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Oceania Newsletter 15, March 1995


Jolien Harmsen

As a white, Dutch historian presently engaged in Caribbean studies. I am beginning to believe that to have an interest in the field of Aboriginal studies from a peripheral position such as mine carries considerable advantages. For one, I am less inclined than some to over-emphasize the Strong and Positive in contemporary Aboriginal culture, at the expense of a balanced historical awareness of 'what really happened' (admittedly a hazardous ambition in times of deconstructivism).

In Oceania Newsletter 13 (1994: 7-8), I reported on the results of the research which I performed in late 1991 in the archives of the Order of the Sacred Heart in Sydney, and in Santa Teresa, a former Sacred Heart mission, 80 kms. southeast of Alice Springs. My aim was to reconstruct the mission's history (starting in Alice Springs in 1936), paying particular attention to how, and why, its Eastern-Arrernte residents did, or did not, become Catholics, and with what implications for their ancestral traditions of Arrernte Law.

In my MA-thesis, I explained as the most striking thing about this confrontation that, from the start, Arrernte people distinguished between Catholicism as 1) a body of valuable religious knowledge, and 2) 'the church': a finger on the hand of white colonialism. According to my story, Arrernte people considered the Catholic faith, like all things religious, valuable material, and actively adopted it to support and express the spirituality of Arrernte Law - the ceremonial vehicles of which (knowledge, rites, sacred sites) had been seriously decaying since the advent of white pastoralists to Central Australia in the late 19th century. As for the church as an institution with its priests, dormitories, and paternalism - this they took as they took the rest of colonialism: in changing combinations of hurt, anger, bitterness, and astuteness.

David Wilkins, in Oceania Newsletter 14 (pp.7-9), a linguist with years of fieldwork experience among Alice Spring's Central Arrernte people, wondered in response to my article, 'Whether the relation between Arrernte traditions and Catholicism is one of syncretism, or whether Arrernte values have in fact completely absorbed and reinterpreted Catholicism in line with traditional views of kinship, country and totemism". Wilkins favours the latter view; I favour neither. Wilkins argues that "the Church" (which Church remains unclear, surely not the Catholic one) allowed the translation of 'God' as Altyerre, meaning 'Dreamtime' in Central and Eastern Arrernte. According to Wilkins, the use of this Arrernte word enabled the Arrernte to interpret Christian sermons in terms of Arrernte Law. Wilkins also demonstrates this process at work. Where I quoted three Eastern Arrernte women as saying "God is the one who made everything", Wilkins explains that what they actually meant to say was something along the line of: "Everything was created by the ancestral beings in the Dreamtime' (where 'God', in fact, equates to 'Altyerre')" According to Wilkins, Arrernte Law "is, and remains, a rich and complex set of religious views" - capable now, as it was then, of providing Arrernte people with a sense of identity and with modes to express their religious views. Catholicism, if it did anything, at the most augmented this.

On the basis of my own research (far more limited in scope) and my non-existent linguistic skills, I cannot but disagree with Wilkins. My disagreement is mostly one of interpretation. It centers around three themes: 1. linguistics; 2. historical awareness; 3. the study of religions. With respect to the second and third themes, I will argue that wishful thinking is at play, of which Wilkins' article is a modest example. I will use his article to outline an argument which would be more fruitfully directed at the dozens of popular-scientific books recently published on Aboriginal 'art-history' and 'traditional' culture, many of which display an demonstrable lack of historical awareness. As Sackett (1991) has demonstrated, the 'icon of the Aborigine' threatens to extend beyond the coffee-table as well.

As for my first point, that of linguistics, contrary to Wilkins' statement, I have never heard Catholic Arrerntes use of the word Altyerre for "God". Instead, they invariably used the word Ngkarte (e.g. Ngkarte Mikwekenhe - the 'Mother-of-God Aboriginal Catholic parish' in Alice Springs). Ngkarte is translated in the 1991 Wordlist of Western-Arrernte as 'ceremonial leader, God'. This difference in data, nevertheless, quite possibly does nothing to change Wilkins' view that Arrernte people interpreted - nay, absorbed - the Christian God in terms of Arrernte Law, without need for a paradigm shift or change in values. That aspect of his interpretation can only be countered by a real appreciation of the deep destruction which Arrernte Law has suffered over the past century. Here my second point, historical awareness, comes in.

If ever a book wants reprinting, it must be T.G.H. Strehlow's Songs of Central Australia (1971). On page x1vi, Strehlow quotes from his own diary, 'on the evening of 30th July, 1953, at the end of the last Southern Aranda festival ever to be staged at Táka, near Maryvale Station':

"It is a strange thought that all is finished here now. Whenever I look at the ceremonial site, I still expect to see some totemic ancestor coming forward. It is hard to realize that that whole world is finished, and will never come back. At the beginning of time, the day came when the totemic ancestors had to return to their resting places; and now the time has arrived when the last Southern Aranda, too, are due to pass away. There are only thirty Aranda and Andekerinja names in my list of men today; and of all the Southern Aranda men present only Allen has any children - and both of them are girls. The sun that set on Maryvale today saw the close of a native festival such as will never again be held in this area. Men die but once, and the dead do not return. (..). The silence that knows no end is about to close in upon this peaceful site. My heart tonight is sad - because there is no hope that this fate can be averted."

There is a view of (Central-Australian) Aboriginal history in many writings, implicit or explicit, which runs something like this:

1) pre - ca 1870: pre-colonial times('eternal'. 'traditional', etc.);

2) ca 1870 to ca 1940, almost complete destruction of Aboriginal life and culture;

3) ca 1940 - ca 1970, turning of the tide, growing public awareness of the continuing existence of Aboriginal people. arrest of cultural destruction;

4) ca 1970 - present: increasing appreciation of Aboriginal culture and revival of Aboriginal spirituality and culture.

There is not a recent study of Aboriginal culture which omits to mention the disastrous events of the first half of this century: the deaths, the sufferings, the indiscriminate shootings. But scarce are the studies which do more than pay lip-service to this period, in whatever evocative terms, to take seriously what has happened, and to delineate the effects it has on subsequent decades of Aboriginal culture. Too often, we are told how the 'discovery' of acrylic paints magically restored this 'oldest living people' with a dignity and spiritually which really had never died anyway. I caricaturize, but for the sake of clarity.

The above time-scale of Aboriginal history is incorrect. It is discontinuous, a-historical, and it confuses two things: 1. physical death and survival; and 2. cultural death and survival. From what my archival and oral history study of Santa Teresa has taught me, the Eastern-Arrerntes suffered worst physically between about 1870 and +/-1940/50. Since 1953, the population has been on the increase. From a cultural and spiritual point of view, however, there is much to be said for placing the worst period of this in the years after Arrernte people's physical decimation, between about 1940 and 1980 - possibly even a little more recent.

The killings, diseases, forced separations, and geographical alienation, taking place mostly between 1870 and 1940, were horrible experiences. However, as yet, they did not undermine the elementary structures through which Eastern-Arrernte Law was passed on between the generations - which is not to say that important knowledge was not lost during those years. But it was the continuing attrition of these transitional structures of the Law, and the increasing influence exerted by ever-expanding church and government services, now penetrating into all aspects of daily Arrernte life - residency, work, marriage, housing, kitchen, school, dormitories, language, 'those pagan ways', recreation, hygiene - which put the axe to the root of Arrernte Law: its transfer between the generations. Alcoholism, following in the slipstream of erosion of the Law, racism, unemployment, and sudden high incomes, provided a (near) death-blow, to individuals as well as the remnants of Arrernte Law.

Viewed in this way, the destruction of Arrernte cultural identity is a recent or even contemporary process, not something of the past, regardless of how much we all - Wilkins as much as I - wish to believe the opposite. We would all dearly love to see a strong and viable Arrernte Law providing these people with a chance to show off their rich ceremonial knowledge, and with a sense of purpose in their personal lives. Right now, however, that is wishful thinking. Numbers of individual Arrernte people have found a place of their own amidst Arrernte Law and Catholic Law; amidst black and white society. But scores of others haven't. Sad and angry though their stories are, they exist. Just as the profound destruction of Arrernte Law exists, and up to this day leaves people with an urgent sense of loss, even sensing the loss of something they have never personally known. The absence of the Law is tangible as its presence. We must speak of this. As Deborah Rose writes: "to go and live with a group of people, to learn about their social organisation, their ceremonial life, their metaphysics, and to remain silent about their distress is one of the cruelest denials of all." (1986:28).

Bilingual education, art centres, self-government and landclaims are much-needed initiatives in the process of re-creating Arrernte identity. They are not proof of its enduring existence. Wilkins claims that: "Arrernte people feel [no] need to re-create Arrernte identity, since that has never been lost." That statement fits an a-historical, discontinuous perception of Arrernte history, in which cultural destruction is something of the past and really was not a very consequential event anyway. Either that, or Wilkins' perception of 'identity' is so superficial as to mean no more than 'considering oneself an Arrernte person', by which he would indeed sidestep the issue of historical developments in Arrernte identity. It must be said that Wilkins' a-historicism is consistent. In reinterpreting my findings at Santa Teresa, he argues that Arrernte Law remained strong enough to absorb Catholicism so thoroughly as to make it of limited importance in Arrernte religious experience. 'Eaten it' - is an apt description. The fact that Arrernte people in the 1990's continue to call themselves 'Catholics', and devout Catholics at that, must then be taken with a grain of salt, as Wilkins apparently does.

This touches upon my third theme: the study of religions. Like perceptions of Arrernte history, this is an ideologically charged subject. An important rule of thumb in religious studies is never to take seriously what the adherers to a religion say they believe in, and why they believe it. What they say is 'really' something else, and it is the historian's task to unravel what these 'real' motives are - usually material or political gain. In the case at hand, Wilkins draws up two possibilities: either Arrernte Law and Catholic Law have been syncretized, or Arrernte Law has absorbed Catholicism. Wilkins opts for the second view, I opt for neither. In my opinion the crux of Arrernte religious history is that almost right from the start of the mission, these people have maintained two laws: one greatly valued, Arrernte Law, and one considered valuable for its knowledge, though awkward as an institution: Catholicism. To search for the articulation between these two laws, as I started out to do in my own research, is a direct consequence of a dialectic western mode of logical thought: (a) and (non-a) can never be one and the same thing. However, to the Eastern-Arrernte of Santa Teresa, Arrernte Law and Catholic Law, though not the same thing, served the same purpose: both are vehicles for a desire which the Arrerntes, as homines religiosi ('people with a religious inclination') have: to express their awareness of spiritual things. Arrernte Law and Catholic Law have been neither melted together (syncretized), nor has been re-interpreted in terms of the other. They exist alongside each other, as discernible, analogous paths serving the same goal: to experience the non-tangible. It is only when researchers like myself, in quest of a logical articulation between the two laws, raise questions regarding things we perceive of as contradictions, that Arrernte people themselves may feel prompted to try and 'solve' these.

Saillant, the process is best compared to language-learning. An amorphous reservoir of thought can only take shape and be expressed through the use of language. A bilingual person can tap either of two channels to express him or herself. Speaking the one language does not imply doing away within the other, or blending the two languages into a third, 'syncretized' language. However, in time, the two languages may converge towards each other. Also, the language we speak sets the boundaries to what we can think. Similarly, with Arrernte Law and Catholic Law, the vehicles of religious expression will in time influence the experience of the spiritual awareness they aim to touch upon. The development of Arrernte Law next to Catholicism and of Arrernte languages next to English, may prove to contain similarities on a level more profound than is explored in the wishful textual reading Wilkins offers.


Rose, Deborah Bird, 1986. Passive violence, in: Journal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, no.1:24-30.

Sackett, Leem 1991. Promoting primitivism: conservationist depictions of Aboriginal Australians, in: Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2-2:233-246.

Strehlow, T.G.H., 1971. Songs of Central Australia. Sydney (Angus and Robertson).

Jolien Harmsen, Mathenesserplein 5a, 3022 LA Rotterdam

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