in her adopted community of Port Adelaide.

Working as volunteer with her local Salvation Army church to deliver relief packages to members of her extended family, as well as an elderly survivor of the Nazi Holocaust and an outwardly wealthy family who had pawned all their furniture to pay bills, Ms Koolmatrie wondered what they all had in common.

The answer was an addiction to the electronic gaming machines introduced to South Australian pubs and clubs in 1994 and the devastating social and economic consequences of problem gambling.

“On the basis of the anecdotal evidence, I knew I wanted to investigate what this epidemic was all about. In addition, speaking to many Aboriginal people throughout the country, I kept hearing the same story – my husband or father or sister or Aunty is addicted to ‘them’ [pokie machines] and it’s causing a lot of problems for everyone,” Ms Koolmatrie said.

“As a PhD student, I tell people I’ve carried this doctorate around in my head for twenty years and now I have the research tools to develop Indigenous methodologies, collect data appropriately, analyse my material using a decolonising framework and, most importantly, give back to my community.”
Ms Janis Koolmatrie
Ms Janis Koolmatrie PhD Student Deakin's Institute of Koorie Education

With the completion of her Master of Arts (Research) in 2016 under the supervision of Professor Estelle Barret and Associate Professor Samantha Thomas, and the beginning of her PhD last year Ms Koolmatrie is uncovering disturbing evidence of the role government policies and procedures and the trauma of the Stolen Generations is playing in gambling addiction in Indigenous communities.

“The causes of excessive gambling among Indigenous people are quite different to those of non-Indigenous people,” she said, listing child suicides, black deaths in custody, lateral violence (a form of bullying within a community) and disconnection from Country. She believes all these issues have contributed to the deep and unresolved grief and trauma experienced by individuals and Indigenous communities as a whole.

“Many of the participants in my Masters’ research talked to me about being stolen as children and the impact this had on their whole lives,” Ms Koolmatrie said.

“Some talked about the sadness and guilt of being the child left behind when siblings and cousins were taken. Others had their children taken from them.

“It [the Stolen Generations] was one of the most traumatic things that has ever happened to Aboriginal people and you can understand how they turn to the pokies as a way of escaping and coping with the lifelong disconnection from their families, culture and language.”

With the support of Geelong’s Wathaurong Co-operative, 20 participants over the age of 18 were recruited from the local community, many through word-of-mouth. It was, as Ms Koolmatrie said, “a researcher’s dream,” but also indicated the scope of the problem and people’s need to have their stories told. Many were driven to ensure the next generation doesn’t develop problems with gambling as well.

“They said, ‘We don’t want our kids and grandkids ending up like us,’ because they beat themselves up and blamed themselves terribly for their gambling problems. They all strongly believed that the answer lies in getting back to culture and connecting with Country and the ancient ways of our old people. That’s how we’re going to heal our spirits and beat this.”

In collecting the extraordinarily rich data and stories that informed her thesis, Ms Koolmatrie drew on an increasingly recognised methodology in Indigenous research known as “yarning” – a conversational process that involves the sharing of stories and prioritises Indigenous ways of communicating.

“Yarning is a very Indigenous-specific way of conducting semi-structured interviews,” Ms Koolmatrie explained. “It’s about relationship building and knowing how to proceed with a discussion in a culturally-appropriate way.

“The use of western frameworks and theoretical approaches with those of Indigenous concepts and paradigms enabled me to get an inside view and understand more clearly the reasons why most of the participants in my study claimed they gambled excessively.”

As well as her five recommendations for health authorities and funding bodies, Ms Koolmatrie also developed a novel approach to Indigenous research – the “Inside/Outside Indigenous Community Research Framework” (IO).

Describing IO as, “a model to understand Indigenous philosophies and worldviews in the twenty-first century, especially the influencing factors affecting Indigenous gambling, education and research,” Ms Koolmatrie said the framework enabled Indigenous researchers to position themselves ethically in relation to research proposals and community protocols.

“It acknowledges that we’re part of our communities because we are of those communities. However, we’re also enrolled as research students in a western academy and subsequently we are a part of that. In other words, we’re connected to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds through knowledge transmission, both modern and ancient. For Indigenous researchers those worlds are exciting environments to occupy, especially given that we have made informed choices to be a part of these often conflicting, contradictory and challenging worlds.”

While Ms Koolmatrie’s Masters’ research focused on gambling in Victoria’s Koorie communities, the PhD will see her return to South Australia to investigate the ways that gambling problems perpetuate many forms of stigma experienced by Aboriginal people in rural and remote communities and the effects this has on seeking self-help, or in committing self-harm.


Starting the Conversation is a documentary on growing Strong Spirit to overcome problem gambling in Wathaurong country.

Executive Producer: Helen Reddan

Producer: Janine Cattanach

Cultural Consulting Group Director: Caleb Plumridge, Escape Shift Film


Published by Deakin Research on 12 March 2018

Institute of Koorie Education

Through our Community-Based Education programs, the Institute of Koorie Education enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians the flexibility to gain access to higher education while still being able to maintain family and community obligations.