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How would you feel if a spaceship landed in your backyard? Shocked, frightened, overwhelmed? I imagine that’s how the Arrernte people of central Australia felt when confronted with the arrival of Europeans in the middle of the 19th century. After more than 30,000 years occupying the region around present day Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges, the Arrernte were suddenly displaced from large parts of their lands and traditions.

Among the earliest European arrivals were German Lutheran missionaries. They arrived in 1877 after an 18-month, 2000km trek from Adelaide with a herd of cattle and a large flock of sheep. The Lutherans built a church, some houses and a school beside the Finke River, calling their mission Hermannsburg (Ntaria in Arrernte) after their home town.

Today 138 years later, it still has the feel of a dusty outback settlement, and, although it represents European attempts to bring a distant notion of ‘civilisation’ to an ancient indigenous culture, Hermannsburg has an ethereal beauty. Fully restored in 1988 under a Bicentennial grant, the mission has great historical significance as central Australia’s first town.

As I walk across the red dirt compound towards the whitewashed church, I’m struck by the incongruous nature of the architecture in this central desert setting. A dozen whitewashed buildings of various sizes radiate at a distance from the church, which is shaded by red river gums. Date palms feature in some sections.

Wandering through the heritage-listed buildings evokes a range of emotions. Life was obviously difficult for everyone here, but I wonder about conditions for the Aboriginal people. One description from 1923 quoted in an Australian Human Rights Commission report refers to 25 boys and 30 girls sleeping on sand spread over the floor in separate dormitories at Hermannsburg: ‘The hygienic state of these dungeons during the extremely hot summer nights can better be imagined than described.’

On the one hand the narrative of Hermannsburg is about determined German missionaries enduring incredible hardship and isolation in their quest to establish a mission and convert the Arrernte to Christianity.

On the other hand, the Arrernte people were confronting the colonial reality of missionaries and pastoralists taking over their land. The pastoralists had the backing of the police in most instances and historians record that the practice of shooting Aborigines ‘with impunity’ was widespread.

But at this point the colonial stereotype of ‘a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other’ breaks down. Although repugnant mission practices such as the separation of children from their parents took place at Hermannsburg, it nevertheless became a vital sanctuary for the Arrernte people against the widespread frontier violence of the time. The austere Lutheran clergy stood up to white station owners and the police, protecting the Arrernte on Hermannsburg’s 3750sq.km leasehold.

After 16 years of tough outback life, the first missionaries left and were replaced in 1894 by Carl Strehlow, whose achievements include translating the New Testament into Arrernte. Carl’s son Ted grew up with the local Arrernte dialect as a first language and went on to become one of the country’s most prominent anthropologists. Accepted as a tribal member, Ted Strehlow wrote the classic Songs of Central Australia by transcribing the poetic ceremonial chants of Arrernte elders.

Despite being discouraged by the missionaries from following traditional ways, many Arrernte secretly received tribal initiation. Because of this, Arrernte culture remains strong to this day.

Perhaps the most significant early fusion of western painting techniques and Aboriginal vision came in the artwork of Hermannsburg resident Albert Namatjira. His depictions of the central desert landscapes taught a white majority to see the desert as truly beautiful rather than as an arid wasteland. There’s an interesting gallery in one of the mission buildings featuring works by other artists who adopted Namatjira’s approach. Distinctive Hermannsburg pottery is also on sale at the mission shop.

Visiting Hermannsburg, which has been in Aboriginal ownership since 1982, is a rare chance to wander around a faithfully restored site, see some remarkable art and pottery, enjoy tea and scones at the Kata Anga Tea Rooms and drink in the incredible sense of history that makes the outback another world.

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