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[from Myfany Turpin, our person in the Northern Territory]

Last Sunday I was fortunate to attend the ‘2010 Ali Curung traditional Dance festival’ in the NT organised by the Arlpwe Art and Culture centre. It appeared that the whole community turned out for the show, and staff from DesArt and Winanjjikari Music Centre no doubt worked tirelessly to put on this great event.

I arrived for the second day where a group of about 6 men sang a ceremony described by Geoffrey Small as jarda malya-malya a Warlpiri ceremony that involved a Dreaming track from Yuendumu to Hatches Creek. Following this Fanny Purrurla led Jiparanpa Yawulyu, from Warlpiri country. Then Mona Haywood led the singing of Tyarre-tyarre awelye, joined by Nancy and Trixie. This is a women’s ceremony from the Kaytetye country called Tyarre-Tyarre (more commonly spelt in the Warlpiri orthography, Jarra-Jarra). All three ceremonies had some 20 dancers, both young and old.

In between the ceremonies were break-dancing competitions for children. It took me a moment to adjust to the contrast in music, but not for the children who seamlessly moved from dancing ceremony to break-dancing in ochre. The day also involved spear-throwing and ‘flour’ races.

An interesting feature was the women’s painting preparations that went on outside earlier that day. Instead of singing, a recording of the previous night’s singing (again Mona, Nancy and Trixie) made by one of her relatives, was played on a tape recorder to accompany the painting up. With around 30 dancers to paint up, and Mona being the main singer (and she’s no spring chicken) perhaps this was to give her voice a break before the afternoon’s performance.

The last time a similar event was held at Alekarenge was at the Arlpwe Art and Culture centre opening at 2008. Before then, perhaps not since the Land Claim hearing or Purlapa Wiri in the 1980s. Those who witnessed the ceremonies at these events may have been disappointed yesterday with the numbers of singers. However I think it's amazing that there is anyone who still knows and sings these ceremonies at all, considering some historical factors, briefly mentioned below.

The community has never had a bi-lingual or long-term language and culture program in the school, and today’s lingua-franca is ‘camp English’, a term used by some residents for the language heard on the streets, which seems like a local creole to me. Well what would you expect if you made people from four non-mutually intelligible language groups all live together?

I hadn’t been to Alekarenge since 2007, and I was pleased to be able to burn off copies of audio for descendants, though couldn’t quite keep up with demand. The interest in language recordings and songs was overwhelming.

The history of European naming for this settlement is not something to be proud of. It has been described in Hercus & Simpson (2002) but it is worth mentioning here, as the naming of the Art Centre itself provides somewhat of a sequel.

The community was established in the 1950s as a government settlement for Warumungu, Warlpiri, Kaytetye, Alyawarr people, and it was named Warrabri, an amalgam of Warumungu and Warlpiri, the two largest language groups present on this settlement.

Some time later the Kaytetye name of a nearby site to the north, Alek-arenge (aleke ‘ dog’ –arenge ‘belonging to’), was adopted as the official name. Unfortunately the meaning behind this name was lost in the English quasi Arabic spelling ‘Ali-Curung’. The picture of the dog on the sign at the entrance to the community however makes the connection clear.

The art centre was incorporated in 2007 with many senior men and women involved in deciding on the name. They chose the name of the Country (estate group) on which the art centre and community exists. This seems to be a common naming strategy for art centres in Central Australia. This Kaytetye country is called Arlpawe, which is also a noun meaning ‘wide open country with no hills or rivers’.

The official spelling of the Art and Culture centre is Arlpwe. That someone forgot the ‘a’ isn’t all that surprising if the person in charge of spelling had a low level of literacy. In my experience of teaching adult literacy it is a common mistake to forget that a vowel is needed to make a syllable. It is unfortunate that the official spelling closely resembles two other Kaytetye words:ilpwe ‘deflated’ and arlpe ‘ashes’.

A number of Aboriginal language speakers asked me why English speakers can’t say the name of their Art Centre properly. Of course there are linguistic reasons such as voicing differences and retroflexion, requiring some tongue gymnastics on the part of English speakers, but I also think putting the ‘a’ back into Arlpawe would help.

To conclude, in the corner of the Art Centre I saw the most spectacular rectangular mat made of tyweretye (Erythrina vespertilio) and karleyakwerre (Stylobasium spathulatum) seeds woven together to read:

‘Arlpawe Art Culture Centre’

I learnt that Nancy Kemarr Martin had made and presented the Art Centre with this stunning gift at its opening in 2008, a testament to the value locals put on their new Art Centre.

The non-Aboriginal Art Centre staff were surprised to learn yesterday that Nancy had not got the spelling wrong. Staff are now considering fixing the spelling of the name officially. Let's hope the necessary red tape can be negotiated in respect to all the senior Aboriginal men and women who bestowed the art and culture centre with the gift of the name of their Country, with all its associated Dreamings.


It's really reassuring to know that this unique culture is being looked after for future generations. I shall definitely pay a visit to Arlpwe.

Lovely article. I have had the pleasure of spending time with Nellie Patterson and the ladies particpating in Women's Ceremonies at Umutja. Life changing experience.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful post.

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