Index - Contents - Previous page - Next page

Oceania Newsletter 15, March 1995


David Wilkins

Jolien Harmsen kindly sent me a copy of her article which appears in this volume. Below is an edited version of a letter dated September 21, 1994, which I sent her in reply. I have also included several brief addenda to support my discussion.

Dear Jolien,

Your reply to my article [Oceania Newsletter 14, 1994:7-9] is very interesting, and does clarify some points to me. It's curious to find one's self portrayed as a romantic wishful-thinker when one thinks of one's self as a hard-nosed pragmatist. Certainly, I do not disagree with your historical account. Cultural contact has taken a heavy toll on the outward trappings of cultural tradition in Central Australia, and the communities there are still embattled and fighting for their lives, as well as their identities. The question, as you rightly point out, may hinge on a definition of cultural identity and whether cultural identity can persist beyond material culture, economic concerns, and ceremonial tradition, and, in fact, find a new voice in a quick-changing world.

As I see it, and as I've experienced it during fieldwork, the primary symbols, philosophies, and theories of nature and being which the Arrernte people that I've worked with bring to bear on everyday problems and issues, can be traced back all the way to the earliest ethnographic accounts. The values engendered in a worldview with primary concerns for kinship, country and ancestral totemism persist. While some ceremonies and practices may have been lost, and while Arrernte people might see their revival as important, these basic ideas and values have not been lost. The assessment and talk of what is right and what is wrong go back to principles with a long (historical) lineage [and which are easily found in the works of Carl Strehlow, Spencer and Gillen, and T.G.H. Strehlow].

Ted Strehlow is a strange expert witness for you to call on, since you would be well aware of the controversies in which he was (and posthumously, continues to be) embroiled. These controversies precisely hinge on the fact that inheritors of the traditions of the Arrernte people he worked with never ceased to refute his claims that the culture and traditions had died with the old men who taught him. His was a vision of a pure, unchanging tradition unable to adapt and which rested crucially on secret knowledge and ceremonial continuity. But why is this the right view? In talking about the cultural identity of individuals, and the continuity of traditional laws, we are talking about open-access, every-day matters; the values and the theories acquired by individuals in growing up in a particular community in a particular place.

Now, as far as Catholicism is concerned, I think we'd both have to agree that we've presented idealised views. Contact has had an effect on the range and type of possible life choices and personal histories. In fact, individual responses are varied and perhaps syncretism, duality, absorption, nominalism, etc. are all correct characterisations of particular personal responses [see Addendum 1]. All the same, I find it difficult to accept that two laws have been maintained simultaneously. The fact is, they are not kept separate, nor compartmentalized, as one might expect in your view [see Addendum 2]. I presume there was at least one funeral when you were at Santa Teresa. What neat divisions could you discern between cutting of hair, sorry cuts, wailing in mourning, and the organization of the Catholic funeral service and how people behaved during that service?

As a non-Catholic, perhaps my understanding of Catholicism is different from yours. Catholicism for me rests on peculiarly Western traditions, values and history. To understand Catholicism (the way I do) would require being a member of a particular culture. Very few Arrernte people that I work with are fully bicultural, thus I cannot but believe that Catholicism is reinterpreted in some way in line with local context and historically continuous value systems.

It is surely true that when an Arrernte person calls him/herself a Catholic, it cannot be taken for granted a priori that we as outsiders will understand precisely what that means. We certainly shouldn't presume that Catholic law means the same thing for us as it does for any individual Arrernte person. Thus, it is our claim to understanding which should be taken with a grain of salt, not an Arrernte person's own personal beliefs concerning their Catholicism.

It is not my intention to be a-historical nor a dreamy-eyed romantic. As a researcher concerned with signs, symbols and behaviours, particularly linguistic signs and behaviours, it is my task to uncover generalisations and to determine the meaning potential of signs and describe how they're deployed in everyday behaviour. It then can be said that my findings show that, even today, Arrernte concerns for kinship, country and totemic belief function to structure the language and govern language use, both Arrernte & Aboriginal English (see, for instance,, Wilkins 1993) [see Addendum 3]. It is also a finding that many cultural principles discussed in the earliest ethnographies of Arandic groups have remained essentially intact (Wilkins 1989: Chapt.1). These groups are embattled and struggling and one should not remain silent about their distress. As you would know from the paper I sent you (Wilkins 1992), this is clearly what I believe. Above all, I believe that, for better or worse, one must allow individuals and individual groups to make their own decisions as to what to do under such conditions of contact-induced stress. However, I must also report my findings that when the Arrernte people I have worked with take such decisions there are consistent concerns, values and principles which surface, and if these happen to be traditional in nature, then I am not employing a "wishful interpretation", I am employing the only interpretation which the methods I am trained to use allows. It could have been otherwise, but the continuity of Arrernte worldview is historical fact. This does not mean it is not in peril, nor that it continues without some changes and adaptations.

Thanks for your engaging discussion.


P.S. I'll explain later exactly how Ngkarte fits my argument [see Addendum 4].

Addendum 1: One can get a sense of the variety of views Arrernte people hold with respect to Catholicism from the following transcript of proceedings of a meeting of parents and community members associated with the schools at Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and the Ntyarlke Unit of the Catholic High School, Alice Springs, July 1993.

"Q7. What place do you see for the Catholic religion in your children's education in school?
Therese: Catholic religion should be put in front of everything.
F.Palmer: The Catholic religion should be there with the two-way education.
The Men: It should be third after Arrernte language and culture and English. The history of Little Flower Mission to be told and known. Kids should learn some prayers. Should learn what's similar between Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and the Jesus story."

Addendum 2: Harmsen (this volume) claims "Arrernte Law and Catholic Law have been neither melted together (syncretized), nor has one been re-interpreted in terms of the other", but "[p]redominantly they exist alongside each other, as discernable, analogous paths serving the same goal: to experience the non-tangible." This two-independent-tracks view, however, is simply untenable in the face of evidence. The Arrernte section of the Catholic High School was not named the Ntyarlke Unit by accident, but because Ntyarlke is the name of one of the three caterpillar ancestors that created the Alice Springs region during the Dreamtime. In a report by Mike Bowden (1993), coordinator of the Ntyarlke Unit we hear of an art project which created a mosaic that told the Dreamtime story of the Ntyarlke caterpillar using traditional symbols. The final place for permanent display of the mosaic is the Catholic School grounds, and Bowden (1993:10) writes of this activity that "[i]n this process we endeavoured to marry the aspirations of the parents of the Arrernte children -- for culturally appropriate education -- to the structures and strictures of a school program". In a similar document we hear about how the traditional "smoking ceremony" (a cleansing ceremony) is a way for Catholic Arrernte people to get back in touch with their spirit (Ntyarlke Unit 1993:27-29). On the cover of the Land Right News (November 1986) reporting on preparations for the Pope's visit we see a drawing of the Pope face-to-face with an Arrernte man and in large letters near the man are the Arrernte words Anwernenhe awaye which were not translated, but which mean Listen to us!, and in smaller letters under the man was the untranslated sentence unte tyerrtye urrperlekenhe apmerele aneme 'you're on Aboriginal land'. On the inside pages we find a letter in Arrernte, Polish and English asking the Pope to recognise Aboriginal traditions and landrights, and asking for an acknowledgement of the Catholic Church's part in Aboriginal dispossession and oppression, and we also find that the backdrop being prepared for the Pope's visit to Alice Springs was a traditional painting entitled Yeperenye Knganentye (Yeperenye Caterpillar Dreaming) which represents "the country around Alice Springs" and "also contains a warning to people about what will happen if they break Arrernte law". This list of such interactions and intermeshing of views could be continued almost without end. How such facts can be interpreted in terms of Harmsen's independent-but-analogous-paths model, I do not know.

Addendum 3: Use of English words does not entail embodiment of Anglo-worldview, as Harmsen seems to suggest. Based on the work with Aboriginal people in Alice Springs, Jean Harkins (1994:184) has shown that "[t]he distinctive features of Aboriginal English provide the means for expressing meanings that are important to Aboriginal speakers, and for expressing them in ways that are often similar to the ways they are expressed in Aboriginal languages", and so "[i]n effect, this makes it possible to speak English as an Aboriginal language."

Addendum 4: Harmsen (this volume) suggests that there may be significant difference in our data, because she has only heard Ngkarte used to translate 'God' as in Ngkarte M-ikwe-kenhe (priest/leader/Jesus/God mother-his-possessive) 'The Mother of God', the name of an Arrernte Catholic group in Alice Springs. This need not be the case. As Harmsen correctly points out, Ngkarte can mean 'ceremony leader' or 'priest' as well as 'God'. But note, in English one can say "God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit". The Arrernte people I have worked with seem to maintain a similar distinction, with 'God the Son' (i.e., Jesus the leader and prophet) referred to as Ngkarte and 'God the Creator' referred to with Altyerre 'dream, Dreamtime, Dreaming'. Mary could be the mother of 'the leader' or 'the priest', but not of the whole creative force embodied in the Dreamtime, thus "The Mother of God" is "The Mother of God the Son" (literally, 'the leader [or the priest] his mother'). In translations of a Bible reading prepared for the Catholic Church in Alice Springs we often find both Ngkarte and Altyerre, distinguished in the way I suggest. For instance, in Luke 9:28b-36, the line "Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is wonderful for us to be here'" is translated as Peter Jesus-ke angkeke, "Ngkartaye, mwarre kngerre anthurre kwenhe anwerneke nhenhele anetyeke" (Peter Jesus-to said, "Leader-emphatic god big very ASSERT us-for here-at"), with Ngkarte used to translate 'master' in reference to Jesus. However, the phrase "This is the gospel of the Lord" which is used to close the reading, is translated as Altyerre-kenhe angke-tye kwenhe nhenhe (Dreamtime-possessive speak-normaliser ASSERT this), literally 'these are truly the Dreamtime's words'. Here, where we're talking about the source of the words, the creative force Altyerre is used to translate Lord. This is consistent with my original argument (in Wilkins 1994). I must admit, however, that given the various responses to Catholicism illustrated in Addendum 1 above, I would not be surprised if some speakers of Arrernte did indeed extend Ngkarte to refer to God in all his Catholic manifestations, including the creation source.

Bowden, Mike. 1993. 'Ayeye Ntyarlke-kerte, The story of the Ntyarlke Caterpillar: The Making of a ground Mosaic'. Alice Springs, Ntyarlke Unit Catholic High School Alice Springs.

Harkins, Jean. 1994. Bridging Two Worlds: Aboriginal English and Crosscultural Understanding. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Harmsen, Jolien. 1994. Arrernte Law and Catholic Law: Changing Religious Identity of an Australian Aboriginal People, 1936-1991. Oceania Newsletter 13:7-8.

Harmsen, Jolien. 1995. Wishful thinking in Aboriginal studies. A not-so-nice but very historical perspective on the relation between 'Arrernte Law' and 'Catholic Law' Oceania Newsletter 15.

Ntyarlke Unit. 1993. 'Education is survival': Transcript of Proceedings of Meeting held at Ti Tree of Parents and community members associated with the schools at Ltyentye Apurte and Ntyarlke Unit of Catholic High School. Alice Springs: Ntyarlke Unit.

Wilkins, David P. 1989. Mparntwe Arrernte (Aranda): Studies in the structure and semantics of Grammar. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.

Wilkins, David P. 1992. Linguistic research under Aboriginal control: a personal account of fieldwork in Central Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics 12:171-200.

Wilkins, David, P. 1993. Linguistic Evidence in Support of a Holistic Approach to Traditional Ecological Knowledge. In: N. Williams and G. Baines eds., Traditional Ecological Knowledge, pp. 71-93. Canberra: CRES.

Wilkins, David P. 1994. An Alternative Perspective on the Relation between 'Arrernte Law' and Catholic Law', Oceania Newsletter 14:7-9.

David Wilkins, Senior Research Fellow, Cognitive Anthropology Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Pb 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen

Index - Contents - Previous page - Next page