University of Tasmania
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'We grew up this place' : Ernabella Mission 1937-1974

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posted on 2023-05-26, 01:53 authored by Pybus, CA
Since the 1960s revisionist Australian histories have sought to redress the perceived imbalance of earlier accounts. These histories have predominantly argued that invasion and dispossession typify contact between Aborigines and settler Australians. Concerning contact between missionaries and Aborigines, missionaries are held to be largely responsible not only for the dispossession of Aboriginal spirituality, but for the current dysfunction at many former mission sites. Furthermore, much scholarly work and commentary over the last three decades assumes a crude binarism in respect to Aboriginal religious beliefs and Christianity. Traditional, or classical Aboriginal belief systems and adherence to the Christian faith are held to be antithetical. Implicitly more than explicitly, but apparent nevertheless, is the accompanying understanding that Christian beliefs displace Aboriginality. Aborigines, therefore, are either spiritually traditional or Christian, not both. That is, to be authentically Aboriginal one cannot be Christian and vice versa. While revisionist studies have been useful in contesting earlier assessments of the mission era, they have become established as yet another orthodoxy. Much evidence suggests that the interface between missions, Christianity and Aborigines is more nuanced than this new orthodoxy permits. Taking its cue from this evidence, this thesis investigates the premise that many Aboriginal people find Christianity important and that their belief in Christianity is a legitimate expression of Aboriginality. This thesis challenges the dominant reading of missionary impact through a case study of the contact between Presbyterian missionaries and Pitjantjatjara people at Ernabella Mission (1937 to 1974) in the far north-west of South Australia. A close reading of archival material from Ernabella and recollections of Pitjantjatjara people who associated with the mission reveal that missionaries at Ernabella attempted to preserve tribal life through a policy of minimal intervention, that the presence of the mission and its policy allowed Pitjantjatjara people to remain connected to their country, and that Pitjantjatjara people exercised agency in their relationships with missionaries and in their engagement with Christianity. This research found that at Ernabella (and elsewhere) those who are Elders of the church are most often those also responsible for upholding traditional Law. The alleged boundaries, therefore, and dislocation between Aborigines and Christianity, are not so clearly defined. Throughout the mission era Aboriginal people expressed Christianity in myriad and innovative ways and have continued to do so in the post-mission era. Recognising this, studies of other missions may also find histories which contest the established position.


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  • Unpublished

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Copyright 2012 the author

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  • Open

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