Book: Restoring the Chain of Memory
Chapter: The Context: Central Australia, T.G.H. Strehlow and His Detractors
This chapter provides basic background to the argument of the book that T.G.H. Strehlow (1908-1978), as a key interpreter of Indigenous Religions in Central Australia, continues to play an important role in contemporary movements to repatriate Australian Indigenous knowledge. The context for Strehlow’s life and writings is provided by outlining the main language groupings of the peoples of Central Australia among whom Strehlow lived and worked, principally the Arrernte. This is followed by introducing the reader to Strehlow’s biographical details, including his early years as the only white child living on the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission located approximately 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs, and the forty years he spent as an adult researching the peoples of Central Australia during which time increasingly he became committed to preserving and interpreting what he considered the disappearing religious and cultural traditions of the central desert peoples. His final years were overtaken by controversy concerning who ‘owned’ the knowledge he had procured from Indigenous leaders, including the films, transcripts and sacred objects he possessed. The last half of the chapter analyses three important writers, Strehlow’s ‘detractors’, who have provided critical accounts of Strehlow’s life: Ward McNally, Barry Hill and Tim Rowse. The chapter concludes by suggesting that the controversies which surrounded Strehlow during the final decade of his life have overshadowed the substantial contribution he made to interpreting the religious, social and cultural life of the Indigenous peoples of Central Australia.