Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal possession
Knopf, $59.95 hb, 818 pp, 1740510658
It seems to be only a couple of years ago that my students declared gender and race to be the ‘hot’ topics in culture. Now, I confidently predict, they will relegate gender (still acknowledging its importance) and reformulate the second term by adding a third: race and its intersection with religion, in its broadest definition. Broken Song analyses the fraught relationships that exist and have existed between Indigenous Australians and those ‘ministering’ to them, whether via missionary, welfare, legal, or academic agencies. T.G.H. Strehlow (1908–78), who turbulently enacted all those roles, demonstrates how even the best intentions are inadequate compensation for colonial inequities.
Barry Hill’s biography and intellectual history of Strehlow is an important, monumental study of that giant of linguistic anthropology. It is ambitious in scope, negotiating historical perspectives scrupulously and in the spirit of post-colonialism. There is ample scholarship and circumspect sifting of evidence to admire here. Dialogues are tucked away in delectable footnotes and endnotes, enabling Hill to signal ongoing debates such as those he has with the Strehlow Research Foundation. In return for the use of the diaries, the foundation required surveillance of the contents. Nonetheless, Hill vigilantly registers his dissent through telling details: for example, the story of the removal of identifying tags by Strehlow’s widow from items whose return is requested by Arrernte people. The troubled legacy of Strehlow is enacted in the pages of this work.