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The Aranda's Pepa: An Introduction to Carl Strehlow's Masterpiece Die Arandaund Loritja-Stamme in Zentral Australien (1907-1920).

The Aranda's Pepa: An Introduction to Carl Strehlow 's Masterpiece Die Arandaund Loritja-Stamme in Zentral Australien (1907-1920) By Anna Kenny Canberra: ANU E Press. 2013

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Of all the celebrated anthropological classics penned about Australian Aborigines, Carl Strehlow's Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stamme in Zentral Australien is probably the most paradoxical, for it is at once famous and obscure. In her preface to The Aranda's Pepa, Kenny (xv) informs us that Marcel Mauss referred to Strehlow's early volumes as 'a kind of Australian Rig Veda'. The work was also cited by Durkheim, Lang, Levi-Strauss, and others, and continues to be regarded as integral to the corpus of ethnographic material that any scholar of Central Australia needs to cover. Kenny describes the five volumes (seven parts) of the work, published in German between 1907 and 1920, as Strehlow's 'magnum opus' and as 'a masterpiece of classical Australian anthropology' (1), yet underlines the fact that, astonishingly, it has never been republished, either in its original German or in either of the two English translations that have sat quietly and largely immobile in Australian libraries--in one case since the 1930s, in the other since the 1990s. Hence, while many anthropologists know of Carl Strehlow's writing, few Anglophone scholars know it in the round.

Kenny is most concerned with what she calls the 'disappearance' (2) of Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stamme in Australian anthropology. While others--notably John Strehlow and Walter Veit--have done much recently to call further attention to Carl Strehlow in Australia (and beyond), Kenny's book is the first sustained piece of writing to specifically address the production and legacy of his 'masterpiece'. To do this, she divides the writing into two main parts--four chapters devoted to the content, nature, and contextual history of the work, and four chapters devoted to a critical assessment of its legacy and ongoing potential.

Chapters One to Four describe Carl Strehlow's situation as superintendent of Hermannsburg Mission between 1894 and 1922, and the product of his ethnographic endeavour; the German (Herderian/ Humboldtian) scholarly traditions that would inform both Strehlow's missionary training and his humanistic approach to ethnology; the key relationship with 'armchair' anthropologist Baron Moritz von Leonhardi, who encouraged Strehlow's persistence with his ethnographic work in the face of the Lutheran Church's parochial, anti-intellectual attitudes towards it; and the final emergence of the 'masterpiece' through the initial intercessions of von Leonhardi and the ongoing dedication of both Strehlow and his four key informants--Loatjira, Pmala, Tjalkabota, and Talku.

Chapters Five to Eight, on the other hand, bring The Aranda's Pepa out of history and into the present. They discuss, in turn, how Strehlow's geisteswissenschaftlich emphasis on mythology was a significant precursor to the better known work of his son, TGH Strehlow, as well as of more recent approaches to Aboriginal ontologies; the contribution Strehlow made, and continues to make, to the study of kinship, marriage and genealogy; the limited, yet important, information that Strehlow provides in debates about forms of land rights in Central Australia; and the important transitional space that Strehlow, like Spencer and Gillen, occupies in the broad history of Australian anthropological endeavour--a theme that is continued in a summary conclusion at the end of the book.

There are many good things to take from Kenny's book, but one's focus of attention is likely to be framed by the limitations or extensibility of one's outlook, depending on whether one is interested most in Central Australian ethnography or in Australian intellectual history and its positioning on the world stage of anthropology. In the first case, The Aranda's Pepa can be treated as a kind of primer for Die Aranda- und LoritjaStdmrne, although it is both not quite that and much more than that, as it is also a critical appreciation whose narrative is determined not by the work per se, but by certain thematics that make it relevant in contemporary circumstances. Nevertheless, as 'an introduction to Carl Strehlow's masterpiece', it is unique and essential reading. Overall, it is highly appreciative of the fruits of Strehlow's labours, but it is a measured assessment and avoids the trap of hagiography. Well written, jargon-free, and comprehensive in scope, it comes recommended to both beginners and old hands in the knowledge economy of Indigenous Central Australia.

On the broader canvas, readers will probably be most interested in what Kenny has to say about the well-known rivalry between Strehlow and Baldwin Spencer (of Spencer and Gillen fame) and its implications for understanding trends in the early global development of professional anthropology. As Kenny notes (124), Geza Roheim long ago commented that Strehlow and Spencer and Gillen had diametrically opposed approaches to ethnography. Strehlow, said Roheim, was an 'introverted' translator who patiently transcribed Aboriginal myths and songs, but failed to participate in ceremonial life, while Spencer and Gillen were 'extroverted' stagers of ceremonies who depicted ritual action in detail, yet failed to grasp its essential meaning. These 'words without facts' and 'facts without words' strategies in turn fed into developing local anthropological traditions in Europe and Australia, with James Frazer aligning with the ostensibly more 'objective' Spencer, who was influentially positioned at the University of Melbourne. Strehlow, while more thoroughly engaged in continental scholarship, was also sidelined because of his alleged missionary bias.

Kenny's framing of this rivalry and occlusion speaks of 'two routes to empiricism' (6)--that is, two modes of field enquiry that stood between the amateurish efforts of so many nineteenth century commentators and the more fully professional methods of anthropological investigation characteristic of the 20th century and beyond. While one of these routes came through evolutionism and Radcliffe-Brown's functionalist dogma of 'a natural science of society', the other came through Boasian-style concerns with language, meaning and Geisl. Kenny decidedly makes her mark here, particularly through her reading of Strehlow's correspondence with von Leonhardi, who constantly provided questions and prompts before his unfortunate premature demise in 1910, always informed by his humanistic, relativist suppositions. It is a great irony of Kenny's rebalancing of these 'two routes' to ethnography that it makes Strehlow's work seem more modern than that of Spencer and Gillen, although she rightly does not make any such presentist claim. As she says: 'Like Spencer, Strehlow reflects his society and his time' (7).

The title The Aranda's Pepa comes from Aranda people's appropriation of the English word 'paper' ('pepa') to describe biblical scripture and all else to do with the Lutheran liturgy (127-8). Aranda people have understood pepa to be analogous to their own concept of 'sacred things' (tjurunga) as the transcribed Law of ancestral beings embodied in sacred sites and ritual objects. Hence, in re-appropriating the term 'pepa,' Kenny draws attention to both the authority and authenticity of Strehlow's 'magnum opus' as the true word of Aranda people. Thanks largely to her, his place in the anthropological pantheon is surely now secure.


John Morton

La Trobe University
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Author:Morton, John
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Date:Jul 1, 2015
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