Academic journal article Oceania

'Working For' and 'Working' among Western Arrernte in Central Australia (1)

Academic journal article Oceania

'Working For' and 'Working' among Western Arrernte in Central Australia (1)

Article excerpt


A recent visit to the Western Arrernte outstation service centre (Tjuwanpa), found it a shadow of its former self. Both service and community projects were struggling and adminstrators conceded that unless an outstation was relatively close people resided most of the time in Ntaria/Hermannsburg. I yarned with the current manager whom I was meeting for the first time. He reiterated the rationale for outstations common in the period of land claims under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976: Outstations built on traditional country should also be sites of local economy in which people would work on small-scale projects. In this way, outstation residents would sustain themselves both as remote indigenous Australians, and as members of the nation state. Maintaining work for the dole, community projects and some small business was seen as a reasonable compromise between traditional and modern ways. Western Arrernte would live remote and more traditionally, and at the same time retain just a modest engagement with a market economy, supplemented by federal government transfers (see Austin-Broos 2001; Sanders 1993).

This had seemed a reasonable course through the 1980s and early 1990s. A decade later, the path had proved harder to realise than many imagined. Federal government responses now proclaim a course of mainstream education, less emphasis on transfers and renewed efforts to build small business in the outback. At the same time, there is tentative mention of rural to urban migration. In addition, resourcing outstations has become a major issue. The Western Arrernte's outstation movement was among the first and grew large on early funding regimes. However, as attitudes in government changed and regional demands escalated these outstation pioneers, in the eyes of Alice Springs administrators, became 'too spoilt,' 'too well serviced,' 'don't want to work,' 'can't work' ... and 'all-like-that' (as one Western Arrernte woman parodied the slights). (2)

The Tjuwanpa manager to whom I spoke adopted a milder approach. He observed that 'We need someone to come up 'ere and work with these young fellas ... find out what they want to do, what sorta work they want. Maybe no-one's asked them what they want to do.' This manager was well-meaning. He seemed to sense that something more than bludging was involved. His remarks reminded me of Friedrich Albrecht, the Lutheran pastor who succeeded Carl Strehlow at Hermannsburg. Not a scholar but a practical man, (3) Albrecht had sought to turn Hermannsburg into a rural industrial village following the disastrous drought of 1928-1929. He saw clearly that a hunting and foraging life was finished for the Arrernte and had himself played a part in disrupting 'nomadism.' He was therefore an early, committed, assimilationist (see Albrecht 2003).

Nonetheless, Albrecht had some cultural insight nurtured by decades spent with Western Arrernte. His commitment to promoting work and apprenticeship showed some ambivalence, and was interspersed with cries of frustration. These are evident in his papers and in his biography. Henson observes that '[Albrecht's] efforts for economic progress were often undercut by recurring problems about work" (Henson 1992:111. My emphasis.). Albrecht saw two main issues. One was the difficult relation between work and the authority of ritual life. He cited the following instance:

   Once at Hermannsburg, the head gardener could not dare to ask his
   fellow gardener to assist him in shifting a fairly heavy
   reticulation pipe for fear the other man could feel offended. As I
   was absent from the place, we lost [a large amount of vegetable
   produce]. (Albrecht 1961:4)

The second issue that Albrecht identified was a supposed economy of limited good in which the meanings of commodities and cash, and time-space of Aboriginal life, were markedly at variance with values of market society and its forms of governance. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.