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Celebrating a shared history

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


For 12 days in August, 2011, Dr Alitja Rigney, a member of the National Museum’s Indigenous Advisory Committee, accompanied by Verna Koolmatrie, a language teacher and member of the Raukkan Community Council, Nelson Varcoe, a musician and songwriter and Dr Rob Amery, a linguist at the University of Adelaide, visited Germany. They followed the 170-year-old footsteps of Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann (1815–1893). Invited by the Leipzig Mission Society to help celebrate their 175th anniversary in Dresden, the group took the opportunity to trace the life of a missionary who rendered enormous services to the current generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by recording the languages of the original inhabitants of the area where Adelaide is now located. Kaurna is the main language of the Adelaide region.The journey was also an opportunity to connect with Schürmann’s descendants.

Departing Adelaide and arriving in Frankfurt, Alitja and her companions first visited the town of Schledehausen, the birthplace of Schürmann. Here, the local historian Paul Walter treated the group and the descendants of Schürmann to a tour of the old town and church where Schürmann had been baptised. Later, the group visited the local Schelenburg castle and the Ellernhof farmstead. Schürmann renounced his inherited claim to the farmstead to join the missions. In the evening, the group was invited to a public information evening in a restaurant in Osnabrück at which linguists discussed the diversity of the nearly 600 Aboriginal languages and the marked differences in language that could occur between neighbouring communities. The information session was followed by the gift of the Aboriginal flag to the descendants of Schürmann and a performance by Nelson Varcoe on the didgeridoo.

The next day the group travelled to Halle and was given a tour of the Francke Foundations’ archive which houses the complete Leipzig Mission Society archive, including the diaries and letters of four South Australian missionaries, Schürmann included. Productive visits were made to Berlin, where the group met with linguists, politicians and representatives of various missions and to Leipzig, where they toured the permanent Australian exhibit at the Grassi Museum of Ethnology.

The delegation visited for 2 days of the anniversary celebrations were held in Dresden. During this time, the group visited the Museum of Dresden and was able to view the artefacts of their ancestors that had been collected by the missionaries in 1838, and discuss cultural issues about presentation of these artefacts in future museum displays.

Each location provided insights into the life of the man who in 1838, with his fellow missionary Christian Gottlieb Tiechelmann, was sent to Adelaide to evangelise the local Aboriginal people while rendering Christian services to the workers on the mission. Although the mission was not a success, it was because of Schürmann’s keenness to preserve the local language that he was able to create dictionaries that contained 3500 keywords. These dictionaries ultimately led Rob Amery and the local Adelaide people to revive the Kaurna language. Modern words have been added to the lexicon, such as refrigerator and computer, and the language is now being taught and used at the Kaurna Plains School. It was at Kaurna Plains School that Alitja served as the first Aboriginal school principal in South Australia.

The two-week trip to Germany provided many opportunities to reflect on the life of Schürmann and the important role that he played in the revival of the Kaurna language. Most importantly, the establishment of cultural dialogue and friendships among the delegation and their German partners will see the return of the delegation to Germany in the future.

Lorna Schmider-Woodcock, Indigenous Cadet