Hermannsburg – Ntaria

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On the same day we visited the Standley Chasm, we drove a bit further to take in Hermannsburg or, as the original land owners called it, Ntaria. This was an Aborigine mission established June 4th, 1877 by 2 Lutheran missionaries from Germany, A. Hermann Kemp and Wilhelm F. Schwarz. They settled among the Aranda and struggled to have any contact when they first arrived, beyond being observed. They finally figured out they might need to learn to speak their language and so they developed a 54-page dictionary with over 1700 words in it.

With communication possible, the mission grew and another missionary arrived and more buildings were erected. They had a school, storage house, church, living quarters and other work-related buildings. They eventually started baptising the Aborigines and made several attempts to build a farm or some type of industry such as a tannery. Drought was a huge problem with ensuing health issues that led to many deaths. The church clearly tried to make life better for the Aborigines and did so by immersing themselves into their lives.

The land was handed back to the Aborigine people in 1982 and is today included on the Heritage List and is protected by the National Trust.

The mission also taught painting and several of the more famous Aborigine artists are linked to the mission with the most famous being Albert Namatjira.

The town of Ntaria is almost completely Aboriginal. A gentleman at the mission told us there were only 2 white people living in the town and that no white person ever stays there permanently. The town itself was quiet and seemingly well maintained. There were many signs up making it clear, “No pictures allowed,” as they attempted to draw a line between the historical, picture worthy, “tourist attraction” or the mission, and their current lives.

Think about that for a moment – how irritating it would be to have strangers drive into your town, or even by you on a street, taking your picture as if you were not a human being, but some kind of rare oddity they might take home to show others. Even without the Aboriginal beliefs about death and spirits, it is inappropriate.

When we arrived there was a group of Aborigine people dropping off artwork and 2 women with that group were tending 3 children who were laughing and playing in the courtyard where some tables and chairs were set up, along with some playground equipment. To enter the mission, we had to pass through the shack selling art and souvenirs. Once we were beyond that point and the Aborigines involved in dropping off their art, the presence of Aboriginal people ended. Nowhere in the entire mission was there any evidence of, or participation of the people who owned the land and who populated the town. It seemed rather counterproductive to the entire purpose of the mission to not have employed a single Aborigine. I had expected to see them demonstrating some of the life they would have led back then, or perhaps conducting educational sessions on what things were and maybe sharing personal stories from their own families. I thought some of them might be working behind the counters or performing some of the caretaking duties. Nothing.

The mission had this eerie, sad, haunting feeling. It was like a gossamer layer of cloth that the wind pushed through, moving as you walked with gentle waves of sad stroking against your being. You could feel of the intense loneliness that the women particularly must have felt coming from Europe and their lives of privilege. What did they think when they arrived there to make a new home, miles from anywhere, in the dust and the heat with no-one to talk to. I could not stay in the house that had been built for the minister. It made me want to cry. I had this sense of her waiting for her husband to come home and when he did, he shared little with her, and her loneliness grew. Later, when we spoke to the store attendant he shared that her journals showed how happy and excited she was to join her husband that she adored when she first came out and then how those feelings eventually turned to complete misery and depression until, after he died, she returned home.

I was glad to leave. While the story is amazing and the strength of the people who endured all they did, and genuinely tried to make a difference and help is so admirable, the place disturbed me. The buildings and the materials they used are ingenious and they stand in almost perfect condition despite the years and the harsh nature of the land they were built in. It is absolutely worthy of historical preservation but perhaps because it sits in the middle of an Aboriginal town and has no use or purpose for them, it creates the sense that . . . it never did.