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Religious Beliefs of the Arrernte: Traditional Spirituality and Catholicism

Article supporting small group tour for senior couples and solo travellers of central Australia. For the Arrernte, their language goes to the core of who they are, including their cultural identity, their belief systems and their social order. Speakers do not just share the Arrernte group of languages but also an understanding of the way the world is organised and how it came to be that way. This all encompassing and enduring world view is known as Altyerre: the creation of the world and the things in it, and its external existence (often termed “The Dreaming” in English).

29 Mar 21 · 10 mins read

The Arrernte

The Arrernte – also referred to as Aranda, Arrarnta, Arunta, and other similar spellings – are the original Indigenous inhabitants of the Arrernte lands in the Central Australia region of the Northern Territory. Their lands cover some 120,000 square km, including the township of Alice Springs (Mparntwe) at its centre, as far as Wallack Rock Hole to the east, Watarrka (Kings Canyon) to the west, and as far as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Arrernte languages are a closely related group of languages spoken by various sub-tribes. The language group is comprised of five Arrernte dialects (Western Arrernte, Mparnttwe Arrente, Eastern Arrente, Anmatyerre, and Alyawarre), plus two distinct languages (Kaytetye and Southern Arernte). Mparnttwe Arrente, spoken in the Alice Springs area and others, is the most widely spoken of the group and one of the most common Indigenous languages spoken in Australia, with 1,910 speakers recorded in the 2016 Australian census.

For the Arrernte, their language goes to the core of who they are, including their cultural identity, their belief systems and their social order. Speakers do not just share the Arrernte group of languages but also an understanding of the way the world is organised and how it came to be that way. This all encompassing and enduring world view is known as Altyerre: the creation of the world and the things in it, and its external existence (often termed “The Dreaming” in English).

Christianity has also come to influence Arrernte spiritual beliefs in many ways since missionaries brought the religion to Central Australian communities in the late 19th century. On reserves and missions Aboriginals from various areas were forced to leave their own country and to live in close proximity with a number of groups, the importance of Country and specific areas of land ignored. There, neither the practice of traditional ceremonies, nor belief systems, nor the use of traditional languages were permitted. In doing so a void was created, which the forceful introduction of Christian beliefs readily filled.

Today many Arrernte, as well as other Aboriginal people around Australia, mix Christian concepts with their peoples’ traditional beliefs to form complex religious and social world views. This article explores this phenomenon amongst the Arrernte, using information largely drawn from Michal J Bowden’s book Unbreakable Rock: Exploring the Mysterry of Altyerre. It is intended as practical knowledge for a number of Odyssey Traveller small group tours in Australia, part of a continuing series of pieces on Aboriginal art, culture, and settlement, and the ancient landscapes of Australia. Our tours are for both the mature and senior traveller, as part of a couple or as a solo traveller.

Red soil hand shape on sand in Aboriginal art style

The Confluence of Spiritual Beliefs

Michael Bowden describes the confluence of the ancient Arrente world view, Altyerre, and the Judeo-Christian beliefs instilled by the missionaries through the metaphor of the convergence of the Amazon and Rio Negro Rivers. “While appearing quite different from each other, the two streams finally become one mighty river that flows into the great ocean,” he writes.

The rivers do not mix when they first meet, instead running parallel for six kilometres and maintaining their own character, because they move at different speeds, with different temperatures and different water density. Eventually at Manaus they coalesce, fusing into each other, forming the now mightier Amazon.

The confluence of the Amazon and Rio Negro Rivers at Manuas

In the same way, Altyerre-Catholicism joins two streams to create a greater river. Each is constituted of a network of beliefs and practices, which at first sight are quite distinct and cannot mingle yet are able to come together to create some newer and greater, each enhancing the other.

Indeed, for Aboriginal Australians who observe aspects of the Christian faith, it is often a way of continuing with their own spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, incorporating the religion into their existing belief structures. There was never one singular culture shared by the thousands of language groups that covered the Australian continent at the time of settlement. Each group had different environments and differing kinship systems, dreamtime stories and spiritual beliefs. There were however, constant threads throughout, which draw similarities with Christian beliefs and values and can therefore be incorporated into a unified belief structure.

One similar concept is that of a creator spirit that provides and watches over us. There are many similarities between the Old Testament stories and traditional stories, laws and the teachings of God (or a creator Spirit). Traditional Aboriginal beliefs place faith in their Ancestor Spirit, people relying on Him for all their needs – a protector, provider, carer, and saviour.

The values of sharing, generosity, fair dealing, and caring for each other and the land are also present in both belief systems. Traditional culture uses stories to emphasise these values, which are then practised as individuals share their lives with their clan group. The stories throughout the bible serve the exact same purpose. Jesus particularly is seen to have shared gifts, blessings, and ultimately himself with humankind; he taught a life of sharing, loving all without exception, and is looked towards as an example of how to live one’s own life.

Whereas missionaries forced Indigenous people to integrate into the ‘white’ way of life, their traditional rituals, languages and spiritual beliefs suppressed, there has in recent decades been a turn towards inculturation (the influence of local cultures on the teaching of a religion) by the Catholic church. In an historic 1986 speech before Aboriginal Catholics in Alice Springs, Pope John Paul II said:

“Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.”

For many Catholic churches today, they are not just places of worships, but also places where traditional symbolism and language can be practiced and renewed. Catholicism does not strive to take the place of traditional culture, rather it harbors a deep desire to be enriched by the gifts that the first Australians can bring.

Mparntwe Arrernte Catholicism

Today many Mparntwe Arrernte people are Catholic, stalwart members of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) community in Alice Springs. The religion was introduced by Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the Daughter of OLSH from 1935; but the modern Catholicism the Mparntwe Arrente practice varies significantly from what was taught in the mission, drawing influence from traditional spiritual beliefs.

Images of the City of Alice Springs, home of the Mparntwe Arrernte

In Unbreakable Rock, Michael Bowden discusses the confluence of these two spiritual belief systems through an analysis of the symbols present in Arrernte artist Kathleen Kemarre Wallace’s stained-glass window painting in the OLSH church in Alice Springs (see here for an image of the artwork).

For this artwork, Kathleen Kemarre draws from her experiences of both traditions. She holds deep knowledge of and adheres to the ancient law passed to her from her arrange (father’s father), atyemeye (mother’s father), her aperle (father’s mother) and ipmenhe (mother’s mother). And she is also a child of child of the dormitory at Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), where she learnt the foundations of 1950s and 60s Catholicism from the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

The stained-glass painting is a sacred rendition of themes that belong to both traditions. At its most fundamental, it is represented in the form of an ancient Greek Icon of Mother and Child. Because the window adorns the Church of OLSH there is no question that it reflects an image of the beating heart of both the mother of Jesus (Mary) and of Jesus himself, an image core to the spirituality of the Church. But for the Arrente, it also holds a deep representation of their Spirituality in the image of menhenge atherre (mother and son), where the land is the mother providing everything that one needs.

Jesus and Mary are shown as Aboriginal people, their bodies painted with designs used in traditional Arrernte celebrations. The mural’s eight distinct oval designs around Jesus and Mary represent the eight Arrernte skin groups, which Kathleen Kemarre sees like Eight Commandments that instruct her people how to live a good life.

The use of dots represents everything in the world connected to each other, and the world in turn, where we all live, is represented in a large circle surrounding the Cross in the centre behind the figures. The large circles at the top represent the Christian Trinity, but also reflect a dream of three circles given to Kathleen Kemarre’s grandfather: Arrenge, Akngeye, and Utnenge, or grandfather, father and totem spirit.

In his analysis, Bowden further explores four major aspects of Arrente traditional spirituality represented in the artwork: utnenge (spirit); conception totemism; the kinship system; and the healing power of the angangkere.

Utnenge: Spirit

In Kathleen Kemarre’s’s artwork there is a conspicuous absence of facial details of the two figures. She attempts not to represent the physiognomic features of Mary and Jesus out respect because she feels she could never – even with her great skills – do them justice.

But on a more fundamental level, she and other Arrente artists do not generally paint faces because it represents the physicality of a person rather than their utnenge (spirit), Arrernte know that it is not the body of a person that is important but their eternal spirit. To attempt to represent the person of Mary or Jesus would be to overlook their essential essence, their utnenge/spirit.

Conception Totemism

Kathleen Kemarre next draws the eye of the view to the position of the head of the child directly in front of his mother’s womb. This can be interpreted as an allusion to the core Arrente concept of conception totemism, which describes how a child derives her spirit.

When an Arrernte mother becomes aware of her pregnancy, she becomes aware of when and where she was conceived. She locates the ampere (country) of that event and then deduces that it was from the utnenge (spirit) of that apmere that the ampe akweke (child in her womb draws) its own utnenge. This is one of the ways amongst others a child is informed about her spiritual origins.

Kinship System

The next striking image of the window is the embrace of the child by his mother. The mother enfolds the child in her arms, nestled under her breast, intent on keeping him safe. This alerts the viewer to a dominant feature of Arrernte culture: the kinship system (anpernirrentye).

In Arrernte culture every single person is held in the web of kinship in a warm and consoling embrace. The Arrernte word for this is arntarntareme. This can also be translated as holding / caring; to look after someone or care for them; to hold a baby and rock him to sleep; or to hold hands.

What all translations express is the human touch that characterises care and concern for the wellbeing of others. Arntarntareme means to reach out and hold, look after, nourish, save and nurture others. When Arrente person sees Kathleen Kemarre’s artwork, they know what it represents: nurture, nourishment, consolation, and life.

The Healing Power of the Angangkere

Finally, one’s gaze is transferred to the hands of Jesus. Here, Kathleen Kemarre has streams of light gushing from Jesus’ hands. Again, the image here can be interpreted as a representation of the arntarntareme (holding, caring, taking care of ) by both Jesus and his mother for the entire world and every person in it.

But there is another way of interpreting the light streaming from the hands of youthful Jesus: a representation of the healing power of the angangkere (traditional healers). A youthful anangkeres draws healing powers (or “electrolight”) from nature, the land, and uses it to heal people around him through touch.

In the artwork, the healing power to love, forebear, to heal, to survive – all another way of understanding salvation or redemption – is understood as being provided by light streaming from the child’s hands.

Tour of Arrernte Lands & Central Australia

Uluru, dusk
Uluru at dusk

Odyssey Traveller visits Arrernte Lands and various sites of cultural significance during our 13-day tour of Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. During this tour we delve into the colourful landscapes and impressive landforms, Aboriginal culture, and rich wildlife of the Southern portion of the Northern Territory.

We begin and end at Alice Springs, where we learn about its surrounding beautiful desert landscapes, Aboriginal culture, and unique wildlife. Alice Springs, or simply ‘Alice’ as it is known now colloquially, is famous for the ochre sands and mountain ranges that surround it, its many Aboriginal art galleries, and cultural events. The Arrernte people, who have lived in the Central Australian Desert in an around what is today Alice Springs for thousands of years, still today sustain a strong connection to this land and a rich culture.

We spend four nights in Alice Springs, before making our way to enjoy the various sites and wildlife of the national parks in the southern portion of the Northern territory. The UNESCO World Heritage Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a major highlight as we explore two of Australia’s most magnificent geological and landform features: Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta have sacred significance to the Anangu, the local indigenous people who have inhabited the land for more than 22,000 years. They believe both sites contain spirit energy, with the surrounding areas the home of their ancestors and inhabited by many ancestral ‘beings’. The park is also home to a fascinating array of plants and animals, including many rare species.

Other key highlights along the tour include trips to the spectacular canyons of Watarrka National Park, Finke Gorge National Park (home to a diverse range of rare plant species), the Aboriginal Community of Hermannsberg (once home to the great Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira), and the outstanding landscapes of both the West and East McDonnel Ranges (ancient landscapes sculptured over time by climatic elements and today refuges for many plants and animals).

Aerial view of Alice Springs skyline in Australia from Anzac Hill Memorial lookout with main buildings of Alice Springs city downtown. Red Centre desert with Macdonnell ranges
Aerial view of Alice Springs skyline in Australia from Anzac Hill Memorial lookout with main buildings of Alice Springs city downtown. Red Centre desert with Macdonnell ranges of Northern Territory.

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various outback Australia tours.

These include visits to:

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Broken Hill and Back

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