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Retrace 1996: Ellery Creek
Thursday 19th September 1996 - 9 pm
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Ellery Creek bed - almost a half moon, with a slight breeze, a beautiful night.

Susan in camp at Ellery Creek

We are lying beneath the stars on the dry river sand near a huge river red gum. Not far away is a large water hole with red stone cliffs either side of a sandy gorge. The water was freezing but we swam across to the gorge and walked up between the cliffs to a valley where there were cattle and burrs.

The adventure of a wild swim gave the children (especially Emily) a new enthusiasm for this trip (much to my relief) It has been hard on them spending so much time cramped in the car and I guess this is an arrival of sorts.

Ellery Creek rock hole

First stop this morning was to drop them off at the pool again and then call on the Finke River Mission to see Paul Albrecht, the son of Pastor Albrecht of Hermannsburg Mission. It was right next door to the Lutheran church and not to be confused with the Inland Mission. He was a thick set man with bright blue eyes and looked very much like his father. It turned out that the photo I thought I had of him as a child was actually his brother Theodore. He also wrote down the correct spelling of Ntjikitjikurrpa. He was very busy with Mission work when we arrived so we did not stay for long. I promised to send him a printout of the journal.

Susan and I then went to meet David Hugo at the Strehlow Research Foundation. This time we were let in through the back door. After a short wait he joined us in the exhibition area which I must say I found to be a little sparse and more like an afterthought. Perhaps the design made us miss the main room, if there was one. What was on display was admirably presented. He was a genial man and took us to his office where we spent the whole morning talking about the Strehlows and some of the issues in looking after secret/sacred objects. Overall, I was impressed with his careful and responsible approach. He was unexpectedly deferential to Aboriginal claims and vulnerabilities.

By way of summary, and following these discussions with both David Hugo and Julia Munster my impression of the custodial ground on which I am standing re. The Flight of Ducks is as follows:

Aboriginal interest:

Photographs and names of deceased can cause distress and should be preceded by warnings. Boomerangs, spears etc are of no concern to Aboriginal interests. However, contrary to my previous belief, there are almost certainly unbroken lines of traditional knowledge and culture remnant amongst the tribal groups through whose land the expedition travelled. That some of the artifacts (tjurungas/bull roarers) may still be of primary significance to the men or women who hold on to these lines is hard (even for experts) to judge. The problems in making such judgements about secret/sacred Objects are manifold:

  1. These Objects are politically and culturally charged.
  2. Sighting of the Objects by uninitiated Aboriginals may cause extreme distress even harm.
  3. Because they were traded and presented as gifts (not stolen), Aboriginal custodians traditionally cannot ask for them back.
  4. Custodians may not reveal themselves as knowledge holders in order to substantiate their claim.
  5. The Objects have no precise provenance other than the area in which they were collected.
  6. There is no available (non politicised) protocol through which I can address these issues.

Institutional Interests:

  1. The Federal and various State Governments: slowly and legislatively respond to a groundswell of public opinion through publicly run institutions such as the South Australian Museum and AIATSIS. These responses are perceived to be in the best interests of Aborigines and informed by these interests. However,there are inconsistent policies regarding the handling of secret/sacred material. AIATSIS sees the greatest threat to the integrity of this material as coming from `New Age' ideologies. After seeing (A.B.C True Stories) the curator of secret/sacred Objects (Museum of S.A.), Chris Anderson, it is clear that `New Age' ideology is endemic.
  2. The Central Land Council: present a publicly unified face to what is actually a maze of competing interests and agenda. Not the least of these being the interests of their `white' advisors, however benign. Understandably, these interests are keen to exploit (for political and material gain) any opportunity seen as leading to what is considered to be Aboriginal advancement.
  3. The Strehlow Research Foundation: is bound by its custodial responsibilities concerning Strehlow's collection. It is politically isolated but ironically sometimes finds itself in an uncompromised position because of its charter to preserve and its ability to withstand short-term political pressures.

The Pockley Family Interests:

  1. Have a custodial role in preserving a small but significant collection of photographs, journals and artifacts and will need to make decisions about where to store the collection both in physical and digital form.
  2. The Central Land Council has shown itself to be difficult to deal with, has frequent changes of staff and (Julia Munster excepted) seems to be inconsistent, even hostile and primarily disinterested. It considers the Strehlow Research Foundation to be an unlawful holder of Objects. Indicatively, after many approaches to the Council I have yet to speak with an Aboriginal. The organisation appears to be dominated by `white' anthopologists, one even referring to himself as `The Thought Police' . To date, not one of my letters or messages has been responded to.
  3. Government agencies are now under threat from 'New Age' ideologies.
  4. Anecdotes abound that institutional held material which has been returned, in good faith, under pressure from the Central Land Council has quickly found its way into the hands of dealers.
  5. The Strehlow Research Foundation is not averse to the return of Objects where rightful custody can be established. Interestingly, it is now being given Objects by Aboriginal custodians for safe keeping. It would appear, at this stage, that the stakeholder interests of this Foundation most resemble those of the Pockley Family.

David Hugo produced a photocopy of Strehlow's field diary from the 4th of March 1933 in which he recalled the visit of the group from Sydney University. The field diaries began about this time. they were not available for inspection because secret/sacred material was dispersed throughout the entries and the Foundation was concerned that this would be seen by people without authority. I asked him about the Duck Song (given that Strehlow recorded hundreds of hours of songs)and he said circumspectly that it might be possible but that it might also take a while. I need to put my request in writing. The lengths to which the Foundation goes in order to safeguard their collection is very impressive. I felt almost irresponsible about the way we have been looking after the Pockley collection. Certainly this visit has given me a sense of its importance. The secret/sacred issues are much more significant that I thought. Their digital expression is even more difficult. David Hugo was certainly not prepared for the rising digital tide. He saw the Foundation's role as being outside of these issues because of the physical nature of the material. But he was concerned about the implications of access. I don't think he really understood what I meant when I said that in the digital world preservation and access were inseparable. I will have to send him my paper.

When we left we headed out through Heavitree Gap to the Transport Hall of Fame where we looked around for the Ghan and Kurts truck etc. We spoke to Perry, who was very welcoming and interested inthe photographs of the Ghan and Kurt. He said we should contact Liz Martin who would be even more interested. On the way back into town I took a photo of Heavitree Gap and we raced around shopping for food, filling up the gas bottle, visiting the Old Telegraph Station. With amazement we found that our permits to go th Mount Liebig and Haasts Bluff were ready. Someone (maybe Julia) must have pulled some strings.

The drive out here this evening was spectacular - the mountains have a slight Warrumbungle feel. They are invested with a remarkable presence, made all the more intense by the knowledge that every crack has its own story and significance. After our swim the children were eager to look at the map of where we were going. At one point in the torch-light a little beige frog jumped out of the sand on to the page. By firelight, I read out sections from their grandfather's journal in an effort to increase the sense of anticipation and geographic continuity. A whole family of dingoes have been howling somewhere up in the cliffs. They must be young, the sound is quite shrill.

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