Public health practitioners in Australian indigenous health work in a complex political environment. Public health training is limited in providing them with conceptual tools needed to unpack the postcolonial nexus of ‘fourth-world’ health.

A workshop was designed by the authors to facilitate critical reflection on how the concepts of race and culture are used in constructions of indigenous ill-health. It was attended by researchers, students, clinicians and bureaucrats working in public health in northern Australia. A thematic analysis of the workshop minutes provided insight into public health practitioners’ narratives of Indigenous ill-health. The major themes that emerged included tension between structure and agency and between sameness and difference, and ambivalence surrounding the ‘helper’ identity of public health practitioners.

We suggest that these narratives can be understood as attempts to maintain the moral integrity of both Indigenous people and practitioners. This task is necessitated by the specter of cultural relativism intrinsic to contemporary liberal discourses of multiculturalism that attempt to reconcile the universal rights of the citizen with the special rights of minority groups. We argue that the concepts of self-determination and neocolonialism mark the spaces where universal and particular discourses overlap and clash. Practitioners who seek to escape neocolonialism must inhabit only the discursive space of public health congruent with self-determination, leaving them in a bind common to many postcolonial situations. They must relieve the ill-health of indigenous people without acting upon them; change them without declaring that change is required.