What is True?
I’ve found since the launch of “Turn on a Light” that when I present on the novel and explain its genesis, reactions are polarised: from those who nod and accept to those who frown and question. And usually, the divergence has to do with different ideas of what constitutes evidence. I hope this vignette explain why I believe the theme of “Turn on a Light” has validity.
The theme arose from work I undertook in the community of Ltyentye Apurte, 80 kms south-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (NT). The name in Eastern Arrernte language means “clump of beefwood trees”. Until 1975, the community was known as Santa Teresa Catholic Mission.
A lot of the work I did was with the Community Council Chair: a lovely older woman whom I interviewed several times about schooling in the community. When we finished the last one, we chatted briefly about the history of the community. The main thing I discovered was that from 1943 to 1952, it had been situated 100 kms due north at a place called Arltunga. I’d never heard of Arltunga so I asked innocently why the community was there for nine years before shifting to this site. Her answer was soft and seemed guarded.
“Little kids get sick,” she told me, “so Catholics bring us here: good water.”
I tried a few gentle questions to get more explanation but she just smiled and changed the subject. Those few words, however, were motivating. Over the years of knowing Aboriginal people, their ‘one-word‘ or ‘one-liner’ statements often carried a wealth of meaning. Think of asking where “Billy” is, for example, and getting the reply, “Billy gone walkabout”. What stories lie beneath that answer?
As a more powerful example, Noongar people had occasionally spoken to me of ‘cold time’. Over some years, I found ‘cold time’ was part of their oral history, describing a period when snow and below freezing temperatures in our south-west winters were the rule, not an exception. And I found that various historical and meteorological records indicated an era perhaps 10 000 years ago when this was probably the case. Episodes like that taught me that there is worth in oral history stories. Those stories may not have the precise accuracy of scientific historical research or archaeological processes, but they are keys to different doors that open to different views of past events.
So, I took her words as being a factual description of something in the history of East Arrernte people in Arltunga and over the next eighteen months, I researched the work of the Catholics in the NT and with East Arrernte people, Arltunga, and finally, Santa Teresa.
Arltunga was the first gold-mining site in the NT; about 90 kms east of Alice Springs. Gold was discovered in 1886 and a town survived until about 1920, although the gold battery closed in 1916. The survival of non-Aboriginal people was facilitated by three wells being sunk to provide water. The pictures below show the type of country as well as several historical photos from the time, including the gold-battery at the top of a hill.
The Catholics have a long history in the NT starting around 1860, and connecting with East Arrernte people after World War One. During the 1930s following the Great Depression, East Arrernte people were being evicted from cattle stations on their country and the only place they could go was Alice Springs. So the Catholics started Little Flower Mission in 1935, moving to Charles Creek in 1937, to provide for them. But in 1943, an Aboriginal girl came down with meningitis. By then, Alice Springs was a staging post for Australian troops moving north to face a potential Japanese invasion.
The senior officers of the armed forces, whether because of the meningitis, or to prevent troops fraternising with the Aboriginal people, or both, ordered the East Arrernte people out to Arltunga. The Catholics, naturally, went with them.
The mission operated at Arltunga until 1952, when the Catholics moved everyone to Santa Teresa. A couple of websites I found when first researching about Santa Teresa in 2006 stated that infant mortality rates had spiked considerably during the nine years in Arltunga due to impure water. They both also mentioned the availability of pure water at Mission. But when I began to research again (2013) to write “Turn on a Light”, those references were no longer available. And the National Archives catalogue of references to Arltunga and the presence of Little Flower Mission is also devoid of references to child mortality rates. There is, however, many references to building a dam owing to the lack of water, and one other of particular interest. It’s in document 42/259, numbered 61, written by the Administrator, Alice Springs and dated 4th May 1944. It states:
“The Mission is now dependent upon a well from which water is pumped by a windmill. Heavy rains were experienced at Arltunga in the early part of this year (and that) caused the well to collapse… Work is being carried out on the well but it is doubtful whether a good supply will be obtained.”
The well, and two others not used by the Mission for reasons not revealed, although it is likely they were beyond repair, would have been subject to the same forces of nature for over 60 years. That includes the probability of residue from the old gold battery, containing arsenic and cyanide, being washed into all three wells by very heavy rains, however infrequent such downpours may have been. Anyway, the original documents I found on the net in 2006 and the letter already cited were enough for me to conclude that the old lady’s words about sick little kids as the reason to move to Santa Teresa had validity.
So, the idea of writing a novel based on the experiences of the East Arrernte people at Arltunga and Santa Teresa grew. I took the idea of Aboriginal people being sent to a deserted gold-mining town where a high infant mortality rate developed. I do not claim that the story is an accurate reflection of the experiences of East Arrernte people at Arltunga. It is fiction that a reviewer of “Turn on a Light” said embodies the possibility of being an extension of reality. One day, when I have time and if I am still on the mortal coil, I will do more research and visit Darwin and Alice Springs to see what evidence is available. But until then, I’m satisfied that the old lady’s story, even as a one sentence comment, has some basis in fact.