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Restoring the Chain of Memory

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Restoring the Chain of Memory describes and analyses the writings and records compiled by the notable linguist, T.G.H. Strehlow (1908–1978), on Australian Aboriginal Religions, particularly as practised by the Arrernte of Central Australia.
During numerous research trips between 1932 and 1966, the local Indigenous Arrernte Elders entrusted him with sacred objects, allowed him to film their secret rituals and record their songs, partly because he was regarded as one of them, an ‘insider’, who they believed would help preserve their ancient traditions in the face of threats posed by outside forces.
Strehlow characterized Arrernte society as ‘personal monototemism in a polytotemic community’. This concept provides an important insight into understanding how Arrernte society was traditionally organized and how the societal structure was re-enforced by carefully organized rituals. Strehlow’s research into this complex societal system is here examined both in terms of its meaning and current application and with reference to how the societal structure traditionally was interwoven into religious understandings of the world. It exemplifies precisely how the ‘insider-outsider’ problem is embodied in one individual: he was accepted by the Arrernte people as an insider who used this knowledge to interpret Arrernte culture for non-Indigenous audiences (outsiders).
This volume documents how Strehlow’s works are contributing to the current repatriation by Australian Aboriginal leaders of rituals, ancient songs, meanings associated with sacred objects and genealogies, much of which by the 1950s had been lost through the processes of colonization, missionary influences and Australian governmental interference in the lives of Indigenous societies.

Published: Mar 26, 2018

Section Chapter Authors
List of Illustrations James Cox
Acknowledgements James Cox
Preface James Cox
Chapter 1
The Context: Central Australia, T.G.H. Strehlow and His Detractors James Cox
Chapter 2
Restoring the Chain of Memory: A Theory of Religion and Indigenous Religions James Cox
Chapter 3
Eternity: Arrernte Myths of Creation James Cox
Chapter 4
Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community James Cox
Chapter 5
Songs of Central Australia James Cox
Chapter 6
‘One Hour Before Sunset’: The Loss of Indigenous Religious Knowledge James Cox
Chapter 7
Strehlow the ‘Insider’ as a Phenomenologist of Religion James Cox
Chapter 8
T.G.H. Strehlow and the Repatriation of Knowledge James Cox
Chapter 9
Knowledge, Tradition and Authority James Cox
End Matter
Bibliography James Cox
Index James Cox


James L. Cox’s Restoring the Chain of Memory: T.G.H. Strehlow and the Repatriation of Australian Indigenous Knowledge is a fascinating, painstakingly researched, timely and immensely valuable study of the scholarly achievement of Ted Strehlow in preserving in textual and material form the culture of the Arrernte people of Central Australia. Cox argues for a revaluation of both Strehlow’s career and Arrernte traditions, using Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s concept of the “chain of memory” to demonstrate that the Indigenous rituals, songs and objects that Strehlow preserved have become, in the 40 years since his death, a means for contemporary Arrernte Elders to repatriate their own ancestral knowledge. Restoring the Chain of Memory is an important book for all people interested in Indigenous religions, anthropology of religion, and the history of interactions between early twentieth century scholars and the colonized peoples they lived and worked alongside.
Carole M. Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies Studies in Religion | Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney, Editor, Literature & Aesthetics (journal of the Sydney Society of Literature and Aesthetics) Co-Editor (with Rachelle Scott, University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Fieldwork in Religion

Restoring the Chain of Memory’s focus on Theodor Strehlow and repatriation issues concerning aboriginal Australian artifacts and material remains is fascinating. Cox’s use of “intense empathy” in analyzing Indigenous traditions admits his research within his own theological and theoretical views making his situational transparency a welcome rare position for an academic studying “religion.”
Miguel Angel Astor-Aguilera, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies and Honors Faculty and Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Professor, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University

This highly original book provides a phenomenological account of the life and work of the anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow on indigenous religions in Australia. Through an application of social memory theory, it also details his contribution to the preservation and restoration of Indigenous knowledge in Central Australia. This will be a core text for the study of religion in Australia and more specifically of Indigenous religions.
Adam Possamai, Professor of Sociology, Western Sydney University

In Restoring the Chain of Memory Professor James Cox guides the reader through T.G.H. Strehlow’s life work of recording Aboriginal songs, ceremonies, stories and traditions, evaluating and interpreting Strehlow’s monumental and pioneering work with refreshing clarity and sensitivity. He provides valuable insights into the enduring value of Strehlow’s legacy for the current academic study of Indigenous religions and for Indigenous communities which are seeking to restore their lost traditions.
David Moore, University of Western Australia

Achieves its aim of illustrating the important role that Strehlow played in academic and indigenous chains of memory, and contributes handsomely to the study of indigenous religions.
Reading Religion

[Cox’s] excellent insight into the impact of the Strehlow archive on today’s indigenous Australians and its contribution to understanding makes this book a “must read” for anyone working on Australian indigenous cultures. But the impact of the book goes beyond Australian studies. Cox’s assessment of Strehlow’s understanding of indigenous cultures in Australia makes a wider contribution to scholarship through his careful discussion of the ethical challenges of using insights into knowledge that was regarded as secret/sacred. This discussion is of wider significance for academia, for scholars working on indigenous cultures, not only in Australia but elsewhere.

His study makes an important contribution to the study of religions, as well as to anthropology and archaeology.
BASR Bulletin