Tags: wife kathleen

2 Aug 2006, Comments Off on What I’m reading: Broken Song

What I’m reading: Broken Song

Author: Helen

In 1977, I visited my parents in Canberra for a visit. At the time, my Dad was working at the RSSS and their house was a waystation for interesting people from all over. That time, I walked in to meet a tired-looking, late middle-aged couple sitting on the living room couch with a little boy of about four bouncing off the walls. They were Ted Strehlow, his wife Kathleen and their son Karl.
Picture from http://www.abbeys.com.au
At that time I hadn’t heard of Ted and his immense importance to Aboriginal ethnography, as well as the tragic arc of his life story. None of us would have known the awful, final turn his life was about to take. I wasn’t aware that these were the last two years of an eccentric, contrary, but fascinating life. The two of them looked dumpy, grey and beaten down (as Ted, by that time, pretty much was.) I was intrigued by the awfulness of their late-parenthood childrearing style– at the time, Ted was 70. “Oh, he’ll only eat chocolate,” said Kathleen airily, breaking off another row for the already hyperactive kid. A lot of people assume that people with superior intelligence are always better parents. These two would have qualified for a visit from Supernanny.

Broken Song: T.G.H.Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, by Barry Hill, is the latest biography of TGH Strehlow. It took me months, literally, to read this 750-page tome, not because I’m reading blogs all the bloody time, noooooo!…, rather because it’s a hardback which wasn’t mine and had to be Kept Nice, so I haven’t been taking it on the train. And public transport is my prime dead-tree reading time. Down with hardbacks.

Ted Strehlow was fluent in Aranda (Arrernte) from babyhood. Born and brought up in Hermannsburg Mission, he lived and worked with the Arrernte people for most of his life, both as an anthropologist and as a patrol officer. He developed an idea of himself as the custodian of a dying culture, as well as a fully initiated Ingkata (elder). Whether or not he truly was is disputed.
Picture from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/sunmorn/stories/s1014640.htm
While Strehlow was still still a young man, many Arrernte elders handed their sacred Tjurunga and other religious objects to him, and he interpreted this action to mean that he and no other was the final custodian. Because he viewed Tjurunga as belonging to the individual and not the tribe, he treated them as property and as completely alienable– thus setting himself up for conflict when the Land Rights movement gathered strength in the 70s and 80s and the Strehlows refused to give the objects back.

Strehlow’s greatest achievement was recording and explaining Arrernte legends, myths and songs, and particularly his book Songs of Central Australia, rather than as a mere curator of sacred objects.

The book is so filled with drama and poetry, and in such an rich visual and cultural setting, I couldn’t help thinking someone should be writing an opera about this man’s life. The tension of his upbringing, between Lutheran Christianity and Aboriginal culture (which would continue all his life). The Twins dreaming story, which he took as his own, and the psychological implications of that. The journey to Horseshoe Bend and the death of his father there. His experiences in the desert– for instance, his dramatic waking nightmare about a herd of bulls, his journeys (with his first wife) by camel. His frienships with Aboriginal people and his defence of Aborigines from abusive graziers and outback workers when he was a patrol officer. His mistreatment as a descendant of Germans, and a German speaker, in World War II. His escalating, paranoia-fuelled war with academia.

When I wonder why filmmakers and composers haven’t been all over the enormous lode of this man’s life, I think perhaps it’s because it’s over-rich in stories, metaphors and dramas – where would you start? and what would you leave out? Anyway, I hope it happens in my lifetime.

A cantata has been written and performed based on Journey to Horseshoe Bend. But there’s much more to Strehlow’s life than is contained in that story, dramatic though it is. Strehlow was a perfect tragic hero, or anti-hero, for modern Australia. He started out full of promise, and then destroyed himself with his own hubris in the best dramatic tradition. He saw himself as the only repository of Central Australian culture, the only living link to something that was essentially gone, and perhaps the last Ingkata. There’s Nemesis, too, of course, arriving not only in the shape of the Aboriginal land rights movement – they wanted their sacred objects, and their own stories, back – but his own tunnel vision and refusal to comply with what others saw as normal scholarly standards. He believed he had more right than the aboriginals themselves to the Tjurunga and other precious objects in his care.

In his last years, he became increasingly bitter and emotionally stunted. Reiterating his private ownership of his collection, he threatened to sell it. In 1978, a year after I met him, he engineered his own downfall when he lent a group of photographs of secred/sacred ceremonies to the German magazine Stern. For this he earned $6,000. However, Stern passed the images on to People magazine. It was a major scandal. The traditional owners of the objects and ceremonies were outraged. His life’s work was tainted, and whatever trust and kinship the Arrernte people felt for him was destroyed. He died soon afterwards.

Coda: The Land Councils are still trying to get the secret/sacred objects returned to them. And in 1992 and 1999 a portion of them were “rescued” when Kathy and young Carl, as inheritors of the collection, tried to sell some of it overseas.