Ted Strehlow

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Theodor George Henry Strehlow (6 June 1908–3 October 1978) was an anthropologist who studied the Arrernte (Aranda, Arunta) Australian Aborigines in Central Australia. He was considered a member of the Arrernte people, by dint of his ritual adoption by the tribe. He married twice, to Bertha James, in Prospect, South Australia on 21 December 1935, with whom he had three children; Theo, Shirley and John, and Kathleen Stuart in 1972, with whom he had a son, Carl.

Life[edit]

Strehlow's father was Carl Strehlow, the Lutheran pastor and Superintendent, since 1896, of the Hermannsburg Mission, southwest of Alice Springs on the Finke River. Strehlow was born, a month premature, at Hermannsburg, the native placename being Ntaria.[1] He was raised trilingually, speaking, in addition to English, also Arrernte with the aboriginal maids and native children, and German with his immediate family.[2] After a family visit to Germany when he was three years old (1911), he returned with his parents, and grew up parted from his four elder brothers and a sister,[3] who were raised in Germany. He studied both Latin and Greek as part of his home school curriculum.[4]

When Strehlow was 14 years of age his domineering and charismatic father contracted dropsy and the story of the transport of his dying father to a station where medical help was available was recalled in Strehlow's novel Journey to Horseshoe Bend. The tragic death of his father marked Strehlow for life.[5] He left Hermannsburg for secondary schooling at Immanuel College, a boarding school for country boys of German stock, in Adelaide.[6] He was top of the State in Latin, Greek and German in his final year Leaving Certificate examinations in 1926, and thus won a government bursary to study at the University of Adelaide.[7]

At University Strehlow eventually enrolled in a joint honours course in Classics and English, graduating in 1931 with Honours in both.[8] With support from his tutor, and from both A. P. Elkin and Norman Tindale, Strehlow received a research grant from the Australian National Research Council to study Arrernte culture, and to that purpose returned to his home in Central Australia which was stricken by four years of drought and disease that had carried off many people, and emptied the land of wildlife.[9]

The tribes of Central Australia had already become the object of worldwide interest through the joint work of exploration and ethnographic enquiry undertaken by Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, whose researches exercised a notable impact on both sociological and anthropological theory, in the works of Émile Durkheim and James G. Frazer, and on psychoanalysis, in the thesis proposed by Sigmund Freud in his Totem and Taboo. One of Freud's disciples, Géza Róheim, had actually conducted fieldwork while based in Hermannsburg among the Arrernte in 1929.[10]

His first major informants, old and fully initiated men, were Gurra, from the northern Arrernte, and Njitia and Makarinja from Horseshoe Bend,[11] later to be joined by Rauwiraka, Makarinja, Kolbarinja,[12] Utnadata and Namatjira, the father of the famous painter of that name.[13] Mickey Gurra (Tjentermana),[14] his earliest informant and last of the ingkata or ceremonial chiefs[15] of the bandicoot totem centre known as Ilbalintja, confided in Strehlow in May 1933 that neither he nor any of the other old men had sons or grandsons responsible enough to be trusted with the secrets of their sacred objects (tjurunga) (many of which were being sold for food and tobacco as the native culture broke down),[16] together with the accompanying chants and ceremonies.[17] They were worried that all their secrets would die with them. Several, such as Rauwiraka, confided to Strehlow their secret knowledge, and even their names, trusting him to conserve the details of all their sacred lore and rites.[18]

In the following two years, covering more than 7,000 grueling miles of desert to witness and record aboriginal ways, Strehlow witnessed and recorded some 166 sacred ceremonies dealing with totemic acts,[19] most of which are no longer practiced. His academic stature firmed with the publication of Aranda Traditions (1947). This work had been assembled in 1934 but Strehlow delayed publication until all his informants were dead.

Soon after, in 1949, he received an ANU fellowship, which, though he soon found out carried with it no prospect for an academic career in Canberra, enabled him to complete further studies in the field, and travel to England for research. His sojourn left him disappointed, both with England, and with many of its leading anthropologists, such as Raymond Firth and J. R. Firth, who in his view failed to extend to him the support and interest his research required, since they were critical of his lack of formal anthropological credentials. He toured the continent and lectured, with considerable success, in France and Germany, and met up with his siblings and mother in Bavaria.[20]

He gained recognition for the linguistic work which his father had begun. After the war, in 1946, he was appointed lecturer in English and Linguistics, and then Reader in Linguistics at Adelaide University in 1954,[21] and became a full professor when awarded a personal chair in linguistics in 1970.[22]

In November 1971, after many years of difficulty due also to the special fonts required to reproduce his text, he published Songs of Central Australia, a monumental study of the ceremonial poetry of the Arrernte tribes. Although reviewed with condescending hostility in the TLS, it was acclaimed by Australian experts like A. P. Elkin as one of the three most significant books ever published on Australia anthropology.[23]

The last three decades of his life were intermittently troubled by the question of the ownership and custodianship on the objects, and records on the aboriginals which he had accumulated during his fieldwork over a long career. The Government and two universities, who had subsidized his labours, and, towards the end, a younger generation of Aranda people on the Land Rights Council,[24] believed they were the proper bodies for taking over the care and housing of this extensive material. Strehlow felt a personal responsibility for this material, as the man exclusively entrusted by a generation of elders with myths and songs, their secret knowledge and ceremonial artefacts, and held a grievance for what he considered to be the shabby treatment he had received during his life by the establishment. He set difficult and exacting conditions through many negotiations, and when the issue came to a head, determined to will his private collection to his new family, who would house and conserve it in their own home.[25] Strehlow justified his retention of these objects by the personal expense he had laid out, and by the fact, he insisted, that they had been formally handed into his care by 'surrender ceremonies'.[26]

In an apparent paradox, once the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg had sufficient confidence in the Christianized native community to accord them autonomy, and yield church leases on the area to their aboriginal congregation, many local natives moved out, claimed their tjurunga rights to the land, and began to recelebrate the older ceremonies. In his final return to the area, he was surprised to discover that his 'twin', Gustav Malbunka, who had once saved his life, and who had not only renounced his culture but become an evangelical preacher, was capable of singing tjilpa (totemic quoll) verses that once formed a key part of rituals that Strehlow thought were extinct. The culture, even among Christian converts, had been secretly passed on.[27]

Strehlow died of a heart attack in 1978, just before the opening of an exhibition of his collection of artefacts, while conversing with Justice Kirby and his friend and colleague Ronald Berndt on the extinction of the bilby (the key animal in the bandicoot ritual) by introduced rabbits, a metaphor for what was happening to the aborigines and their culture with the spread of white civilisation.[28] He was cremated. His career and his role as the custodian of Aboriginal secrets has been dogged by controversy which has followed him beyond the grave.

A decade later, negotiations between his widow and the Northern Territory government led to the purchase of most, though not all, of the collection on 27 February 1987.[29] The Strehlow Research Centre at Alice Springs was established for the preservation and public display of these works.

Involvement in the Rupert Stuart child rape case[edit]

In 1958 a nine year old girl, Mary Hattam, was found raped and murdered on the beach at Ceduna. The police subsequently arrested an aboriginal, Rupert Max Stuart, for the crime. Stuart was convicted and condemned to death in late April 1959. The case quickly assumed the character of a cause célèbre as civil rights groups questioned the evidence based solely on a confession made to the police which the prosecution and officers affirmed had been taken down word for word. The verdict was appealed, went to the High Court and the Privy Council in London, and concluded with a review by a Royal Commission.

Strehlow's involvement came after a Catholic priest who was convinced of Stuart's innocence asked him for an informed judgement on the language of the evidence by which the aborigine had been convicted.[30] Strehlow, it turned out, had known during his days as a Patrol Officer at Jay Creek both Stuart's grandfather, Tom Ljonga, and Stuart himself. Ljonga had been his trusted companion through many long journeys through the Central Australian deserts.[31] Four days before the appointed hanging, Strehlow, with the Catholic chaplain, interviewed Stuart at Yatala prison.[32] In the subsequent review process, Strehlow testified several times on what he saw as the incompatibility between the English of the confession and the dialect vernacular Stuart used. Familiar with white men in the Centre who had raped aboriginal girls of that age,[33] Strehlow did not think this crime fitted with Aboriginal behaviour.[34] Stuart's conviction was upheld but on release from gaol, he went on to become a major figure on an Aboriginal Land Rights Council.[35]

Notable remarks[edit]

"There had been no kinder folk anywhere than the Australian natives."

"We have to train ourselves to look upon the land of our birth with the eyes, not of conquerors, overcoming an enemy, but of children looking at the face of their mother. Only then shall we truly be able to call Australia our home. Our native traditions can help us to become finer and better Australians."[36]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Barry Hill.p.32, p.75,p.457. This had large implications, since it meant for the local people that he belonged to the Ratapa or Twin Spirit Boys myth. Coincidentally, he was born in the sign of Gemini, and 'doubleness' was to haunt his life. Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.740.
  2. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.32
  3. ^ Frederick, Karl, Rudolf, Hermann and Martha. Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.481.
  4. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.73
  5. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.7, cf.pp.87ff.
  6. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.104.
  7. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.107. Again on p.120 he speaks only of Strehlow gaining a first class degree in English.
  8. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.118. There is a contradiction in the source, since earlier on p.109 Hill cites a source that has it that: 'His brilliance aside, the pressure of work forced him to relinquish the Honours Classics course to concentrate on English.'
  9. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.123-4, p.134.
  10. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.459.
  11. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song,p.227.
  12. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.745.
  13. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.420f.
  14. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, photo no.20
  15. ^ Ward McNally in defining ingkata as 'Ceremonial Chief of Ceremonial Festivals' (Ward McNally, Aborigines, artefacts, and anguish, Lutheran Publishing House, 1981, p.40) is actually referring to the more extended title, Urumbulak ingkata, which Strehlow says was conferred on him by the elders who were entrusting their full lore to him. See Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.750.
  16. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.158ff.
  17. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.431.pp.747,749
  18. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.419-420, p.713, pp.749f.
  19. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.149-150.
  20. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.471-488.
  21. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.53,374,p.553
  22. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.675-6.
  23. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Songs,pp.693ff., p.696.
  24. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.731.
  25. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, passim, esp.Pt.4 chapter 1, pp.665ff.
  26. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.731.
  27. ^ Barry HIll, Broken Song,726-730.
  28. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.756-8
  29. ^ A Bill for an Act
  30. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.547f-549.
  31. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.556.
  32. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.57ff.
  33. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.288-9
  34. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.574
  35. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, pp.559-595
  36. ^ Barry Hill, Broken Song, p.473.


Bibliography[edit]

  • Aranda Phonetics and Grammar, with introduction by Professor A.P. Elkin (Australian National Research Council, [1944])
  • An Australian Viewpoint (Printed for the author by Hawthorn Press, 1950)
  • Rex Battarbee (Sydney : Legend, [1956])
  • Friendship with South-East Asia : a Cultural Approach (Riall Bros., Printers, 1956)
  • Nomads in No-man's-land (Aborigines Advancement League Inc. of South Australia, 1961)
  • Dark and White Australians (Aborigines Advancement League Inc. of South Australia, 1964)
  • Assimilation Problems : the Aboriginal Viewpoint (Aborigines Advancement League Inc. of South Australia, 1964)
  • The Sustaining Ideals of Australian Aboriginal Societies (Aborigines Advancement League Inc. of South Australia, 1966, originally published: Melbourne : Hawthorn Press, 1956)
  • Comments on the Journals of John McDouall Stuart (Libraries Board of South Australia, 1967)
  • Aranda Traditions (Johnson Reprint, [1968], originally published: Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1947)
  • Songs of Central Australia (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1971)
  • Central Australian Religion (Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1978)
  • Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Adelaide: Rigby, 1978)

External links[edit]

  • Strehlow Research Centre [1]
  • Flight of Ducks F.J.A Pockley journal entry from 1933 January 23 with description of an encounter with Strehlow (includes photograph).
  • Journey to Horseshoe Bend T.G.H Strehlow an account (in blog form) of his father’s death in October 1922.
  • Hill, Barry (2003). Broken Song: T G H Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. Knopf-Random House. 
  • Ward McNally, Aborigines, artefacts, and anguish, Lutheran Publishing House, 1981
  • 'Mr Strehlow's Films' documentary film 2001, 52 minutes, written and directed by Hart Cohen, produced by Adrian Herring, a Journeycam production. Concerns background to the controversy over the artefacts, photographs, recordings and films collected by Strehlow. Contrary to the apparent implication of the title, does not actually make use of any such items. Contains an affecting account of the father's death. Portrays many remote and beautiful places.