Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014
Blind Moses: Moses Tjalkabota Uraiakuraia, Aranda Man of High Degree and Christian Evangelist by Peter Latz, 179 pp, The author [distributed by IAD Press], Alice Springs, 2014, ISBN 9870992572709 (pbk), $35.00.
This book adds to the historical literature on Central Australia, and should be of value for those with interests in the history of frontier contact, missions, and/or the Arrernte (Aranda) people. It complements works on Arrernte contact history (Austin-Broos 2009), the history of the Hermannsburg mission (Albrecht 2002), biographical accounts of particular missionaries – Carl Strehlow (Strehlow 1969), his wife Frieda Keysser (Strehlow 2011), his successor F. W. Albrecht (Henson 1994) – and scholars of Aranda culture – T. G. H. Strehlow (Hill 2002), Spencer and Gillen (Mulvaney and Calaby 1985; Mulvaney, Morphy and Petch 1997), and Olive Pink (Marcus 2001). Previous biographies of individual Aboriginal people are confined to artists – Albert Namatjira (Amadio 1986) and Wenten Rubuntja (Rubuntja and Green 2002) – and stockmen (Ross and Whitebeach 2007). Here, in contrast, we have an account of an Aboriginal leader who was deeply involved in the work of the mission.
Moses’ story is based on an oral account dictated by Moses toward the end of his life, which was written down in Aranda by F. W. Albrecht and translated and published by his son, Pastor Paul Albrecht. We are not told where the original and translated manuscripts are held nor where the transcript was published (it is actually Appendix 2, pp. 237-300, of Albrecht 2002). The author of this work, Peter Latz, has imposed a chronological order on the story and added much supplementary material to contextualise the life of Moses. He has included a map of the region, and indicated on it the travels undertaken by Moses. He also includes in the appendix a timeline of Moses’ life, correlating Moses’ activities with mission activities and indications of seasonal conditions and health issues in the respective years. The book also includes 28 photos, endnotes to each chapter, and a list of references. The front cover features a coloured photograph of Moses standing at the front of his church at Jay Creek; the back cover includes a photograph of the dedication of his new church in 1941.
The author is well equipped to write such an account, although he admits to not being a historian. Peter Latz, son of lay missionaries, grew up at Hermannsburg speaking Aranda and plugged into a network of Aranda boys. He personally remembers Moses, who died when he was twelve years old. His account of mission activities relies on other histories of the mission, as he acknowledges (p. 3). The story is considerably enriched by Latz’s own knowledge of Aranda culture and worldview and his ‘intimate knowledge of the landscape and its plants and animals, acquired over a lifetime of travels and scientific enquiry’ (p. 3). Latz is best known for his work on Central Australian botany and traditional landscape management (Latz 1995, 2007). This scientific knowledge of land and climate is evident in the many references to rainfall, drought, bushfires, etc and their impact on the Aboriginal community.
Tjalkabota was born about 1872, just a few years before the founding of the Hermannsburg mission in Western Arrernte territory. As a boy he attended the mission school intermittently, when not working as a shepherd, and when an adolescent received instruction in the Christian faith, selecting the name Moses when he was baptised. He helped the missionary Carl Strehlow with learning Aranda and with translating the scriptures into Aranda. After he lost his sight at the age of 30 because of measles, he took on a much greater role in teaching younger Christians and helping with Bible translation. When Rev. Strehlow died in 1922, Moses assumed a more prominent role in leadership, story-telling, teaching and preaching. Eventually he took the initiative in becoming a travelling evangelist to other communities, being known as ‘the messenger’, and functioned as the de facto pastor of a congregation at Jay Creek, although he was not ordained as a minister. He was one of a group of elders who worked with Ted Strehlow on his revision of his father’s translation of the Aranda New Testament.
His biographer suggests that Moses had become convinced that his people might not survive physically unless they changed some of their traditional practices, such as the payback killings, sexual promiscuity which led to venereal diseases and infertility, violence against women, and neglect of children. Acceptance of the Christian message and lifestyle, on the other hand, offered social as well as personal salvation.
It is a pity that we do not have transcripts of Moses’ story-telling, teaching, sermons, debates with traditionalists, etc. This account nevertheless provides a welcome Indigenous perspective on mission history and intercultural contact. Among other things, it illustrates rather powerfully the role of Indigenous agency in the mission enterprise.
Albrecht, Paul GE 2002, From Mission to Church, 1877-2002: Finke River Mission, Finke River Mission, [Hermannsburg, N.T.].
Amadio, Nadine [et al] 1986, Albert Namatjira: The Life and Work of an Australian Painter, Macmillan, South Melbourne.
Austin-Broos, Diane 2009, Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past: Invasion, Violence, and Imagination in Indigenous Central Australia, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Batty, Joyce D 1963, Namatjira: Wanderer Between Two Worlds, Hodder and Stoughton, Melbourne.
Henson, Barbara 1994, A Straight-out Man: F.W. Albrecht and Central Australia Aborigines, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Hill, Barry 2002, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Random House, Sydney.
Kenny, Anna 2014, The Aranda’s Pepa: An Introduction to Carl Strehlow's Masterpiece Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien (1907-1920), ANU E Press, Canberra.
Latz, Peter K 1995, Bushfires and Bushtucker: Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia, IAD Press, Alice Springs:
— 2007, The Flaming Desert: Arid Australia – a Fire Shaped Landscape, The author [distributed by IAD Press], Alice Springs.
Marcus, Julie 2001, The Indomitable Miss Pink: A Life in Anthropology, UNSW Press, Sydney.
Mulvaney, John and JH Calaby 1985, So Much That Is New, Baldwin Spencer, 1860-1929, a Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Mulvaney, John, Howard Morphy, and Alison Petch (eds) 1997, ‘My dear Spencer’: The Letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, Hyland House, Melbourne.
Ross, Alexander Donald Pwerle and Terry Whitebeach 2007, The Versatile Man: The Life and Times of Don Ross, Kaytetye Stockman, IAD Press, Alice Springs.
Rubuntja, Wenten and Jenny Green 2002, The Town Grew Up Dancing: The Life and Art of Wenten Rubuntja, IAD Press, Alice Springs:
Strehlow, John 2011, The Tale of Frieda Keysser– Frieda Keysser and Carl Strehlow: An Historical Biography, Wildcat, London.
Strehlow, TGH 1969, Journey to Horseshoe Bend, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.
The Australian National University