Strehlow was one of the greatest promoters and defenders of Aboriginal culture. He was born on the mission run by his father Carl Strehlow, grew up with the Aranda Aboriginal tribe, speaking Aranda before learning to speak English. He was loved and embraced by the tribe as being an Aranda man himself. Seeing that tribal customs were rapidly dying out, Strehlow started recording the Aranda language in 1932. This was the first methodical study of any Aboriginal language ever undertaken. He recorded the customs, ceremonies, thoughts and attitudes of the Aranda people—paying equal attention to the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, and accurately described the lives of the Central Desert tribes (Ted Strehlow, Aranda Traditions, 1947). The book was considered to be a brilliant work, and a pioneering study that provided a great insight into a dying culture.
The Aranda elders were appreciative of his work to the extent they said he was the only man they can fully trust with their important tribal objects. They kept bringing him archaeological and ethnographic items, and explained that the old customs were dying and the new generation of tribal men can no longer be trusted. Over forty years, on top of recording images, songs, and stories, Strehlow kept building his collection of sacred ceremonial objects and artistic items given to him by the tribal chiefs.
After a lifetime of dedication, in the last years of his life he clashed with a new generation of Aborigines—with exactly the type of people the elders warned against. But since the tribal elders who had been giving him the artifacts by the early 1970s were all dead, the new breed of politically empowered people who claimed to be Aranda started demanding ownership of the collection.
Strehlow refused, saying that to do so would be contrary to the promise he had given the real Aranda chiefs. Also, he pointed out that by the 1970s the Aranda culture was extinct, with all spirituality evaporated and customs forgotten. He enraged the Aboriginal industry even further with his objections to what had become known as “Aboriginal art,” claiming that genuine ancient art had turned into national kitsch, with all authenticity gone.
Seeing the Aboriginal industry aggressively promoting an invented culture, Strehlow simply said it’s all a lie, and started publishing his own records of tribal customs (Ted Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia, 1971). For this defiance, Strehlow—who was until the 1970s regarded as the ‘last Aranda man,’ the last person knowledgeable about real Stone Age tribal culture—fell into disgrace. When he decided to publish some of the photographs from his personal collection, under the title “Secrets of the Aranda” in two issues of People magazine in 1978 (Fig 2) and provided the German magazine, Stern, with 211 color slides and 78 black & white photographs—he became the enemy of the state. The Aboriginal industry was enraged and People magazine which published his material was banned.
Who can you trust?
Seeing even his lifelong friends and supporters falling into the trap of political correctness and siding with the Aboriginal industry Strehlow made a will and left the entire collection to his wife Kathleen Stuart Strehlow. He believed she was the only one he could trust to resist the pressure and not allow the collection to fall into the hands of modern Aborigines who, in Streblow’s own words at the time, “no longer have any knowledge of the authentic tribal culture, since the elders and guardians of the secrets were all dead and that whole world is finished, and will never come back” (Songs of Central Australia, 1971).
Following Streblow’s death in 1978, Kathleen inherited the collection, as the sole legal owner of his lifelong work. She did resist the harassment—for a while. However, Aborigines kept making demands for her to hand over the collection. She replied that the material was Ted Strehlow’s personal property and that he was free to leave it to anyone he wished. Since she was now the rightful owner and guardian of the collection she ignored the Aborigines who tried to claim any rights over the material. She dismissed them as pretenders - “nouveaux Aborigines,” as she called them, in league with “rip-off white advisors” and “plagiarising anthropologists” (Janet Hawley, “The Strehlow Collec tion: Preserved in Vitriol,” Sydney Morning Herald 1987).
When a delegation of Aboriginal people came to make claims on the collection, she dubbed them “The Gang of 15” and later came to say: “When sweeping statements are made ‘give the objects back’—I answer, to whom? Which Aborigines? I have flung down the challenge: Any Aborigine who thinks he has a legitimate claim to any object can come and see me and I’ll check his credentials. I want to know the names of his ancestors, his totem, the name verses of the songs. Not one has come forward” (Hawley 1987; author’s emphasis).
To the complaint that she, as a woman, should not have right of control of tribal objects, Kathleen Strehlow replied: “I am a white woman, so those Aboriginal laws don’t apply to me” (ibid).
Such statements further infuriated the Aboriginal industry, which kept up the demands for her to “hand over the collection.”
Vesna Tenodi is an archaeologist, artist, and writer based in Sydney,
Australia. She received her Master’s Degree in Archaeology from the
University of Zagreb, Croatia.