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.


Restoring the Chain of Memory: T.G.H. Strehlow and the Repatriation of Australian Indigenous Knowledge re-examines the controversial German-Australian ethnographer Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908-1978), and his legacy to the academic study of indigenous peoples, and for the Indigenous Australian community among whom he worked. Strehlow dedicated his life to the study of the Central Desert Aborigines known variously as the Arunta, Aranda, and Arrernte—the latter will be used subsequently in line with author James L. Cox’s preference—whose country surrounds Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The book successfully balances its appraisal of Strehlow’s scholarly legacy with an account of the ways in which modern Arrernte make use of Strehlow’s work to reconnect with and reclaim their ancestral traditions through the T.G.H. Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs. These disparate themes are connected and framed by Cox’s analytical approach, which relates to wider, comparative academic debates. 

Strehlow was a unique figure in the history of ethnography. He was the son of the German Lutheran missionary Reverend Carl Strehlow, who worked at the Hermannsburg mission (Ntaria in Arrernte) 130 km west of Alice Springs, in 1877. ‘Ted’ Strehlow grew up on the mission, as the only white child, until the age of 14. This thoroughly exposed him to Arrernte culture and enabled him to become fluent in the Arrernte language from a young age—considering it to be as much one of his mother tongues as German and English. This provided him with a different position from most ethnographers writing at that time. Later in the text, the concept of whether Strehlow could even be considered as an “insider,” or “quasi-insider,” given his unique upbringing is discussed. Strehlow returned to Arrernte country in 1932 initially as a linguistics student, but expanded his research to include Arrernte culture, religion, and ritual. 

Restoring the Chain of Memory expertly curates Strehlow’s ethnographies and analyses of Arrernte ritual and its various forms and purposes. The book would serve very well for any introductory course on Indigenous Religions as it delivers a particularly clear understanding of the workings of the Arrernte totemic system. Strehlow was critical of the concept of “Dreamtime” or “Dreaming” used to translate the Arrernte concept of AltjiraAlcheringa—and also used by missionaries to translate “God.” Instead, he translated the concept as “eternity” given that it referred to the continuing presence of the ancestors in the landscapes, which they forged, and whose descendants act as rightful heirs, carrying on their rituals and songs. 

As the book explains, individual Arrernte gained their totemic identity from the sacred site (pmara kutata) nearest to where their mother experienced her first birth pangs. This provided a lifelong connection to the site, and a place within its ritual hierarchy—from senior initiated elders to uninitiated children (the role of gender in these hierarchies, according to Strehlow, was revised later in his career). Nonetheless, this ritual hierarchy operated alongside other social distinctions such as extended kin groups, which is why Strehlow coined the term “personal monototemism in a polytotemic community” (60). Each individual was bound, not only to a totem, but to one of their pmara kutata (myths of specific ancestors linked different sites together through their travels and deeds) living alongside extended kin affiliated to multiple totems and engaging in a rich common ritual cycle. This system was evident during the most important rituals; elder initiated men of the pmara kutata were at the center of events, but crucially, local kinspeople belonging to different totems were still accorded a more central role than visitors belonging to the same totem but a different site. 

Strehlow’s later life was marred by controversy, which Cox convincingly asserts has overshadowed assessments of his contribution to scholarship. On his return to Arrernte country, Strehlow was adamant that Aboriginal traditions were in terminal decline owing to the apparent lack of knowledge of many traditional rites among the youth due to the concerted missionary efforts to stamp them out. It was, he declared “one hour before sunset” (108-09). This does have an unfortunate resonance with the long-standing discourse of Aborigines as a “dying race,” which has a problematic legacy in Australia, though could be read as an informed acceptance of an uncomfortable truth. 

However, critics of Strehlow argue that much of this reflects his allegedly arrogant attitude and sense that he knew everything there was to know about Arrernte society. It is the case that Strehlow perceived himself to be the repository of Arrernte traditions, selected by the elders to preserve them for posterity. This culminated in the most controversial act of Strehlow’s career, his selling of photographs and descriptions of secret-sacred ceremonies to the German magazine Slate in the 1970’s. Cox by no means excuses this behaviour, though I found myself more convinced by Strehlow’s critics on his pronouncements regarding the death of the tradition, as legitimating his own claims over it. Cox suggests that Strehlow’s careful and detailed ethnographies are not only useful to academics, but are demonstrably used by Indigenous people themselves. Cox rightly stresses the importance of the agency of indigenous peoples in the transmission, maintenance, recovery, and repatriation of traditional knowledge. 

I would argue that one problem with the approach taken in Restoring the Chain of Memory is that it follows a rather stark, binary model of “religion” and “tradition.” Drawing on French Sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s work on religion as a “chain of memory,” Cox “asserts that for anything to be called a religion the present generation in an identifiable community must trace its identity and constitute its membership by appeals to a tradition that has been passed on from previous generations with an overwhelming authority” (30). I am not opposed to the use of such definitions, which impose analytical boundaries, but the utility of a stark distinction between overwhelming authority and everything else as the basis for a discussion of “religion” or “tradition,” in general, is questionable. 

It is quite clear from the accounts provided in the book that the access, authority, and transmission of Arrernte traditions were tightly controlled by senior elders. The missionaries had considerable impact as well, but even the most dominant and majoritarian traditions in the contemporary world have lost much of that kind of monopolistic authority. I can appreciate the need to differentiate these kinds of systems from extremely fluid, or self-authorized forms of authority, perhaps to hold them as poles of a spectrum; but there is considerable room for nuance. It is this kind of thinking which appears to have led Strehlow to his fatal pronouncements when there was evidence that the authoritative memory of many elements of the tradition belonging to the ancestors connected to Arrernte identity continued in other ways. A model for a more fluid and contested approach to tradition is provided by Cox himself when he discusses a “New Age” ritual that he observed in the US known as the “Trance Dance.” This ritual was explicitly legitimated with reference to various world cultures, including Australian Aborigines, to create common social space, and a sense of tradition. This demonstrates that Cox’s approach is quite workable and would simply benefit from a little more nuance. Above all, Restoring the Chain of Memory 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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Liam T. Sutherland completed his doctorate inn Religious Studies at the Univeristy of Edinburgh, where he now teaches.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
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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