(Note – Contains images of First Peoples who have passed away.)
THE FATHER OF AUSTRALIA – ALL AT SEA.
First – imagine Sir Joseph Banks in 1770, having sailed along the edge of the continent, writing in his Journal, how the interior of this continent must be uninhabited. As the Endeavour sailed away from the coast of the continent, towards New Guinea, he concluded that the the lack of cultivation this country meant the interior must be uninhabited.
“The Sea has I beleive been universally found to be the cheif source of supplys to Indians ignorant of the arts of cultivation “ (Banks Journal 1770).
Banks never returned to this country. As President of the Royal Society for several decades, as a patron with much influence, he served a key role as an expert authority on New South Wales. This role he play to such an extent he has been dubbed the Father of Australia.
After returning from the Endeavour voyage:
“… Banks was actively involved in almost every aspect of Pacific exploration and early Australian colonial life….
He had a role in choosing the governors of the settlement in New South Wales, founded in January 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet. It was Banks who later recommended Bligh to succeed Philip Gidley King as the fourth Governor of New South Wales, Bligh’s governorship ending in deposition during the Rum Rebellion in 1808. Banks corresponded with the first four Governors of New South Wales who, while they reported officially to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, also reported privately and therefore more intimately and openly to Banks.
Practically anyone who wanted to travel to New South Wales, in almost any capacity, consulted Sir Joseph Banks. He was the one constant throughout the first 30 years of white settlement in Australia, through changes of ministers, government and policy.” Source –State Library NSW http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/banks.cfm accessed 28 March 2017
But, as we shall now see, when it came to the realities of life in this country, the Father of Australia was all at sea.
ARRARNTA SKY BEING
Second – cut to Central Australia towards the end of the 1800s. In 1984, the Horn Expedition is making its way on camels into the heart of the country. They are not the first Europeans to push into these parts – but they are different in that they are a scientific expedition. Part of the scientific aspects of the expedition includes learning more about First Peoples. It is during this expedition that Frank Gillen learns a little about a curious sky-being – an Emu-footed sky being.
“… Gillen … reported that among the Aranda of his acquaintance “the sky is said to be inhabited by three persons – a gigantic man with an immense foot shaped like that of the emu, a woman, and a child who never develops beyond childhood”. Since Gillen did no work among the Western Aranda, it seems as though the Eastern Aranda group of Alice Springs had a belief similar to that found among the Kukatja.” (TGH Strehlow 1964 ‘Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community’ page 725).
TGH provides the reference for Gillen – Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition, Pt. IV, p. 183.
However the Lutheran missionaries at Hermannsburg may have first encountered this Being as the searched for evidence of their own God in Western Arrarnta cosmology. As Missionaries they were not in Arrarrnta country in Central Australia to learn about First Peoples cosmologies in order to take those ideas back to Europe.
A fuller account of a Western Arrarnta (aka Aranda or Arrernte or Arunta) narrative was collected and published by the German Lutheran Missionary Carl Strehlow who lived at the Hermannsburg mission at Ntaria.
He published his account (along with a great deal more) in ‘Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stamme in Zentral-Australien’ – several volumes from 1907 to 1920. His major work has not been published in English (although some translations exist).
Unlike many other Arrarnta traditions, which are part of senior men’s business, this tradition is reported to be open to men, women and children. I acknowledge Western Arrarnta intellectual property in this matter, and note it has been in the public domain for many years.
(Page from Carl Strehlow’s German original, showing his indigenous mentors – Anna Kenny ‘The Aranda’s Pepa’ (2013:29-30 citing SRC 6196) gives their names as Loatjira, Pmala (Tmala), (Moses) Tjalkabata, Talku. My screenshot from online version available from
An English translation of Carl Strehlow, probably by Charles Chewings, appeared in the works of anthropologists Spencer and Gillen:
Sir Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen 1927 ‘The Arunta ; A study of a stone age people.’ Volume 2 Page 593
T.G.H Strehlow, one of Australia’s most important anthropologists, was the son of Carl Strehlow. He grew up speaking Arrarnta and had extensive in-depth contact with senior Western Arrarnta lawmen.
I first read about the Emu-footed Being who lives in the sky, with his dog-footed wives, in TGH Strehlow’s 1964 article ‘Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community’ back in the 1970s.
There, he wrote:
“The Western Aranda believed the sky to be inhabited by an emu-footed Great Father (kŋaritja), who was also the Eternal Youth (altjira nditja). This Great Father had dog-footed wives, and many sons and daughters – all the males being emu-footed and all the females dog-footed. They lived on fruits and vegetable foods in an eternally green land, unaffected by droughts, through which the Milky Way flowed like a broad river, and the stars were their campfires. In this green land there were only trees, fruits, flowers and birds; no game animals existed, and no meat was eaten. All of these sky dwellers were as ageless as the stars themselves, and death could not enter their home: the reddish-skinned emu-footed Great Father of the sky, whose blonde hair shone “like a spider web in the evening sunlight”, looked as young as his own sons, and all the women who lived above the stars had the grace and full-bosomed beauty of young girls.” (Personal Monototemism … 1964:725)
TGH Strehlow did not share his father’s view about the use of the word “God” in translating this narrative. The Lutheran missionaries were in Arrarnta country to teach about their version of the high Indo-European God. They were intent on finding a means of translating their belief system into Arrarnta language and concepts.
There is also a major difference in the T G H Strehlow account since it states that no game animals existed and no meat was eaten.
This Emu-Footed Sky Being may or may not eat meat. He and his family may eat the vegetable foods latjia/yelka, collected by this wives, and other fruits which that grow abundantly in all seasons.
TGH Strehlow explicitly cover this question about whether or not game was hunted in the realm of the Emu-footed sky being in his major work ‘Songs of Central Australia’. He says the lawmen who instructed him were emphatic that no meat was eaten.
So, we have a puzzle since the narrative recorded by his father, Carl Strehlow, not only states that Iliinka (Emu-footed Being) hunted but also notes the method he employed – the age old method of waiting by a waterhole and letting the game come to the hunter. This is a particularly sound method in Central Australia, where surface water can be very scarce for several months of the year. This seems a strange addition to include if it is incorrect.
We have no means of resolving this contradiction between the two versions.
But the point i need to make here is this – not only did Western Arrarnta people creatively fashion an image of a marvelous eternal Being in the Sky – a Being which had little (if any) involvement in their daily affairs – but we can ponder whether or not he (and his celestial family) were omnivorous or – if not vegan – at least vegetarian. We have come a long way from 1770.
Cut back to Sir Joseph Banks in 1770 sitting in the cabin on the Endeavour and ‘being at liberty’ to conclude that the interior of the continent was uninhabited since any people living there would need cultivation to be able to survive.
Not only has he completely misjudged the means by which people – in the core of the continent – can survive very well in some of the most extreme country but he also cannot imagine that those people – living well much of the time (even in droughts) over a very long time (as now dated by science) – have also creatively fashioned a complex belief cosmological system which includes an eternal Being residing, with his family, in the most distant part of the sky.
It is well worth taking a moment to reflect on the difference between the creative imaginations of Banks, sailing along the very edge of the continent, and Arrarnta people, sitting by their campfires at the heart of the continent and looking at the eternal campfires, overhead.