Friday, June 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 34The power of 'we'

The power of 'we'


The Strehlow Conference plenary panel, from left: Peter Sutton, Bob Beadman, Alison Anderson, Teem Wing Yip, Dean Mildren, John Strehlow. 

“Where do we go from here?” The theme of the just concluded Strehlow Conference may have sounded disarmingly open-ended but its difficulty was soon apparent. That two-letter word ‘we’ could not paper over the cracks between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
The ‘us’ more often than not were whitefellas – people of professional expertise – talking about the blackfella ‘them’, even as they were uncomfortably aware of the tension in doing so. But on a few occasions the tables turned: the blackfella ‘us’ demanded of the whitefella ‘them’ to be heard.
Museologist Indra Lopez Velasco was speaking about the Berlin Ethnographic Museum’s intentions for its collection of Australian objects, some 800 of them from central Australia – many collected by missionaries –  and of these, a significant number known to be secret-sacred.
p2135-Strehlow-BerlinFrom the museum’s point of view the collection is not necessarily the most important, explained Ms Velasco, but the museum recognises that it is “possibly very significant from a local point of view”.
Left: From Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum’s Facebook page.


Locals soon left her in no doubt.
Ms Velasco had proposed trying to talk about the issues of appropriate display and storage “with museums in Australia and with you today” – looking at a roomful of mostly non-Aboriginal conference attendees. The museum had come up with some interesting design solutions, conceptualising the dilemma: an empty glass case; another containing a black box, which may or may not be housing an object.
“Sacred objects – should they be shown at all, should this question be addressed in the museum?” asked Ms Velasco.
“What is appropriate for the [museum] to do with this topic? So basically, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Alison Anderson, multi-lingual Pintupi-Luritja / Warlpiri woman and Member for Namatjira in the NT Legislative Assembly, was quick to her feet:
“It’s important you consult with the Aboriginal people who these objects belong to. Not necessarily Australian museums. They’re interested in their own PhDs and their own doctorates. It’s about their self-importance. You need to come back and talk to the owners of these objects and they’re the Aboriginal people.”
Ms Velasco took her point: “Contact with museums is only one step and probably not the most important. You are totally right about that.”
p2135-Strehlow-Anderson-BeaMs Anderson (left, with Bob Beadman at the plenary) continued: “It destroys Aboriginal culture and identity … the sacredness of the culture has been taken away by these people just exposing it … If you’re about holding the strength of Aboriginal identity together then you need to come back to the Aboriginal people and not necessarily these people who are interested in their own culture and becoming professors themselves. They are using Aboriginal culture for their self-importance.”
Michael Liddle, Alyawarre / Arrente man, Alice Springs / Mbantua native title holder and deputy chair of Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, followed up:
“A long time ago objects were used to replenish the country, or if there was lack of a rain, you’d get a lot of people doing ceremonies to bring the rain to grow the fruits … it’s what we call economic sustainability now, it was Aborigines’ way of economic sustainability.
“Fast forward to now: we no longer need those objects because we have … the Basics Card, the welfare system that can buy you food and get you water to drink. In saying that now, the objects still have significance to an Aboriginal person – their belonging to a country. And when objects are taken and put into some place it weakens the spirit of a person and their whole identity …
“I think it’s really good practice for Aboriginal people to be involved in what museums all around the world, not just central Australia, are doing with the objects that belong to certain groups of people. It’s hard work but it needs consultation … [to answer] the big question, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Then another voice, Ned Hargraves, Warlpiri man, “a Jampijinpa from Yuendumu”. Mr Hargraves works with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service. He explained that in the past objects were traded “for clothes, food”. Today’s generations, though, don’t know what the objects are doing in museums: “It should be given back to us.”
More applause. And with it a certain sense of relief that Aboriginal people had asserted themselves as a ‘we’, and in matters dealing with their life and death – to which culture is integral – the absolutely critical ‘we’.
There were Aboriginal presenters at the conference, mostly in partnership with non-Aboriginal colleagues. Only Ken Lechleitner, senior Western Arrernte man and member of the Strehlow Research Centre board, was programmed to speak on his own, on the issues of Aboriginal people living under two laws. But the conference’s plenary session would have been an all-white affair had Alison Anderson not staged her numerous interventions.
p2135-Strehlow-SuttonPeter Sutton, linguist, anthropologist, author of The Politics of Suffering, appeared to be with her in spirit when he expressed his discomfort with contributing to another whitefella talkfest, which the conference had almost been. He said that anthropologists had played too strong a role in Aboriginal affairs in the past and that “the collective” as the forum for thinking about problems over the last 35 to 40 years – such as the numerous organizations – had its limits. His view now was that people should start with the “personal relationship – work it out one on one”.
“If everyone does their bit with their own life, you can expect to have some kind of rooted-ness in what is real.”
The public committee meeting is “peripheral”: “It shouldn’t be seen as first port of call.”
He rejected the racialisation of thinking about the issues: “Those in need are not a race … You don’t get sick because you are Aboriginal and you are not well because you are of Anglo-Saxon ancestry … Those things are not caused by poverty either. There are plenty of poor people in this country who are not in trouble. There are plenty of rich people who are in trouble, they’re snorting their fortunes up their nose.”
When thinking about need, “the key person is the unborn child”, he said, then the baby, the toddler until you get to the five year-old who is about to start school, who needs to be prepared “nutritionally” and who needs to feel loved: “Love is more important than food.”
p2135-Strehlow-Teem-WingDr Teem Wing Yip, a Hong Kong-born public health specialist based in Alice Springs who has learned to speak Pitjantjatjara, totally agreed with Professor Sutton’s emphasis on the unborn.
She had presented an incisive picture of the state of Indigenous health, particularly of people on remote communities, and a critique of health services’ emphasis on expensive “mopping up” rather than attending to the “dripping tap”. Although the Territory is the only jurisdiction on track to meet its Close the Gap targets, steadily narrowing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, the less encouraging back story is that while Indigenous Territorians are living longer, they are doing so in poorer health, with Type 2 diabetes one of the leading contributors.
In the plenary Dr Yip stressed the issue of low birthweight babies: they are at greater risk of chronic disease many years later. And poor health passes from one generation to the next: If a mother is iron defiicient and has anaemia, her baby is more likely to be iron deficient. She picked up on a reference to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD): “So much that happens before a baby is even born determines health status later.”
Ms Anderson had a heartening story to tell about schoolchildren, food and parental care. An Aboriginal teacher assistant and a white teacher at Wallace Rockhole, a community about 80 kilometres west of Alice Springs, have decided that they are not cooks or social workers but teachers. They’ve told the children’s parents that they will no longer be providing a feeding program through the school. Parents are to bathe their children at home and give them breakfast, bring them to school and take them home again.
“I was out there yesterday. No child leaves that school without a parent to take them home.”
And the result: according to Ms Anderson, the school has achieved above national benchmark in literacy and numeracy NAPLAN tests in Grades Three and Five. (2014 NAPLAN results are not yet available on the MySchool website. In 2013, the students were achieving in the mid-range for statistically similar schools. They were a very small group – five girls and eight boys.)
“They took the power back themselves,” said Ms Anderson. She saw the anecdote as “legitimising” Rolf Gerritsen’s presentation at the conference:
“We’ve got a resistance out there from people. You can quarantine my income … We don’t give a dam anymore … Come and take our children away … come and feed our kids at school.”
In contrast, when people take “the power back into their own little black hands” they start getting results.
p2135-Strehlow-John-SApart from acknowledging Professor Gerritsen’s analysis, Ms Anderson also thanked  Bob Beadman, veteran public servant and chairman of the NT Grants Commission, for his “bullet between the eyes” analysis of the corrosive effect of “free money”, including not only welfare payments but royalty payments to individuals, creating a “land rights divide” in the NT.
The Basics Card had provided only a slight fetter on converting free money to alcohol, he argued. And it is left to other arms of government – such as the courts, the health system –  to “mop up” the disastrous social consequences. The system has become completely unaffordable, both socially and financially.
Ms Anderson also endorsed the call by John Strehlow (left) for the formation of a Friends of the Strehlow Research Centre (SRC). He expressed a “very real fear that the place is going to be shut down”. He argued for better funding and independence, so  that the SRC can drive research, not follow the ideas of people in Sydney or Melbourne: “This place is the centre, here is where the people are who we are allegedly so interested in.”
Ms Anderson agreed: “It’s vital at this time when we’re discussing Indigenous people in Central Australia or the Northern Territory, that the SRC stays here and is funded properly, so we can help other people in universities and museums to understand Aboriginal people properly, through the SRC, with the vital information and right information.”
Bob Beadman’s Eric Johnston lecture, November 14, 2013: ‘The greatest welfare measure we can offer anybody is a job’


  1. Interesting to look at what is happening at Wallace Rockhole. Make the parents responsible for the welfare of the kids instead of playing mummy and daddy to the parents and adult children.
    I think it is high time this happened. While they are at it teach the children to respect wherever they are and others personal property.
    Although the Aboriginals are supposed to be the original owners of this land – they have to come into the modern world if they want to survive at all.
    As far as the artifacts being in museums it is good they are there so the Aboriginals can explain why they were used.
    By the same token white children need to know too how their ancestors coped with life before cars, electricity, computers etc so what their ancestors used could be displayed in museums.

  2. Bob Beadman’s “bullet between the eyes” analysis of passive welfare, land lease and royalty payments, reminds me of when “sit down money” was resented by those who received it, but over a period of four decades, it has become the norm, like multiple takeaway liquor outlets, including the roadhouse system.
    Mr Beadman’s closing comment that “the system has become completely unaffordable, both socially and financially” identifies the narcissism of the NT government who are fond of referring to the former Labor government as “failed”, but when Mr Giles and his crew start applying postmodern sociology, they may have some credibility.
    It too has been around for the past four decades, coincidentally, and Mr Beadman is one of its prophets, but I’m yet to see or read where any government minister is game enough to come out and publically state that he’s on the money.
    The old saw that a prophet is without honour in his own country rings true. Nobody listened to the sit down money prophets and their descendants are caught in the dysfunction described by Mr Beadman.
    Perhaps Tony Abbot and Alan Tudge heard what Galurruy Yunupingu had to say recently and maybe Noel Pearson’s reform efforts will gain traction in Central Australia, but it doesn’t appear likely under the present NT administration.

  3. For all the rhetoric of ‘wanting the objects back’ contemporary Aboriginal people have no idea what they are and do not actually want them returned at all.
    Strehlow collected his artefacts from 1932 and 1978 but most ceremonies had ceased by the mid 60s and by 1971, many of the senior old men who trusted him with their secret-sacred business had passed away.
    The knowledge to “read” the sacred boards is long gone, even the knowledge of country has all but disappeared for many remote Aboriginal people.
    If these artefacts were handed back there would be a panic amongst those asking for them because, without the knowledge of them, they are considered highly dangerous.
    The objects would end up in a local museum, a tin shed in the scrub where they would not be touched and probably be eaten away by white ants over time.

  4. When considering “where to from here” in relation to the private culturally significant objects held in museums in Germany and elsewhere, in might be worthwhile to ask if “culture” can ever survive translation.
    Or does a culture, any culture, and the objects that hold meaning within that culture, require expression and understanding in the original language?
    Once removed from their rightful setting and displayed under glass under foreign skies in a far distant land, don’t those objects become a mere curiosity? Interesting things to be handled and looked at and discussed, but not understood, at least not as they really are (were), at all?
    That they were removed by missionaries tells us all we really need to know about the lack of veneration any missionary has for the objects (people) he chooses to focus on.
    Or to put that another way, if a missionary truly venerated the people and culture he has chosen to work amongst, why the emphasis on conversion to a self-proclaimed superior way?
    Missionaries were essentially cultural bandits. They destroyed the cultures they visited while absconding with any physical loot that came their way, whether traded for or simply taken.
    They then took said loot back to their home cities and countries to display out of context and without the legitimacy that adheres to any venerated object when it is left in its own time and and its own place.
    Should the objects in question be returned? Absolutely!

  5. When people associated the moon with the tides and the seasons with the movement of fauna and flora, there was more reverence for the mysticism of the natural world (general revelation) than there is in these television-dominated days.
    Events and law carved on stone Tjuringa recorded a time commensurate with the Ten Commandments similarly inscribed.
    That these two met in a transcendent space created a dialogue that is ongoing and which occurred at the recent Strehlow Conference in translation.
    What is interesting in these posts is that they are reflections on Indigenous culture as if there is no other culture to talk about or compare.
    The history of Christian missions to Indigenous Australians is complex, like missionaries themselves, but the history of Hermannsburg Mission speaks for itself and no doubt Peter Latz’s book would be a good read.

  6. Regarding the Strehlow Centre, and the importance of maintaining it, I think the presentation by Adam McFie, Mark Inkamala and Shaun Angeles was really crucial.
    The Collection (objects, maps, diaries, photographs, sound recordings etc) is very much alive, and of continuing significance to many local Aranda. The work being done includes engaging with the relevant traditional owners for cultural mapping projects and a repatriation program. (Google Earth has been found to be a very valuable modern resource for instant recognition of country).
    It was really good to hear about the positive effects, social and emotional included, that regaining this cultural knowledge is having for those Aranda people. Others at the conference also commented on the use of the Strehlow recordings, notes, film etc to jog people’s memories, and the positive outcomes.
    The Strehlow Centre is NOT a museum. It is doing many other things not mentioned here, but suffice to say, it is alive and needs to be kept that way!

  7. On the subject of Christian Missions to Aboriginal people, notwithstanding the many Indigenous missionaries since the nineteenth century in various parts of Australia, today’s Australian reports on the revival of the Kaurna language, once spoken on the Adelaide plains, as “banned in missions in Adelaide and almost lost”.
    The report credits research enabling the Kaurna revival to two German missionaries, Christian Gottlob Teichelmann and Clamor Wilhelm Schurmann and their illustrated manuscript of about 3000 words, recorded between 1830 – 1840.
    It seems odd that a language that was “banned” should be so assiduously recorded as Strehlow did with Arrernte at Hermannsburg.
    Lutheran Missionaries settled there in 1877. Their twenty-month overland journey from Adelaide was arduous. Pastors Kempe and Schwarz, with 200 sheep and some cattle, led by the Rev. G. A. Heidenreich arrived in Arrernte country after John MacDouall Stuart had opened up a route to European settlers in 1866. The Overland Telegraph Station was five years old.
    Ps: Schwarz later took a ship to North Queensland where he became a legendary figure near the present-day town of Hopevale.


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