Review of ‘Iwenhe Tyerrtye – What it Means to be an Aboriginal Person’

Review of ‘Iwenhe Tyerrtye – What it Means to be an Aboriginal Person’ Margaret Kemarre Turner . IAD Press , Alice Springs, Australia 2010 , 221 pages. Price AUD$ 34.95, ISBN 9781864650952. (paperback ).

Margaret Kemarre Turner’s Iwenhe Tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person is a rare book. Brimming with in-depth explanations of the Arrernte worldview and the centrality of Apmere (‘the Land’) in every facet of being, Turner takes the reader on an intellectual journey. The book’s prominent theme is the interconnectedness of the natural, social, cultural and mythological worlds, which she explains are intimately woven together. You can almost imagine M.K. (as she is commonly referred to in her home town of Alice Springs) sitting at the kitchen table or on the veranda instructing her listener in the intricacies of Arrernte kinship, language, dreams and story as well as personal and generational observations on the arrival of non-Indigenous people, plants and animals to Central Australia.

Turner’s fundamental message, whether referring to ecology, family or even mythology, is the primacy of relationships and relating. At the centre of these relationships is Apmere-yanhe, translated as ‘The Country Ground’, and described as the eternal and foundational bedrock from which all things emanate – not just the natural world, but ideas, spirits, dreams, humans and non-humans and stories (myth). Taking the time to learn and fully appreciate the subtleties of this radically different view is her challenge to readers. The technicalities and specificities of the Arrernte worldview are carefully presented so that ‘people can see how Aboriginal people approach life. How they understand the world. How we think’. But Turner also claims that the ideas expressed in the book make up the elemental principles (perhaps philosophies) of all Aboriginal Australians.

Practitioners in the field of ecology will delight in the minutiae descriptions of species interactions and environmental cues that come from the land. The blossoming of arlepe (Acacia victoriae) flowers ‘represent the colour’ of kangaroo fat and signify that the ‘kangaroos are very healthy’ and the snakes become active and ‘start putting their tail out’ when the tea tree’s flowering and the north-west wind blows. Refreshingly, Turner goes beyond the conventional, utilitatarian descriptions of plants and animals as ‘traditional’ sources of food or medicine and describes the natural world as full of personality and character. Cicadas ‘make the summer by drawing the sun closer and closer’ with their ‘screaming’, ‘squealing’ and ‘singing’ whilst bearded dragons herald the rain by sitting ‘on the top branch of a tree’ with their ‘heads held really high…looking at the rainclouds’. We are also given an insight into the deeper mythological significance of particular species and how this determines their management and care. The effects of introduced species on soil and water quality, native plants and the habitat and feed of native ‘bush animals’ are all discussed from the perspective of someone with personal knowledge of the environmental changes in the Central Australian landscape.

The Arrernte appreciation of ‘land’ should not, however, be dismissed as yet another essentialized version of Indigenous Australians as primary environmentalists. In fact, some of Turner’s views on the history of ecological destruction or transformation in Central Australia may appear incongruous. On the one hand, she laments the arrival of introduced plant and animal species but on the other, she continues to recognize the sacredness or essence of ‘the Land’ in spite of the damage they have caused. She says ‘…if you’re seeing the Land without the Story, then there’s nothing there. We see our country, even though it might be destroyed by another species, we see how the beautiness is still in the country… It doesn’t matter that horses and bullocks have caused such destruction, we still see the spirit of that Land glistening’.

Underlying Turner’s understandings is of course a keen sense of arid region ecosystems, but it is her insistence on the importance of relationships that takes centre stage. The Land (with a capital L), conceptualized as something foundational or the preconditional, to existence makes it absolutely inseparable from ‘us’. This is typified in Turner’s chapter entitled ‘Relationship of Land’ and not ‘to the land’ as it might be conventionally described from a non-Indigenous perspective. ‘The land’ is an entity, which we ‘relate’ to and which may relate with us. Arrernte personally connect with Apmere because it is where their ancestors arose from, where their altyerre (personal and collective mythologies) reside, and where countless generations of families have persisted. Whereas formal anthropology has for many years been grappling with these same concepts and in many cases has suffered from Eurocentric misinterpretations, the explanations provided by Turner are far more intimate that any mediated explanation could offer.

The book’s compiler and the person with whom Turner addresses her words, Barry McDonald, made the brave decision to leave the transcripts of Turner’s dialogue largely unaltered. The result is a bilingual feast of English and Arrernte, which at first glance will perturb the lay reader, particularly when Arrernte words peppered throughout the text are left without subsequent and clearly presented translations. The foremost criticism of this book is the publisher’s failure to explain to the readership that every Arrernte word or phrase contained within the text has in fact been translated. The book is full of unique Indigenous uses of English which might appear clumsy or erroneous to some but in actual fact these idiomatic expressions often epitomize the resourceful and creative usages of the English language by Indigenous Australians. McDonald and the texts translator, Veronica Dobson Perrurle (an expert Arrernte author in her own right), should be commended for leaving both these English idiosyncrasies and flourishes of Arrernte in the body of the text. While the book may have been more easily read by the lay reader without them, the subtlety and authenticity would have been lost.

Iwenhe Tyerrtye is an excellent example of the poetic and often abstract terms, with which central Australia Aboriginal people describe their knowledge of, and relationship with, the land. Despite the profound depth of Arrernte relationships explained here, the challenge still remains for non-Indigenous Australians to discover their own way of relating.