15 September 2013
Things unfold slowly in Alice Springs. There’s a kind of chaos that seems to seep into every crevice it can find, turning things around at the last minute to leave me floundering and confused. Change tumbles and roles and clatters like marbles, scattering the plans of the day. I feel ungrounded, tied down to nothing. It is a difficult environment in which to work when time is short, though perhaps it is possible to find a rhythm if you live here, ducking and weaving with the flow.
But today has a picture to it. We are taking Christopher’s huge Toyota 4WD on a journey, over the bridge and along the dry Todd River that runs through Alice. Six of us squeeze into the old truck but it’s a comfortable, companionable ride heading out of town along the MacDonnell Range; 130km to Ntaria, the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg.
The Hermannsburg mission was founded by Lutheran missionaries from Germany in 1877. It continued until 1982 when the land was returned to the Aboriginal people.
Although the missionaries to Australia are accused of banning traditional practices and mixing different language groups together, causing loss of identity and belonging, there is also the viewpoint that the Australian Aboriginal people were already dispossessed, raped and murdered by white settlers and governments who made it impossible for them to continue in their culture, and that without the missionaries the lives of the Aboriginal people could have been even worse. Indeed, in Central Australia, the Arrarnta were denied access to their waterholes and were being shot and poisoned by the pastoralists, when the Lutheran Mission persuaded them to give up their nomadic lifestyle and live in the mission. This had the dual effect of helping Arrarnta survive but at the same time lose much of the essence of their culture and traditional material.
Now there are many outstations around Ntaria, small communities serviced by Ntaria, where a few families live in close connection with the natural environment. Outstations are set up to bring Aboriginal people closer to their traditional lifestyles.
We are going to Ntaria today for a choir day, organised by choirmaster David, and two other choirs. Pitjantjatjara people’s Utju choir, and Asante Sana from Alice Springs are joining the local Western Arrarnta, Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Ladies Choir to sing first in the Lutheran church, then in the shade of the community’s open basketball court, and finally down by the red rock of the gorge.
German buildings of thick, whitewashed stone make up the old part of Ntaria. Inside the stone the space is bare and cool, protected from the burning blue sun with logs laid across the ceiling and thatch above. These buildings are neatly placed at spaced intervals across the red dust of the courtyards, and punctuated with gleaming white bark of the eucalypt trees that offer an occasional, scanty olive-shade. The community where people live lies beyond the fence, a low spread of tin-roof, concrete brick bungalows common to the communities.
We enter the church, a hubbub of chatter and children and lone dogs that wander in the door for a look and to sniff the cooler air. There is a warm three-dimensionality to the sounds of the church. When the singing starts it is a treat to hear the music of Arrarnta language stitching together the old Lutheran songs.
The second part of the day is planned for the shelter of the basketball court, a wide, open concrete floor with a flat tin roof for shade. The microphones are set up at one end, the backdrop of open country behind, and we all sit in groups around the floor. But hot winds are sandblasting the community today and we are assaulted by scouring dust, thrust and swirled in our eyes and faces, ripping across the concrete floor, on which we are all seated, in red waves of sand and grit.
The subdued shade of the tin shelter, the blazing blue of the heat outside, bouncing off the ground, the ripping wind and dust, all make for a challenging photographic and sound recording experience, but the singing goes bravely on, and the smiles are broad and lift our spirits beyond the superficial challenges of the day. It is decided, however, that singing at the gorge will not be practicable.
Mark Inkamala is senior lawman of Western Arrarnta country. He came with us from Alice Springs for the day to be with his family here and join the festivities. Mark has told me about Jesus’ footprint in the rocks near Ntaria and wants to show me the spot, so before we head back to Alice at the end of the day, we take a drive to the red rocks on the sandy riverbed. The footprint is also part of a traditional Creation story, the first man to set foot on earth. Today Mark refers to it as Jesus’ footprint.
It is dark by the time we are all piling back into the car for the journey home and we chat and laugh as we drive, one eye always on the lookout for wild horses or camels or cattle or kangaroos; the others on the road.
Back at my studio space I can never decide what must come first – food or drink to stave the dryness of my mouth after a long hot day, or a shower to scrape off the layers of dust caked into sun cream, or a phone call home.
(Some new links are up at the Australia Digital resources page of the blog, relating to Aboriginal land rights, Australian Bureaus of Statistics on Language, an ABC story on Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir, a historical article on the Hermannsburg mission, and some cultural stories from the West MacDonnell ranges)