A day for men, and Arrernte future



Gathered outside the Strehlow Research Centre were many of the elite of the town, from the black side of society as well as the white, Aboriginal law men, local business tycoons, members of the NT and Federal Parliaments, bureaucrats, the Mayor, plus a gaggle of media people, both local and from interstate, all of them men, as were the four traditional dancers.

A sign at the entrance to the area proclaimed: “Women not permitted inside.”

Two men entered carrying a crate, about a cubic metre in size, placing it at the focal point of where the audience was due to sit and listen to speeches.

A man spread an Aboriginal flag over it.

But when the speeches started, the crate had disappeared.

Magic? Not a bit.

The occasion was historic: Arrernte sacred and secret objects that had been gifted, stolen, bought or whatever some 100 years ago and spread around the world to museums and very rich collectors were continuing to be returned.

That crate came from the Manchester Museum and contained 19 sacred Arrernte objects.

They will never be on public display. They will be unpacked only inside the vault of the Strehlow Centre and by law men of the highest order.

These objects are of such exalted significance that even in a closed box they could not be in the vicinity of the wrong people, as Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies people at the function this morning were told by senior custodians.

AIATSIS, an Australian Government statutory authority, is in charge of seeking the return of Aboriginal objects. Up to 105,000 have been identified in 299 overseas collecting institutions, according to a media release.

The release says a further 17 sacred objects from Arrernte, Warlpiri and Warumungu language groups are set to be returned later this year from the Kluge-Ruhe collection of the University of Virginia.

Michael Liddle, chairman of the Strehlow Board, told the crowd that the return of the objects is signalling the start of the next phase, under guidance by the most senior elders, many of whom “are already gone”.

They would ensure each “property is given to its place. This will take skill, time and patience,” a key issue touching on “Aboriginal identity at the moment. Young people will learn nothing until they come and listen.”

Mr Liddle (at left) said a big financial commitment would be needed to find places for the objects, and their identification.

“Is it important? I’ll leave you on this note.”

Member for Gwoja Chansey Peach, Aboriginal man and the Minister for Heritage, said: “The work does start now.

“We cannot have these artefacts come home to only sit somewhere and be locked away. These objects are ties, they are intrinsically connected to what we are as Aboriginal people.”

Mr Paech said he would investigate what resources are required to support the senior traditional men, a task important not in the least because of the “demonisation of men”.

PHOTO at top: Arrernte dancers at the function this morning.


  1. Unfortunately these items are now purely symbolic.
    Many decades ago there was resistance to bringing sacred objects back because no-one knew enough of their meaning to risk having anything to do with them.
    Today the lack of knowledge is complete.
    But the power of these objects is very real to their new custodians.
    Inevitably they will remain locked away.

  2. Would the world’s museums been depleted of their collections? What about all sacred objects stored and/or exhibited at the Vatican being seen seen, touched by women. Would they be returned? Still sacred?
    Pope Pius XI, in the years between the two World Wars, asked for items from various civilisations around the world, where the church had missions, to be sent to Rome.
    The Indigenous Australian collection is a little known and unexplored part of that story.
    Being amongst some of the earliest known documentations of Australian Indigenous cultures, the collection includes the earliest extant set of Pukumani poles from Melville and Bathurst Islands, alongside more recent contributions of artworks and cultural objects, and presents materials that have not been exhibited before in Australia.
    It is because of those exhibits that older civilisations and cultures are known. To remove them to hide them somewhere is another way to burn libraries.


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