By way of a holiday escape, take a magic carpet-ride to Mparntwe – usually called Alice Springs. It’s a colonial outpost dumped down on rich Aboriginal country and the real locals are now offering an insight into pre-colonial places and concepts via an easily available app. We may all come to appreciate the app if a National Aboriginal Art Gallery were ever to get off the ground in that town.
Here that is being tested for us by two experienced arrivistes – Kieran Finnane is an author and founding journalist of the Alice Springs News website – where this delightful story was originally published. And Dr Fiona WalshÂ is an Ethno-ecologist with broad experience in desert Australia where she lives, working amongst Aboriginal and Other Australians:
Little by little more and more people are referring to the place where the town of Alice Springs grew, as Mparntwe, the name of an Aboriginal estate that persists here. In the unyielding grand structures of the place “ the river, the ranges, the hills “ the power and stories of Mparntwe survive. Across much of the town though, Country and its sacred trees and sites have been hemmed in, concreted over, built out, damaged and abused since colonisers arrived. Yet for Arrernte Traditional Owners the places, their narratives and cultural meaning are as present as ever.
To their eyes it’s a town, says one, to our eyes, it’s a different vision, we see it as sacred. They see buildings, we don’t, we see places, things were there they can’t see.
This speaker is one of a group of Arrernte Traditional Owners who came together to talk about Mparntwe as they live it “ now, in the past and into the future. For as much as there have been grievous losses and that ignorance and prejudice will likely lead to more, Mparntwe will abide: Our Country’s alive, forever, it’s there for life.
Their recorded conversations have been put together as an audio tour called Awemele itelaretyeke, meaning Listen to understand. For $9 you can download it to your phone and if lots of people do then the creators will see the app is valued and hopefully find ways to update it to keep up with new phone models.
Taking advantage of a recent cool and blustery morning, we met at the top of Untyeyetwelye, one of the Arrernte names for Anzac Hill, looking to experience more of the Country spread before us through Traditional Owners’ eyes. Or perhaps we should say, through their voices, guiding our gaze, informing our perceptions.
At the app’s first interpretive sign just below the crest of the hill, we started to listen.Â Our re-orientation was immediate, with the Custodian calling out to Country as to another being, telling the spirits of the area that everything’s all right ¦let them know he’s having a look around.
Our first look around was to the south “ antekerre “ that much photographed view towards Ntaripe, known in English as Heavitree Gap.
In recent times, particularly in the debate over the location of the proposed National Aboriginal Art Gallery, we have heard about Ntaripe as an important gateway. Once, Aboriginal visitors approaching Mparntwe from the south would wait for permission from senior male Traditional Owners before they could come through. (There was a ceremonial acknowledgement of this protocol at the time of the Olympic Torch relay in 2000 but not since, to our knowledge.)
In the Gallery debate, the protocol has been invoked as part of the reason for locating such a cultural project south of the Gap. There has also been discussion about reinstating the protocol in some form as part of the Gallery’s cultural approach.
And how would the visitors communicate their request? They made smokes “ lit a fire. Today the practice persists among some people although the message probably goes via mobile phone. On the app, two of the Traditional Owners talk of the advance notice they sent through to communities in Western Australia when they were hoping to travel: They gave us permission to go through there.
Women weren’t allowed to come through Ntaripe: it was a men’s place only where sacred objects were kept in a cave, now obliterated by the railway track. In the past, women travelled into the area by alternative, longer routes.
There was another reason for the area’s special status: It was because of the water ¦ I guess that’s why our Elders were strict on that, because of the water sources. (Surface waters were so precious in these dry lands that they were carefully used and managed.)
Within the town area, there are women’s sacred places too, places men can’t talk about. One visible in southern vista from the hill is Akeyulerre, known in English as Billygoat Hill. The site has lent its name to the healing centre at its base, Akeyulerre Inc, credited as producers of the app, with funding support from Centrecorp. Beth Sometimes, a multi-lingual artist, interpreter and translator was a key collaborator.
In the broader Alice Springs community, when a place’s sacred standing arises as an issue there is often cynical pushback or outright rejection. Frequently, this is based on the speaker’s blinkered view of any cultural practice other than their own, as well as on a denial of Central Australia’s colonial history. These tensions have come to the fore in the recently announced decision to close the ascent to Alhekulyele/Mt Gillen. (Some Traditional Owners have been asking people not to climb Alhekulyele for decades.)
It’s clear how offensive and frustrating Traditional Owners find such closed minds: Some of them are ignorant to learn, cause they’ve got no ears, says one, standing in their own way, gotta do this, do this, do this, but in reality they know which Country they living on ¦ you got to respect it.
This respect is more than an attitude, it’s a practice: Wherever you go, whatever you touch make sure you place it back, pick up a rock, put it back where it is, you are on someone’s else Apmere “ground. When you see the gum tree, it’s very old, very wise from Dreaming. Don’t just go there and burn it, you burning our Dreams away.
Trees are like people too¦like us¦White gum trees are very special for us, not only gum trees, all trees, because most of trees have got sacred names. You can use it for a purpose, things like Sorry business, medicine, smoking. These trees we’ve got here in Mparntwe, they’re useful for our knowledge and for our kids to pass it on.
In town, these long-established Arrernte ways of respecting Country are often in conflict with non-Arrernte expectations “ some people and organisations expect to be able to go wherever they like, do whatever they want to, all the more so if they’ve got power and money.
The ways in which Arrernte decisions are made are not well understood by the general population, so the app’s enlightening conversation (at tab 4) about how Arrernte governance works is particularly useful.
There is talk of the roles of Kwerterngerle “ a caretaker, looking after the place “ and Apmere-ke Artweye “ the big boss, you got to listen to him what he says. (The masculine pronoun is used but the roles fall to women as well.) These roles, often inadequately translated and undifferentiated as Custodian, are part and parcel of the Arrernte kinship system “ Anpernirrentye. An example is given: at Sandy Bore homeland, Peltharre and Kngwarraye are the skin groups of the story-owners: They got the book in their hand, they hold the story.
Angale and Ampetyane skin-groups become the Kwerterngerle for the story-owners: That’s how it works. We need each other for our Countries. Kwerterngerle gotta be there when the stories are written with the Apmere-ke Artweye. You hold the land, this one manage the land. They got to know all that story and who’s in that story. Is my father in that story, or is my mother?
This is a much more complex picture of Arrernte decision-making for Country than is allowed for in standard consultation processes, where governments and others want the convenience of a single individual or representative body “ often in a box-ticking exercise.
In the app’s conversations, Traditional Owners speak plainly about what happened in the Centre historically:Â White people come and pushed [us] out, claimed land ¦ invaded, not only this place but all over Australia ¦ they could have asked where to put their cattle station, should have come and asked Traditional Owners. That kind of entitled land grab can still happen, even though it might be masked by some attempt at cultural acknowledgement.
Here’s how one speaker describes a recent example:
I don’t like it when they come to ask us for the names of the tracks they are on now. In the first place when they was talking about making bike tracks in the hills there, they should have come and consulted Traditional Owners. Now they want to come and ask if they can name the places in Arrernte, but they was ignorant in the first place not to come and ask people about that. Why think about it now?
We listened to a rich stream of Arrernte and English, layered with sounds from the environment as well as traditional and contemporary music. Among the offeringsÂ are accounts of the forced move out to Arltunga and later Santa Teresa, before the return to Alice Springs in the Freedom Ride days when everybody started moving from mission, decided to get their Apmere back.
There is an account of the Ayeperenye Dreaming, traced across a vast stretch of Country; a dramatic account of the Mount Undoolya epic “ Antulye, the Shadow of the Eagle “ complete with the resonant singing of the late Edward Arranye Johnson. And there are many interesting commentaries on Arrernte language, including its rapid evolution such that old people today might ask, What the hell you talking?
A final short section offers a very lively take on the many ways of saying Werte and what it actually means “ literally what, as in variouslyÂ what’s up?, what’s happening?, even what’s wrong? It is much more inquiring of the other person than the English hello for which Werte is often translated.
We had spent the better part of two hours by the time we finished the Hill Tour. It was rewarding to yield to the experience of listening rather than rushing to the next tourist spot or appointment.
Creators of the app made it primarily for their next generations, but many non-Arrernte people like us will want to listen to it. Some, particularly visitors, might struggle to understand all of the spoken Arrernte English and to grasp some of the geographies being referred to “ a map might have been a useful incorporation. In a cultural tour like this, encapsulated in relatively unmediated conversations “ not a potted digest “ it is a matter of going with the flow, accepting that not everything will be clear, while making the most of what has been generously offered.
As well as the Hill Tour the app offers a CBD walking tour, which we look forward to doing sometime soon.
The people speaking on the tours are: Alison Furber, Amelia Kngwarraye Turner, Benedict Stevens, Edward (Arranye) Johnson (d), Felicity Hayes, Gabriel Kngwarraye Turner, Julie Hayes, Julie Hayes, Lorrayne Gorey, Magdalene Marshall, Margaret Kemarre Turner, Mervyn Rubuntja, Michael Gorey, Peter Coco Wallace, Shirley Kngwarraye Turner, Stephen Kernan, Veronica Kngwarraye Turner, William (Nookie) Lowah, Wyonna Palmer.