A special and unique perspective of a culture can be found when looking at it through the ‘lens of a language and its literacy’, exploring its development over time.
Such opportunity is provided in David Roennfeldt’s book, ‘laakinha rraatja’, a journey into the development of Western Arrarnta literacy, arising from the times of establishment of Lutheran mission communities in Central Australia, notably Hermannsburg (1877).
Translated, the Western Arrarnta phrase, ‘laakinha rraatja’ means ‘it’s correct like this’. Care has been taken to respectfully consider the contributions to the history of Western Arrarnta literacy from both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspective. It is also extended to the consideration of the wider audience. Stories in this book are written in both English and Western Arrarnta. This is truly a story of peoples from differing cultures ‘walking together’, to learn from and better understand each other. A great example of two-way learning is demonstrated throughout this history.
Missionaries used their German alphabet to write the local language down. They spelt the name of the language, country and people as ‘Aranda’.
About 1980 the alphabet was defined. After that, this name was written as ‘Western Arrarnta’.
German missionaries arrived at Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, in 1877. They learnt the language and wrote it down. They opened a school, the first one in central Australia, and it was bi-lingual for about 70 years. Vernacular literacy was one component in the positive life style of the Mission. From the 1920s on, Aranda language and literacy was taken by Hermannsburg people to people speaking other central Australian languages. Hymn singing was part of this.
Eventually it was discerned that the German alphabet did not adequately encode the sounds in the language. Around 1980 the Western Arrarnta alphabet was defined, and texts were written using this defined alphabet.
However, for the last 70 years there has been decreasing opportunity for community members to gain literacy skills in their own language. Younger people are not always learning to properly speak their language, let alone the writing and reading of it. Western Arrarnta language may well be a ‘threatened species’.
David Roennfeldt, a teacher with the South Australian Education Department (1978), received and accepted an invitation to work in Hermannsburg, an Aboriginal Lutheran community in the Northern Territory. At that time language and culture sessions, led by the principal, were compulsory for staff and this provided an invaluable orientation to cross cultural experiences.
David completed linguistic studies in 1986, and eventually returned to Hermannsburg in 1990, to teach. By this time Finke River Mission no longer ran the community. He became involved with the school language and culture program together with his wife Lily.
David and his wife Lily continue to live in Ntaria (Hermannsburg). Together they have worked on a number of other language and translation projects over the years.
Evolution of the Project
At a time (2017) when History Grants were made available in the Northern Territory, the Western Arrarntaka Yia Aboriginal Corporation and the local Hermannsburg Historical Society, encouraged David to apply. The support and the depth of critical knowledge of the local Aboriginal community members of these two groups, as well as others, has contributed to the authenticity of this publication.
The Lutheran Archives (Adelaide) and two Alice Springs archival libraries proved to be excellent for sourcing information and other materials. Many trips to Alice Springs were necessary, so the graphic artist could meld text and illustrations together (scans and photos, both old and new).
‘laakinha rraatja – Western Arrarnta literacy 1877 – 2017’ was published at the end of 2019. It is both an easy and informative read. You are invited to take the journey.
For more information or sales enquiries, contact David:
firstname.lastname@example.org | D. Roennfeldt, Hermannsburg Community, Hermannsburg NT 0872.