Restoring the Chain of Memory

T. G. H. Strehlow and the Repatriation of Australian Indigenous Knowledge

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James L. Cox
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.
Review coming soon!

Review by Liam T. Sutherland forthcoming.


Restoring the Chain of Memorydescribes 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.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James L. Cox is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh,and Adjunct Professor in the Religion and Society Research Cluster, Western Sydney University. He has particular interests in the study of Indigenous Religions, with emphases on Africa, the Arctic and Australia and in methodologies in the academic study of religions.

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