"Lherre Mpwarntwe, that old Todd River. He is a back-bone,
lying there. His head is up in that head-water country. This is his body,
right here in Alice Springs. The river is his back-bone, and that good
soil on both sides, that is his back muscles, that is his flanks. "
[Return to Part 1 of this article]
When such floods ran sufficiently for the waterholes to be filled and
for all life to burgeon, as they did in 1889 and 1920, they became places
of plenty. Thus, in the terrible drought year, 1929, when hundreds of
starving people left their home countries to migratesometimes hundreds
of kilometers and, as Dinny Tjapaljarri put it, "like perishing bullocks
to a water-trough"into the sanctuary of Hermannsburg Mission,
it was not the drought but the good times that were recalled. As Geza
Roheim, who was a visitor there for most of the year, recorded, two women's
memories were of the river which runs beside Hermannsburgthe Larapinta,
as the Finke (the Centre's largest river) is called by the Western Arrernte
Memories of swimming are always related to plentiful rain and flooded
rivers, which means abundance in the desert. Most of Urkalarkiraka's
conversations with me centred about the time in her childhood when there
had been heavy rains. There were many waterholes in which she could
swim. And how many ducks! What a quantity of eggs! She even saw a tree
full of wild oranges, which is an event in a life centred around the
Ilpaltalaka, in speaking about her childhood, told of the seeds she
ate when she was wandering about with her mother and her grandmother.
She gave me a detailed account of how fish were caught with porcupine
[prickly] grass, and how once, when they had already caught many fish,
they also found witchetty grubs. (Roheim 1974, 35).
As earlier mentioned, such good times allowed gatherings for the great
ceremonies, and the men sang "ilpindja" (love magic) songs.
Tnyerika, who in 1929 was, as Roheim recorded, "the chief authority
among the southern Aranda on tradition and beliefs" (Roheim 1974,
169), gave an Emu "ilpindja" which illustrates the layered structure
of Arrernte -- and other desert peoples' -- poetry, which is also applicable
to their songs and much of their story-telling. A small section of the
"ilpindja," in which the emu is the cock bird with an anthropomorphic
nature, has been translated by Roheim as follows:
He puts on his white head ring.
He puts on his white head ring.
He puts on the shining head ring.
The head ring shining blue like the sky.
He puts on the head ring.
The old man of the Emu totem puts on his belt.
He puts ceremonial marks on his forehead.
He ties the bandicoot tails to his belt.
And when the belt is ready, he puts it on.
He covers his body with the shining red ochre.
And when he is decorated, he stays very still in one place.
His body is shining red and he stays very still, sitting down.
With the red ochre shining on his body, he stays very still sitting
(Roheim 1974, 170).
If all of the preceding touches on the encyclopedic knowledge that desert
Aborigines have of their lands, that they also have a deep-seated association
with the eternal creative totemic ancestors who fashioned the land was
first clearly recognized by outsiders only a century ago. Mounted Constable
Ernest Cowle of the Central Australian police, writing to Professor Baldwin
Spencer on 28th May, 1900, commented:
I believe that every water hole, Spring, Plain, Hill, Big Tree,
Big Rock, Gutters and every pecu1iar or striking feature in the
Country, not even leaving out Sandhills, without any exception whatsoever
is connected with some tradition and that, if one had the right blacks
at that place, they could account for its presence there . . . . (Mulvaney
et al. 2000, 140).
One year later, traveling east of Tennant Creek (500 kilometers north
of Alice Springs), this statement was well-illustrated to the Professor
and his companion Frank Gillen, the latter a legendary post-master of
Alice Springs who was the first outsider to become deeply interested in
central Australian desert Aborigines' cultures. Spencer recorded the following
We had been very much interested in the Wollunqua [Snake] ceremonies,
and were anxious to see for ourselves the snake's home . . . and the
sacred spots around it, so we proposed to the old men of the totem group
that they should take us there. They readily fell in with our suggestion,
and . . . we started off from Tennant Creek in company with a small
party of about a dozen of the older men, including the two chief men
of the totem group.
For the first two days our way lay across very uninteresting plain
country covered with poor scrub, with here and there a low range of
hills. Every prominent feature of any kind was associated with some
tradition of their past. A range five miles away from Tennant Creek
had arisen to mark the path traversed by the great ancestor of the Pittongu
(bat) totem. Several miles further on, a solitary, upstanding column
of rock represented an opossum man who rested here during his travels,
looked about the country, and left spirit children behind him when he
journeyed on. A low range of remarkable, white quartzite hills indicated
a large number of white-ant eggs, thrown down here by some women called
Munga-Munga who belonged to the yam totem. They were sent away to the
east from a place close to Tennant Creek by the ancestor of the black-snake
totem, carrying their yams with them. These were . . . [sacred objects],
and they deposited them . . . along with the spirits associated with
them, at various places as they traveled on towards and across the country
of the Worgaia tribe: indeed one of the old Worgaia men with us was
the reincarnation of one of these yam spirits.
As we rode slowly along, the natives keeping pace with us on foot,
the old men were continually talking about the natural features associated
in their traditions with various totemic ancestors, and pointing out
to us every feature that interested them.
On the second night we camped by a waterhole where an old crow ancestor
once lived and where there are now plenty of crow spirit children. On
the third day we traveled along by the side of a dry creek and passed
the spot where two hawk ancestors first made fire by rubbing sticks
together, two fine gum trees on the banks now representing the place
where they did this. A few miles further on we came to a waterhole,
by the side of which a moon man met a bandicoot woman. They were so
long talking together that the fire, made by the hawks, crept upon them
before they could get out of the way and burnt the woman, who was, however,
restored to life by the moon man, with whom she then went up into the
We were gradually approaching the . . . Range, and late in the afternoon
of the third day skirted its base, and, following up a valley leading
into the hills, camped, just after sunset, by the side of a picturesque
waterhole called Wiarminni. We were now, so to speak, in the very midst
of Mungaithat is, spots once inhabited by the old ancestors, and
now full of spirit children. These old ancestors showed a commendable
fondness for walking about in a few picturesque spots that their country
contained, and seem to have selected these rock ranges as their central
home. All around us the waterholes, gorges and rocky crags were peopled
with spirit individuals, left behind by one or other of the totemic
ancestorsWollunqua, Pittongu (bat), Wongana (crow), wild dog [dingo],
emu, bandicoot, fish and kangaroowhose lines of travel in the
mystic past times, called the Wingara, formed a regular network over
the whole country-side. At night as we lay on the ground by the side
of our camp fire, with the nativesall of them elders of the tribe
talking about what had happened in the far past times, we realised
more fully perhaps than we had ever done before what these old traditions
meant to them, and could almost believe, with them, that the ancestral
spirits were actually wandering around us, as we fell asleep, surrounded
by the very trees, rocks and waterholes in which they lived. (Spencer
and Gillen 1912, 11:408-411).
The majority of the waterholes in the range were visitable by men, women
and children but, as once was the case with the great Caterpillar ancestors'
waterholes at Heavitree Gap (the southern entrance to Alice Springs) and
Emily Gap (12 kilometers east of the Alice), and still is the situation
with numbers of the other great spiritual waters throughout the deserts,
the most significant are considered so powerful in their totemic spirituality
that only initiated men can visit them. Even then, the correct route and
correct protocol has strictly to be followed during the approach. Although
each site has special features which result in variant approaches in the
year 2001 just as was the case a century ago, an excellent illustration
of the reverence for a site was recorded by Frank Gillen on August 28th,
When within sight of the great waterhole at Thapaurla the blacks cautioned
us not to mention the snake's name but to speak of it only as the snake
otherwise it might become angry and issue forth and destroy us. We assured
them that we had the greatest respect for the snake and indeed we have
and we were most careful not to disobey their injunction.
Thapaurla and Kadjingarra [the two main rock-hole waters] are Thama,
that is, Tabu to women and if any woman ventured to go there she would
be tracked up and killed.
On approaching the great waterhole in which the Walunkwa [snake] is
believed to dwell the old men sang out, 'Rest quietly. We are of your
Mungai (totem) and your countrymen' and one of the young men who is
of the Kingilli moiety said, 'I am Kingilli, rest quietly or I will
take your water away.' The latter threat was said playfully of course.
We were much impressed with the reverence shown by the natives who accompanied
us and I must confess that to a certain extent I shared in their feelings.
(Gillen 1968, 245-246)
As might be expected, the ceremonies for such a site are of a very secret
and sacred nature. T.G.H. Strehlow quotes his old Northern Arrernte informant
Gura, "the ceremonial chief of the gura bandicoot totemic centre
of Ilbalindja," as follows:
The old men took me apart from the other young men of my own age at
an early date. They showed me many gura ceremonies which they withheld
from the other members of the bandicoot clan because they were too young.
I remember their teachings well. I often . . . [helped in a sacred way
with] the ceremonies. I dutifully paid large meat-offerings for the
instruction that I had received. Some of the ceremonies were too secret
to be shown even to ordinary men of the bandicoot clan: only the oldest
men of the clan and the born chief were allowed to witness them. None
of the gura men of the present generation have seen them. My elders
kept on repeating these ceremonies time and again in my presence: they
were afraid that I might forget them. No other man of my own age was
allowed to see them. Had I forgotten them, no one else would now remember
them. Our old men have been dead for many years past, and our ceremonies
have not been performed at Ilbalindja for a long time. They told me
that after their death I should pass these ceremonies on only to proved
men of their own age, when I felt that I was getting old and weak, and
that my memory was beginning to fail me. I was to pledge these men to
the same secrecy. (Strehlow 1970, 115).
Although such detailed knowledge as Gura had has largely been lost Australia-wide,
many of the desert peoples retain the finest detail of a wide range of
aspects. However, there are also descriptions of country that can only
derive from a strongly traditional perspective. Thus a century after Spencer
and Gillen recorded their accounts, and almost seventy years after Strehlow
recorded old Gura, Wenten Rubuntja, a senior Arrernte man of great knowledge
and wisdom, talked about the Todd River of Alice Springs in the following
Lherre Mpwarntwe, that old Todd River. He is a back-bone, lying there.
His head is up in that head-water country. This is his body, right here
in Alice Springs. The river is his back-bone, and that good soil on
both sides, that is his back muscles, that is his flanks. His legs stretch
down past Heavitree Gap [the southern entrance to Alice Springs] to
Ooraminna [a rock-hole 35 kilometers south]. Down that way. That is
the good country. That is all the Yeperenye Caterpillar Dreaming [totem]
country. Everyone can live here now. We can all get along. Be friends,
be happy, working together. Lhere Mpwarntwe that is what we call
him, all the Arrernte people. That is the Todd River now, like his back-bone.
Such a brief overview allows but a scratching at the surface of understandings.
It is appropriate, though, to conclude with words that were written for
the Yeperenye Federation Festival, "Coming Together As One",
which was held in Alice Springs on 8-9th September, 2001. Australia became
a Federation of States and Territories in 1901 and, shamefully for Australia's
history, Aborigines were initially written out of the Constitution because
they were believed doomed to rapid extinction. They had no formal citizenship
rights until the mid-1960's, no land-rights until 1976, and no Native
Title rights until the 1990's. While throughout the year 2001 there have
been numerous celebratory events for all Australians, this magnificent
festival was the major contribution by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia
and the near-north Torres Strait Islanders. It certainly proved that they
had survived, despite all of the problems of the last two centuries. Representatives
of all of the Aboriginal nations came together in thousands, in the largest
gathering of Aboriginal peoples ever recorded, and other Australians were
welcome to share in the spectacle of the wonderful dancing, moving "coming
together" ceremony, and concert. The Arrernte people of Alice Springs
demonstrated their sense of history, wisdom and generosity in their "Welcome
From The Arrernte People."
This is a special place called Mpwarntwe.
Apmere nhenhe kenhe arrinte Mpwarntwe.
This is the land of the Yeperenye Dreaming and a special site used
for meetings and gatherings by the traditional Arrernte people long
before the town of Alice Springs was built.
Apmere nhenhele aneme atywerrente akgerre anthume. Arrernte mape
apmere nhenhele apurte irremele anetyarte.
Arrernte elders and the traditional owners connected to the Yeperenye
Dreaming are traditionally the landlords (Kwetengurles), and the traditional
owners (Apereke-atweye) of this land are the Kngwarrayes and the Peltharre
Apmere nhenhe arele atyakeke areaye apele Ayeparenya/ Utnerrenge
artyetyeke artweye mape Kngwarraye ante Peltharre mape.
We acknowledge and recognise that all elders and their people from
everywhere have spiritual connections and stories in their country.
Anwerne iterlanreme apmere arrepenhe arenye mape kenhe atywerrenge
We invite you to come and join us in celebrating this great event,
the Yeperenye Federation Festival, as we share each other's culture,
spiritual relationship, family kinships and law through song, dance,
art and music, a celebration of our ongoing existence.
Apetyaye anwerne akangemele arrkene apurte anetyeke alte therreke
anthepe irretyeke/ urntetyeke/ alyeletyeke/ intertiletyeke Yeperenye
Federation Festival nhenhe ikwere.
(Arrernte People 2001).
The author wishes to acknowledge the following central Australian and
Western Desert Aborigines, without whose help, friendship and comments
over the years he could not have written this article:
George Yapa Yapa Tjangala
Jimmy Wanatjuka Tjungurrayi
Arthur Patutu Tjapananga
Pinta Pinta (Butterfly) Tjapananga
(Back to top)
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