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Strehlow - a note by Dr John Morton

A large collection of sacred objects were amassed over decades by anthropologist Ted Strehlow. The story began in 1933 when Strehlow, who was brought up at the Hermannsberg mission west of Alice Springs, returned to Alice Springs as an anthropologist.

The custodians, said to be fearful of the rapidly changing times and of desecration of their sacred objects by souvenir hunters, entrusted Strehlow with their safe keeping.

However, this act of trust by Aboriginal people was to lead to one of the most bitter controversies in the world involving sacred objects and their repatriation to their rightful owners.

Central Land Council employees spend a lot of time working with Aboriginal people out bush.

This often involves visits to sacred sites, some of which are traditional storehouses for men's secret-sacred objects – objects known throughout Australia by the Arrernte word atywerrenge (sometimes spelt 'churinga' or 'tjurunga').

The caves and other places which have housed atywerrenge since time immemorial are often, though not always, empty.

When asked about the whereabouts of the missing objects, Aboriginal people chant a familiar refrain – 'I think Strehlow been take 'em'.

They also often say that they would like to have those objects back for their ceremonies. But who was Strehlow? By what right could he have taken these things? And where do they now belong?

Theodore George Henry Strehlow was born in 1908 at Nthariye (or Hermannsburg) in the traditional homelands of Western Arrernte people. Nthariye became Hermannsburg when German Lutherans started the Finke River Mission there in 1877. Ted, as he came to be known, was the son of Reverend Carl Strehlow, who headed the Mission between 1894 and 1922. He was fourteen years of age when, prompted by his father's death, he and his mother left the Mission to live in Adelaide. But, after completing his formal education, Strehlow returned to central Australia in 1932 for the first of many stays.

Having grown up amongst Aboriginal people, and having learned Western Arrernte as a first language, he was singularly well positioned to embark on a career as a linguist, ethnographer and student of Aboriginal culture. Between 1932 and 1978 (the year of his death) Strehlow collected and produced an impressive collection of artefacts and records, most of which relate to the cultures of Arrernte people. He published widely, translated Christian texts into Arrernte for the Lutheran Church and was regularly involved in 'native affairs'.

The Strehlow Collection has always been best known for its records and artefacts pertaining to secret men's business. The collection holds a fabulous array of meticulously compiled objects and records that, for Aboriginal people, are immensely powerful. In 1971 Strehlow estimated that he had witnessed 972 ceremonial acts or 'totemic rites' (1971:xx), all performed secretly at locations from which the uninitiated were strictly banned. The ceremonial acts were photographed and filmed; the accompanying songs were recorded; and the associated ritual objects were collected along with others from the sacred storehouses.

Yet Strehlow himself was not literally an initiated man; he had not, as people say, 'been through the law'. Rather, he was a privileged outsider given special dispensation on account of the special relationship with Arrernte and other Aboriginal people that began at Hermannsburg in 1908.

It is probably true to say that, in those terms, no other non-Aboriginal man in central Australia has been so privileged. Strehlow remains a legend among Arrernte people, who sometimes say that he 'knew everything' and was 'really strict' about the Law. One estimate of his collection has it that it contained some '700 objects' (largely secret-sacred), '15 kilometres of movie film, 7,000 slides, thousands of pages of genealogical records, myths, sound recordings' and '42 diaries', as well as 'paintings, letters, maps' and 'a 1,000-volume library' (Hawley 1987:28).

When speaking to his biographer, Ward McNally, Strehlow recalled the budding of his special relationship with Arrernte people. In 1932 he met an old man named Micky Dowdow, whom he preferred to call by his totemic affiliation – Akwerre (or 'Gura' = 'Bandicoot'). Micky was a goat shepherd in Alice Springs, but he was a traditional owner of sites on the Burt Plain, north of Alice Springs in Northern Arrernte country.

Strehlow said that: 'Gura … told me he was the last of the great ceremonial chiefs of the gura bandicoot centre known as Ilbalintja, and that he wanted me to accompany him there to inspect the sacred-secret site which, he said, had been placed under his undisputed control by his long-dead forefathers and tribal elders. "He told me that all the old men of his tribe had held a conference that morning, and had come to the decision that, unless someone they could trust assumed responsibility for the preservation of the sacred secrets, they would all die with the old men."

Gura hastened to explain that neither he nor any of the other old men had sons or grandsons responsible enough to be trusted with the secrets, the tjurungas, and other objects. He told me that he and the other old men had heard about me, where I had been born, and that I was showing a genuine interest in their culture, and that they wanted me to accept responsibility for all their sacred things (in McNally 1981:38)

Strehlow always maintained that he was invited to amass his collection as a kind of sacred trust and many Aboriginal elders came to believe that Strehlow's ethnographic endeavour was the best way to preserve their knowledge for posterity in the face of the invasive threats of Euro-Australia. While Strehlow had certain misgivings about this trust, he took it on with ardent enthusiasm.

Collecting, preserving, understanding and disseminating central Australian culture became the hub of his life. Yet his story unfolded in uneven ways. While Strehlow's relationship with Aboriginal people began smoothly enough, and progressed quickly and dramatically, it ended steeped in controversy. After his initial encounter with Micky Dowdow, Strehlow, aided by his Western Arrernte assistant Tom Ljonga, went on to travel through Northern, Upper Southern and Eastern Arrernte country in the 1930s, witnessing and recording some 166 ceremonial acts.

There was a lull in his ethnographic work after 1935, when Strehlow turned his attention to other matters, but the work resumed in 1948. Between 1950 and 1964 Strehlow witnessed most of the other ceremonial acts that can be found in his records, so that his major ethnographic efforts could be said to have finished by the time he finally published his magnum opus – Songs of Central Australia – in 1971.

Advances in technology and transport helped him to complete his work more extensively and thoroughly after 1950, but there were also significant social changes going on in Australia at that time. Indeed, the 1960s were a true turning point in Strehlow's life, just as they were in the lives of many Aboriginal people.

By 1971, many of Strehlow 'fellow countrymen' (as he called them) – the senior old men who trusted him with their secret-sacred business – were dead, and those that remained (with few exceptions) were soon to join them. At the same time, however, a new generation of Aboriginal people had come through to take over where the previous one had left off. Strehlow did not trust many in this new generation.

He had, he suggested, been given a mandate to preserve the Law, and it had been bolstered by testimony from elders that the system of authority and transfer of rights in secret-sacred business was breaking down: the old men said that the young men could no longer be trusted with atywerrenge.

Some old men certainly did express this doubt – and with good reason, since the indigenous system of authority was placed under great strain after the white invasion of traditional lands. Large ceremonies became difficult to stage and provision when the traditional lands were taken over by white settlers, and some young men found escape from the authority of elders and the rigorous discipline of initiation by working for white bosses.

Yet none of these stresses completely obliterated the indigenous system of Law and cultural transmission. Apparently unbeknown to Strehlow, the old men continued to instruct their young men when they could, but Strehlow always believed that any ceremonial knowledge that was not recorded by him was destined for oblivion.

Strehlow always referred to his elderly informants (like Micky Dowdow) with phrases like 'the last great ceremonial chief' or 'the last great medicine man', implying that, with the deaths of such men, central Australian Aboriginal life had come to a full stop as a living culture. A further implication of this view was that Strehlow came to see himself as the owner of that allegedly deceased culture, which could only live again insofar as it was enshrined in Strehlow's own work.

Strehlow's first major writings published in Australia (particularly Aranda Traditions, published in 1947, but written during the 1930s) included photographs of secret-sacred ceremonies, something which was not unusual at that time and which barely invited comment in view of contemporary sensibilities.
Yet by 1971, with the publication of Songs of Central Australia (which contained no photographs), Strehlow found himself explicitly justifying such revelation.
Speaking of the secret-sacred business with which he had been entrusted over decades of research he wrote: "In accordance with the Aranda rules of tjurunga inheritance, these traditions would be regarded as becoming my personal property after the deaths of their original owners.

There is thus no longer any reason for not publishing these songs: Makarinja, Gura, Tekua, Rauwiraka, Ekuntjarinja, Rantjirkaia, Urterarinja, Njitia, Wutupia, Kolbarinja, and almost all of my younger informants, too, are dead now.
They were my fellow countrymen and my loyal friends. Like Aranda Traditions, this book is dedicated to their memory (1971:xlvi)".
Of course, for this statement to have force, it is necessarily backgrounded by the idea that there could be no other claims upon the traditions handed down by Makarinja and the others.

This is why, immediately prior to the dedication, there is a requiem for Arrernte culture taken from an entry in Strehlow's diary for 30 July 1953. "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. 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 (1971:xlvi).

When all around was 'silence', how could anyone quarrel with Strehlow's right to do as he liked with this 'deceased estate'? Yet big quarrels were to come and Strehlow found himself ensnared in nets of contradiction.
For example, in the final year of his life Strehlow found himself at the centre of a controversy over the fate of ceremonial photographs that he had sold to the German magazine Stern.

The secret-sacred photographs were used to illustrate a story about Strehlow and the Arrernte, which Stern also sold to other publishers.
The Australian People Magazine was among the buyers and, in the issue dated 3 August 1978, it published a piece titled 'Secrets of the Arandas' (sandwiched between the crossword page and an article on the Elvis Museum in London). The article ran the familiar twin lines about Strehlow's heroic collecting and the demise of Arrernte culture, and was lavishly illustrated with scenes from secret men's ritual.

Arrernte people were outraged at what they understood to be insulting and unethical use of their secret-sacred business.
When Strehlow was tackled by reporters, he defended the original sale of the photographs in precisely the same terms as when he had earlier justified the publication of secret-sacred song verses in Songs of Central Australia – by saying that the elders and guardians of the secrets were all dead.
Yet he also said that he had only sold the photographs to Stern on the understanding that they would never be published in Australia (McNally 1981:188−189).

This was a strange and contradictory statement, given that Strehlow also said that he believed that there were no Arrernte people left alive who knew anything about the subject matter of the images. If that were true, why would he have cared at all about the images being on public display? Perhaps the statement can be taken as an indication of Strehlow's tacit acknowledgement that there were interests in secret-sacred business that were very much alive and well in Aboriginal central Australia.

The 'Secrets of the Arandas' piece in People Magazine stated that the 'old men of the Aranda in the 1930s knew that their culture, perhaps even their race itself, was dying' (Anon 1978:22), but by 1978 that statement was already very dated. Aboriginal populations were actually increasing at this time and their public profile had altered dramatically as a result of the political upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The Wave Hill strike of 1967, led by Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari, saw the birth of the modern land rights movement, which bore fruit with the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 – just two years prior to the publication of 'Secrets of the Arandas'. The first Aboriginal land claim in central Australia was actually heard in 1978, with Aboriginal people giving strong and convincing evidence of ceremonial involvement and ties to land (Toohey 1978) – in the process actively denying any claims about their cultural demise.

Even Strehlow himself was occasionally forced to admit in private that, in some cases at least, more knowledge had been passed on to succeeding generations than he had ever imagined – although such admission did not come easy to him. More often than not he denied it, and in public he continued to reinforce the myth of cultural attrition.

When challenged about Arrernte people's rights in his collection by the CLC's chairman, Wenten Rubuntja, in 1977, Strehlow replied: 'Nothing in my tapes or films has anything to do with any living person. They are all private acts and songs of dead men. No one else could make any use of these things' (McNally 1981:176). As Strehlow grew older he became increasingly concerned about the long-term fate of his collection.

He chose not to leave it to any public institution, preferring instead to embark upon the creation of a new organisation – the Strehlow Research Foundation – which formally opened in Adelaide on the evening of 3 October 1978. Ironically Strehlow died just a few hours beforehand, his last words reputed to have been Arrernte, as he attempted to explain Aboriginal culture to visiting dignitaries who had arrived prior to the opening.

With his death, control of the collection passed to his (second) wife, Kathleen Stuart Strehlow, who still heads the Foundation. This caused problems in itself, because of the secret-sacred nature of so much of the material and information. Many Aboriginal people in central Australia expressed their concern about men's business being in the hands of a woman, although Strehlow had for some time prior to his death given his second wife privileged access to parts of the collection.

Mrs Strehlow responded to all complaints with the familiar, but even more forceful, reply that the material was Strehlow's by right and that he was free to dispose of it in any way he saw fit. She was now the rightful owner and guardian of the collection and all it stood for in terms of the continuity of central Australian Aboriginal culture.

Aborigines who claimed rights in the collection, and demanded it be dealt with according to contemporary Aboriginal protocols, were dismissed out of hand as pretenders – 'nouveaux Aborigines' (as she called them) in league with 'rip-off white advisors' and 'plagiarising anthropologists' (Hawley 1987:29).

When a delegation of Aboriginal people came to make claims on the collection, she dubbed them 'The Gang of 15' and later came to say: When sweeping statements are made 'give the objects back' – I answer, to whom? Which Aborigines? I have flung down the challenge. Any Aborigine who thinks he has a legitimate claim to any object can come and see me and I'll check his credentials. I want to know the names of his ancestors, his totem, the name verses of the songs. Not one has come forward. The Aborigines don't want these things sent back regardless, they are powerful objects that could cause trouble and bloodshed in the wrong hands. Few elders remain alive who know anything about them and I know who those elders are (Hawley 1987:32−34).

To the complaint that she, as a woman, should not have the rights of control implied in this statement, Mrs Strehlow replied: 'Those [Aboriginal] laws don't apply to me because I'm a white woman' (Hawley 1987:34). These reckless, dismissive and insensitive statements were far more excessive than any those made by Strehlow himself.

The period immediately after Strehlow's death was a worrying one for everyone with an interest in the collection. Under Mrs Strehlow's direction, the Strehlow Research Foundation seemed to be aligning itself more and more with conservative interests in the field of Aboriginal affairs. There was, for example, some talk about the value of Strehlow's material in refuting allegedly spurious Aboriginal land claims and at one stage Kathleen allowed Western Mining Corporation (well known for its opposition to Aboriginal land rights) to make copies of some of Strehlow's records.

'I was flattered', said Kathleen, that 'they were interested enough to preserve my husband's work, when no one else was interested' (Hawley 1987:34).
The idea that 'no one else was interested' was very strange. There were many, many people interested in the preservation of collection for what it could offer for posterity – Aboriginal people interested in reclaiming their atywerrenge; Aboriginal people interested in researching their family histories; academic researchers with an interest in central Australia; museum curators concerned about the standard of care applied to priceless material; researchers commissioned to document Aboriginal land claims; and so on.

The problem was that few, if any, of these people could get access to the collection on any reasonable terms. Most of them came to the conclusion that the collection was being wasted, perhaps even placed in danger. They also concluded that trying to gain reasonable access to the collection was a complete waste of time.

Things came to a head with the passing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage (Interim Protection) Act 1984, which gave the Federal Government of Australia considerably increased powers in matters concerning the protection of Aboriginal heritage, particularly in relation to sacred sites and sacred objects.

Just prior to the passing of the Act the collection was secretly moved from the Foundation and allegedly taken to New Zealand, although there were rumours of other possible overseas locations, and other rumours which suggested that the collection never actually left Australian shores.

The part of the Act that troubled the Foundation stated that any objects that were 'used or treated in a manner inconsistent with Aboriginal tradition' could be impounded and placed in protection, which the Foundation construed as a threat of 'political attack' by the 'land rights industry' – a supposed alliance of 'jealous advisors, white lawyers, anthropologists and politically-motivated bureaucrats' (Duncan 1984:63).

Mrs Strehlow had her own 'advisors'. John Bannon and Barry Lindner were the Foundation's chairman and secretary at the time. Bannon was also 'leading the Senate ticket for the National Party in South Australia at [a] forthcoming federal election', while Lindner had been 'manager of the Yalata Aboriginal community' but had recently allegedly been 'forced out' by Pitjantjatjara Land Council lawyers (Duncan 1984:64).

Whatever fate the collection had escaped by being hidden in some secret location, it had clearly not evaded political manipulation. To the contrary, it status as a political football had gained new heights. Some time before the collection was placed in hiding, the Northern Territory Government had expressed interest in preserving the collection.

By 1985 the Northern Territory was in direct negotiations with Mrs Strehlow, who eventually agreed to send the collection (or large parts of it) to the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin while negotiating an agreement to hand it over permanently. The agreement was ostensibly finalised in 1986, when it was also stated that a special centre would be built to house the collection.

The building took shape as the Strehlow Research Centre (SRC) and eventually opened in Alice Springs in 1991, with a constitution set by the Northern Territory's Strehlow Research Centre Act 1988. However, Mrs Strehlow, who was employed by the Centre as part of the agreement, and the Northern Territory Government were in constant dispute, something which came to public prominence in 1992 when an Adelaide auction room offered for sale some 260 Aboriginal artefacts (including secret-sacred material) allegedly belonging to Carl Strehlow (Ted and Kathy's son).

The material had an extraordinary asking price of some $6.5 million, but was impounded under South Australian heritage legislation on the understanding that some of the material might have belonged to the Northern Territory Government by the terms of the 1986 agreement. Indeed, the South Australian Government seized not only the auction items, but also other collection material still housed at the Strehlow Research Foundation (including Strehlow's original diaries) and the University of Adelaide.

At about the same time, the SRC board terminated Mrs Strehlow's contract of employment. The impounded material sat in various locations for three years while the terms of its seizure were subject to legal wrangling and until its ownership was finally resolved. Some items, deemed to be the private property of the Strehlow family, were quickly returned to the Strehlows, but most of the material ended up elsewhere.

In 1995 the non-artefact material was handed over to the SRC, although the Centre was still not convinced that it had taken possession of everything it was entitled to by the original agreement. (More material was placed for auction by Carl Strehlow in 1999 and some of this also found its way to the SRC.) More significantly, the majority of secret-sacred objects originally offered for sale in Adelaide were purchased by the CLC for repatriation to their rightful owners according to Aboriginal Law.

This was the first time that parts of the Strehlow Collection had been secured by an Aboriginal organisation. The SRC does undertake liaison with Aboriginal communities in central Australia, but it has no direct Aboriginal representation on its Board. Aboriginal interests are mediated by Board member Gary Stoll, a fluent Arrernte speaker and long time employee of the Finke River Mission.

Now that most of the Strehlow Collection is back in central Australia, there can be no doubt that, as far as Aboriginal people are concerned, the situation has improved since those very uncertain days in the 1970s and 1980s. The collection is at least now open to a much larger range Aboriginal people in a way that it was not when housed in Adelaide.

It is also far more accessible to bona fide non-Aboriginal researchers, although the SRC is caught up in the terms of the Strehlow Research Centre Act, which states not only that it should promote knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture, but also honour the memory of TGH Strehlow.

Given Strehlow's chequered and contradictory history, this latter demand might sometimes be fairly problematic. Honouring the memory of Strehlow and promoting an understanding of Aboriginal culture will often be compatible aims, especially in view of the depth of appreciation that Strehlow had for Arrernte elders and the Arrernte language. Aboriginal people and others regularly use the SRC, particularly to consult Strehlow's extensive genealogical records.

Strehlow undoubtedly deserves praise for this aspect of his legacy, but there must also be room for fair and reasonable criticism. Strehlow himself did not always act in an honourable way in relation to Aboriginal culture and he eventually become quite arrogant and dismissive of reasonable demands made by or on behalf of contemporary Aboriginal elders.

Strehlow did much to preserve and promote Arrernte culture in particular, but in the end he did little to guarantee its continuity as a living, breathing reality. For him, Arrernte culture came to be locked up in the objects and records of his collection, not in the minds and hearts of Arrernte people.
It has taken two decades or more to begin to undo this injustice – and much work remains to be done. It is sometimes said that people should be judged by the standards of their time.

If we do this in Strehlow's case, then we are likely to arrive at a positive assessment. In 1932, when Strehlow started his ethnographic work, it was only 5 years since another great anthropologist, Baldwin Spencer, had suggested that Arrernte culture was 'crude and quaint' and at the 'level of men of the Stone Age' (Spencer and Gillen 1927:vii).

Some time earlier, Spencer had referred to central Australian Aboriginal people as 'naked, howling savages' (Spencer and Gillen 1904:xiv). Strehlow never used such disparaging language to refer to the Arrernte. Indeed, he explicitly took issue with such writing and with the kind of social Darwinism that it implied. Aboriginal cultures, Strehlow said early on in his career, had died or were dying not because they were in an evolutionary time warp or locked into a stagnant 'stone age' mentality; their disappearance was due to 'avoidable neglect' (1947:xvii).

He further suggested that the neglect was evidenced in the scant understanding of Aboriginal languages and traditions that existed at that time and that he hoped his translations of Arrernte stories would 'reproduce faithfully both the matter and spirit of the original' (1947:xxii). Unlike Spencer and most anthropologists who preceded him, Strehlow stayed in touch with the subtleties, depth and beauty of Arrernte languages all his life. They were an ingrained part of his soul – so much so that they helped define his very identity.

As he said in the conclusion to Songs of Central Australia:

This book, dealing as it does with Central Australian aboriginal songs, has attempted to probe deeply into matters that have a special interest for white Australians like myself … If we are to develop a literature which will appeal strongly to an Australian audience, then our future writers and poets will have to garb their verse and prose with new trappings that will harmonize with the Australian background against which we are living our own daily lives. It is therefore to be hoped that a perusal of the ancient material that constitutes the aboriginal sacred songs of Central Australia will not prove entirely unrewarding to our future poets: the imagery found here does harmonize with the outward shape and inward spirit of our continent. It is my belief that when the strong web of future Australian verse comes to be woven, probably some of its strands will be found to be poetic threads spun on the Stone Age hair-spindles of Central Australia (1971:728−729).

Strehlow was part of an advanced guard of people who came to positively appreciate Aboriginal culture this way. In that sense, he was progressive, perhaps even genuinely heroic in his endeavour to magnify Aboriginal life. However, if we stop our assessment there, we neglect a whole portion of his history. Strehlow only appears progressive when we compare him with those, like Baldwin Spencer, whose appreciation of Aboriginal culture was relatively shallow and sometimes denigrating; so Strehlow is not so much judged by the standards of his time as placed at the forefront of a historic shift in the ideological climate of Aboriginal affairs.

This cuts both ways, because by the end of his life Strehlow found himself on the cusp of another shift in that ideological climate – towards the idea of Aboriginal self-determination. While Strehlow was correct in charging earlier anthropologists with 'avoidable neglect' of Aboriginal culture, Strehlow at this point stood charged with the 'avoidable neglect' of a whole new generation of Aboriginal people trying to determine their future and rediscover themselves within the creative scope of their very own traditions.

Australians should no longer be content with the idea that Aboriginal culture might continue only by inspiring some greater Australian culture. We also need to know that Aboriginal people, as the traditional custodians of this culture, have the right to say how it is traded to others.

Aboriginal Law, possessed by Aboriginal people, will then continue to be a genuinely living thing. All in all, the Strehlow story can be read as a lesson about reconciliation. What are the just terms by which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can share Australia? At least part of the answer to this question lies in the idea of repatriation, which is absolutely central to the future of the Strehlow Collection.

At the very start of his career, Strehlow came to see that he had been given a sacred trust. The elders told him that he should look after their secret-sacred things and that, one day, he should pass on that trust. In this latter respect, Strehlow failed.

Whatever had been the case between the 1930s and the 1960s, by the 1970s there were qualified Aboriginal people ready to resume ownership of the traditions of their forefathers. Moreover, the weight of public opinion is now increasingly behind the proposition that Aboriginal heritage first of all belongs to Aboriginal people, who have both moral and legal rights over its disposal.

This does not mean that elements of Aboriginal culture cannot be shared with wider Australia. And while the actual return of both land and sacred objects is important, it does not even mean that cultural material must be physically returned to its traditional custodians (since some elders choose to leave objects in the safe care of museums or other establishments).

Repatriation, then, simply means giving Aboriginal people their due, allowing them to maintain their own inheritance, and restoring things that were taken away and lost.

Strehlow, too, got lost – but it remains for others to complete the unfinished business of putting the whole of the Strehlow Collection back where it belongs, in the hands of Aboriginal people.

Dr John Morton


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