Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Addressing the Arrernte: FJ Gillen's 1896 Engwura Speech

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Addressing the Arrernte: FJ Gillen's 1896 Engwura Speech

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper analyses a speech delivered by Francis James Gillen during the opening stages of what is now regarded as one of the most significant ethnographic recording events in Australian history. Gillen's 'speech' at the 1896 Engwura festival provides a unique insight into the complex personal relationships that early anthropologists had with Aboriginal people. This recently unearthed text, recorded by Walter Baldwin Spencer in his field notebook, demonstrates how Gillen and Spencer sought to establish the parameters of their anthropological enquiry in ways that involved both Arrernte agency and kinship while at the same time invoking the hierarchies of colonial anthropology in Australia. By examining the content of the speech, as it was written down by Spencer, we are also able to reassesses the importance of Gillen to the ethnographic ambitions of the Spencer/Gillen collaboration. The incorporation of fundamental Arrernte concepts and the use of Arrernte words to convey the purpose of their 1896 fieldwork suggest a degree of Arrernte involvement and consent not revealed before. The paper concludes with a discussion of the outcomes of the Engwura festival and the subsequent publication of The Native Tribes of Central Australia within the context of a broader set of relationships that helped to define the emergent field of Australian anthropology at the close of the nineteenth century.


In 1896 Walter Baldwin Spencer travelled to Alice Springs to conduct detailed ethnographic studies into Arrernte spiritual and social life with his collaborator Francis James Gillen. As Special Magistrate and Aboriginal Sub-Protector in the region, Gillen was able to arrange with the local Arrernte men for a number of ceremonies to be performed within the vicinity of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. Hosting the event at the Telegraph Station would mean that the ceremonial event could progress virtually without interruption (for reasons explained below) and in return Gillen, and his associate Spencer, the then Professor of Biology at The University of Melbourne, would be permitted to document the proceedings. Spencer and Gillen's documentation of these ceremonies, known as the Engwura (Angkwerre), formed the bulk of The Native Tribes of Central Australia (Spencer and Gillen 1899), which went on to have an enormous impact upon the emerging disciplines of anthropology and sociology. (1) Spencer and Gillen's work during the Angkwerre is now renowned for being the longest and most concentrated anthropological field research conducted in nineteenth-century Australia (Mulvaney et al. 1997:13).

Spencer's original field diary from this time, held within the ethno-history collection at Museum Victoria, reveals that Gillen made a speech to the Arrernte men only a few days after Spencer's arrival in Alice Springs. Gillen's speech--composed in English but containing a significant number of Arrernte words and phrases--provides an invaluable insight into the attempt of the two ethnographers to explain in very simple terms why Spencer had travelled from Melbourne to witness the Angkwerre ceremonies and what he and Spencer intended to do with the information imparted to them over the course of the festival. This short speech also reveals with whom they intended to share their findings, and how they sought to gain legitimacy among the senior Arrernte.

The Angkwerre (Engwura) of 1896

The Angkwerre (2) (Engwura) festival--meaning a complete ceremonial event staged at a major totemic site--was held in Alice Springs between September 1896 and February 1897. During this particular Angkwerre, a series of initiation and other ceremonies honouring various totemic ancestors were performed. Many of these ceremonies were pertinent to a place south of Alice Springs on the Hugh River called Imarnte and primarily associated with the Atyelpe aknganentye (western quoll dreaming). (3) Photographs and notes taken during this event by Spencer and Gillen feature heavily in their first publication, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), and also in the double-volume work compiled by Spencer after Gillen's death, The Arunta: A study of a stone age people (Spencer and Gillen 1927). …

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