The Arrernte, Twice Removed

The history of Ntaria, formerly the Lutheran mission of Hermmansburg, southwest of Alice Springs, contains within itself so many threads of the narrative of invasion and colonization of Central Australia and the displacement of its indigenous peoples that it might well be the textbook exemplar of contact history. The incursions of pastoralists, Lutherans, the Overland Telegraph explorers, the frontier police, all helped to shape a revolution over the last century and more. Migrations and displacement that resulted from the arrival of white people in the region brought Southern Arrernte, Western Arrernte, Luritja-Pintupi, and Kukatja people into unprecedented proximity and fed competition for resources and the conflict that came with it.Hermannsburg’s most famous son, Albert Namatjira, stood at the head of a line of artists who were among the first Indigenous Australians to gain recognition and success in the Western art world. One of the first Aborigines to gain citizenship, Namatjira was brought down by conflicts between Arrernte law and whitefella law, conflicts that revolved around issues like access to alcohol and access to housing that resonate in newspaper headlines half a century after his death. Problems with alcohol worsened after the departure of the missionaries, and fostered the burgeoning outstation movement in the early years of self-determination policies. Regional migration between the bush and the town of Alice Springs increased tensions among the Arrernte and between them and whites. In 2007, the Intervention came to town, and it has not yet left.

Diane Austin-Broos, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, has worked among the Arrernte in the areas around Ntaria for over two decades. She has brought together the results of that work in a new monograph entitled Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past: invasion, violence and imagination in Central Australia (University of Chicago Press, 2009) that is one of the most engaging studies I have read in years. (The endorsements on the back cover from Fred Myers, Tim Rowse, and Elizabeth Povinelli are merely the first indicator of the breadth of Austin-Broos’s scholarship and appeal.) She channels history, anthropology, politics, religion, and economics into a flowing narrative that is both scholarly and accessible, that provides new insights into the genesis of the dilemmas that confront contemporary Arrernte. She comments incisively and passionately on the injustices still being perpetrated on a people who have suffered two major disruptions to their way of responding to their lifeworld in the last century. While she lays out for us the stratagems by which the Arrernte have coped with these dislocations, she does not hide her concern that their continued ability to adapt to such violent revolutions is deeply threatened.

The first revolution in Arrernte country occurred with the invasion of the pastoralists and, just as significantly, with the advent of the Lutheran missions. In the early chapters of Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past, Austin-Broos maps the manner in which the Arrernte attempted to adjust to the new ontologies that Christianity brought to them. She examines the clash between the old order of the Dreaming and the new order of pepe (paper: God’s law in the form of the Bible and its associated rituals) that came to displace the ancestors. She shows how the Arrernte adapted by grafting their customary modes of thought onto the explanations and modalities that arrived with the missionaries. Pepe became not just God’s law, but a form of local order. The very understanding of the landscape was changed as the tracks of the ancestors came to be understood as the (literal) footprints of Jesus, come to reveal a new understanding of law to the chosen Arrernte.

Along with religion came other transformations that were equally compelling and demanded equal adjustments to the Arrernte worldview. Austin-Broos is wonderful at explaining the profound impact that technology had on the simplest aspects of life at Ntaria, for instance in pointing out how the missionaries’ building program not only redefined physical space, transforming an ancestral tree into the locus of a new sacred space, but also introducing vast expanses of shade beneath the roof of the church to a country where relief from the blazing heat of the summer’s sun had been a precious resource. It may be easy for colonizing Europeans to appreciate what the diversion of water supplies meant to a desert people; but how many of us have stopped to consider the impact of such a mundane alteration of the landscape as shade, especially to people who have defined differences in social orders by reference to “sun-side” and “shadow-side” moieties?

There are iconic moments in the history of the christianizing of the Arrernte, oft-told tales of the works of evangelists like Titus Renkaraka and Moses Tjalkabota, and how the sacred caves that hid the tywerrenge (churinga) were emptied and abandoned as the centrality of the old regime’s sacred boards gave way to the law of pepe. But Austin-Broos takes us far deeper into the changes that the missions wrought in the structure of society. She explores, for instance, how the importance of conception as validating rights to country declined in the wake of sedentarism. As people moved around less, more children were born in settlements and camps; less traveling along the customary “beats” of Central Australia weakened important mechanisms whereby people gained rights to country. European patrilineal models of inheritance, almost by default, came to displace traditional forms of association with country. Displacement of Southern Arrernte by pastoralism led them to first become guests on other people’s country, and later to attempt new ways of asserting belonging. From these early shifts in social reckoning there is a fairly direct line to the factionalism and violence that plagues contemporary Aboriginal politics and social life.

The second revolution in the Arrernte imaginary came with the era of self-determination, the departure of the missions, and the growth of the outstation movement, all of which were intimately linked one to the other. Having successfully negotiated the ontological shift brought about by the arrival of Christianity, the Arrernte were forced into a second redefinition of themselves by the new insistence on developing a culture based on market economics. While contemporary critics often bemoan the scourge of “welfare dependence,” Austin-Broos skillfully demonstrates how such dependence is the result, not of Arrernte indigence, but of economic marginalization by a government that no more understood the terms in which Arrernte organized their world than the missionaries had done a century earlier.

Just as a sedentary way of life created profound shifts in Arrernte social and political organization, so did the emphasis on individuals as actors in the economic marketplace. The valorization of the Aborigine as “Australian” may have reached a zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) under John Howard’s neoliberal politics, but the impulse toward economic self-sustainability had been present in government policies from the earliest days of self-determination. The old order of relatedness and obligation to kin was replaced by the new order of economic individualism and allegiance to money (another variety of pepe) and the market.

In the early days of self-determination and the move to outstations, the Arrernte attempted to reproduce in these small and far-flung settlements the economies of gardening and craft production to which they had become accustomed during decades of dominance by the Lutherans. But the market economy that had been Hermannsburg could not itself be sustained without the subsidies of the mission; the even more marginal economies of the outstations failed almost immediately. Competition for resources developed between the factions allied with the old mission settlement at Ntaria and the new Tjuwanpa Outstation Resource Center (TORC). Government subsidy in the form of CDEP programs succumbed almost immediately to the stresses generated by the tension between relatedness (loyalty to family) and individualism (loyalty to the market, defining relationships through money rather than kinship).

Here again, Austin-Broos demonstrates how the Arrernte redefined their imaginary to suit the demands of the new order. The use of money, commodities, and other transportable material became a means of attesting to relatedness. To be able to demand ngkwaltye (spare change, scraps, a little bit) or to be able to grant such a request melded the traditional economy of sharing with relatives to the rules of the marketplace. In other contexts, this practice has become known as “humbugging” and it in itself escalates tensions and becomes the occasion of interpersonal and social violence. The accommodation to the new order is sought, just as the fusing of the Dreaming and pepe had been pursued early in the 20th century. But so far, the results appear to be more disruptive of the social order than sustaining or adaptive. Austin-Broos summarizes the dilemma:

In short, to be the individual that market society and even CDEP expects, Western Arrernte must be prized from kin relatedness and from their emotional links to place. The violence that is readily seen in Western Arrernte life today is informed by the conditions of forced transition, but on the margins of market society–“forced” because the meaning and value of market society disorganize other regimes of values without quite delivering on modernity (p. 246).

While the outstation movement was supposed to mark a return to a more traditional way of life, its key feature, Austin-Broos notes, is still that of settlement, a mode of living in one place. It was mission life without the mission. Worse, during their century of evangelization, the missions had effectively destroyed the knowledge of ritual that might have sustained the Arrernte had self-detemination been a meaningful alternative. After a brief revival of ceremony led by the oldest men, death robbed the new generation of its chance to effectively re-establish itself on country.

Indeed, consider that fifty years elapsed between the arrival of the missionaries and the general repudiation of the tywerrenge in the early 1930s. It is now barely forty years since the advent of “self-determination” and the degree and the pace of change that the Arrernte have been subjected to in that latter span have been far more intense. That the adaptations have been imperfect, maladaptive, or even failures, should not be surprising.

Austin-Broos was in the last stages of completing her manuscript for this book when Little Children Are Sacred was published and the Northern Territory Emergency Response launched. Shocked by the vitriolic pathologizing of Indigenous people that accompanied these political maneuverings, Austin-Broos adapted her final chapters to address the challenges that the Intervention brought anew to Arrernte life. In yet another example of the keen and fresh insights she brings to the discussion, Austin-Broos examines the debates and concludes that much of what was said in 2007 was political speech aimed at discrediting either proponents of the “failed” government policies of the previous thirty years or the stringencies of the Intervention’s goal and tactics. When the Arrernte and their fellows entered the discussion at all, it was often merely as “portraits of degradation” (p. 258).

Nor did anthropologists do much to help. For much of the 20th century, she charges, anthropology has been preoccupied with studies of kinship and ritual, or engaged with documenting land claims and, as such, focused more on Canberra’s laws and consultancy.

There has been very little stepping back to gain a perspective on the state and society–or on a phenomenology of changing indigenous subjects. Either a bounded ethnographic model or consultation for the state has intervened in a more critical view of remote indigenous life.

Whatever the outcome of this intervention, the national discourse would be more discerning and less strident were opinion makers prepared to engage directly with remote communities in their own domain. The pundits would be less detached and possibly more able to support those who have hard decisions to make (p. 258).

In these final arguments, Austin-Broos reiterates her vision of Arrernte agency. No matter what changes have been forced upon them, the Arrernte have creatively engaged with the necessity to accommodate their existing comprehension of the world to the facts on the ground. Her goal is to make explicit these traces of an Arrernte past that she discerns in the Arrernte present. “It does not serve indigenous people well to assimilate their history simply into the dimensions of a taken-for-granted politics” (p.270). We must, she insists, come to terms with the magnitude of Indigenous experience if we are to understand the problems the Arrernte face and find ways to aid in ameliorating them.

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One Response to The Arrernte, Twice Removed

  1. Pingback: Internet Links | 'Boomerang' Tour: Germany 2015

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