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Going Native: Converting Narratives in Tiwi Histories of Twentieth-Century Missions


Historians and anthropologists have increasingly argued that the conversion of Indigenous peoples to Christianity occurred as they wove the new faith into their traditions. Yet this finding risks overshadowing how Indigenous peoples themselves understood the history of Christianity in their societies. This article, a case study of the Tiwi of North Australia, is illustrative in that it uses Tiwi oral histories of the ‘conversion’ of a priest in order to invert assumptions about inculturation and conversion. They insist that they did not accommodate the new faith but that the Catholic Church itself converted in embracing them. Their history suggests that conversion can occur as communities change in the act of incorporating new peoples.

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I thank the Tiwi people for their generous support of my research. I also thank Professor Shurlee Swain, Dr Hannah Forsyth, Dr Altin Gavranovic and Samuel Blanch for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. This research was supported by funding from the Australian Research Theology Foundation. All interviews took place on the Tiwi Islands.

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1 Laura Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 28 Sept. 2015. It should be noted that many interviewees preferred to remain anonymous.

2 Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 24 Sept. 2015.

3 Sanneh, L., Translating the message: the missionary impact on culture, Maryknoll, NY 1989, 51, 298; Burkhart, L., The slippery earth: Nahua-Christian moral dialogue in sixteenth-century Mexico, Tuscon 1989, 184; Ballantyne, T., Entanglements of empire: missionaries, Maori, and the question of the body, Auckland 2015, 254.

4 Rambo, L., Understanding religious conversion, New Haven 1993, 3.

5 Tweed, T., Crossing and dwelling: a theory of religion, Cambridge, Ma 2009, 167.

6 Wilson, R., Be always converting, be always converted: an American poetics, Cambridge, Ma 2009, 3.

7 The ‘salvage’ approach was led by Franz Boas and in Australian anthropology included A. P. Elkin, Norman Tindale and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. See further Swain, T. and Rose, D. Bird, Aboriginal Australians and Christian missions: ethnographic and historical studies, Adelaide 1988, introduction at pp. 1–8.

8 Austin-Broos, D., ‘The anthropology of conversion: an introduction’, in Buckser, A. and Glazier, S. (eds), The anthropology of religious conversion, Lanham 2003, 45.

9 Ibid. 2.

10 Sanneh, Translating the message, 31, 51.

11 Landau, P. S., The realm of the word: language, gender, and Christianity in a southern African kingdom, Portsmouth 1995, p. xxi; Walls, A., The missionary movement in Christian history: studies in the transmission of faith, Maryknoll, NY 1996, 100; Elbourne, E., Blood ground: colonialism, missions, and the contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799–1853, Montreal 2002, 89.

12 Walls, The missionary movement, 100.

13 Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J., Of revelation and revolution, II: The dialectics of modernity on a South African frontier, Chicago 2009, 17.

14 Sleeper-Smith, S., Indian women and French men: rethinking cultural encounter in the Western Great Lakes, Amherst 2001, 112.

15 Leavelle, T. N., The Catholic calumet: colonial conversions in French and Indian North America, Philadelphia 2011, 8; Robert, D., Converting colonialism: visions and realities in mission history, 1706–1914, Grand Rapids, Mi 2008, 6.

16 Elsmore, B., Like them that dream: the Maori and the Old Testament, 2nd edn, Auckland 2000, 56, 102, 197–99; Elsmore, B., Mana from heaven: a century of Maori prophets in New Zealand, Auckland 1999, 352–8.

17 Ballantyne, Entanglements of empire, 4, 256; Gardner, H., ‘“New heaven and new earth”: translation and conversion on Aneityum’, Journal of Pacific History xli/3 (2006), 311.

18 Schwarz, C. and Dussart, F., ‘Christianity in Aboriginal Australia revisited’, TAJA xxi/1 (2010), 24.

19 Yengoyan, A., ‘Religion, morality, and prophetic traditions: conversion among the Pitjantjatjara of Central Australia’, in Hefner, R. (ed.), Conversion to Christianity: historical and anthropological perspectives on a great transformation, Berkeley, Ca 1993, 234–6.

20 Gondarra, D., Father, you gave us the Dreaming, Darwin 1988, and Series of reflections of Aboriginal theology, Darwin 1986, p. iv; Rosendale, G. and Elders, Rainbow Spirit, Rainbow Spirit theology: towards an Australian Aboriginal theology, Adelaide 1997, 16, 38.

21 Austin-Broos, D., Arrernte present, Arrernte past: invasion, violence, and imagination in Indigenous Central Australia, Chicago 2009, 21–2; McDonald, H., ‘Universalising the particular? God and Indigenous spirit beings in East Kimberley’, TAJA xxi/1 (2010), 51, 64.

22 Magowan, F., Melodies of mourning: music and emotion in Northern Australia, Oxford 2007, 184; Kenny, R., The Lamb enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the ruptured world, Melbourne 2010.

23 Loos, N., White Christ Black Cross: the emergence of a Black Church, Canberra 2007, 13.

24 Swain, T., A place for strangers: towards a history of Australian Aboriginal being, Cambridge 1993, 124.

25 Brock, P. and others, Indigenous evangelists and questions of authority in the British Empire, 1750–1940, Boston 2015, 117–31; Brock, P., ‘Two Indigenous evangelists: Moses Tjalkabota and Arthur Wellington Clah’, Journal of Religious History xxvii/3 (2003), 348–66.

26 Brock and others, Indigenous evangelists, 191–4.

27 Gondarra, Series of reflections, 26.

28 McNally, M., ‘The practice of Native American Christianity’, Church History lix/4 (2000), 836–7.

29 Whitehouse, H., ‘Appropriated and monolithic Christianity in Melanesia’, in Cannel, F. (ed), The anthropology of Christianity, Durham, NC 2006, 296.

30 Hämäläinen, P., The Comanche empire, New Haven 2008, 15.

31 Ibid. 3, 7.

32 Gerbner, K., ‘Theorizing conversion: Christianity, colonization, and consciousness in the early modern Atlantic world’, History Compass xiii/3 (2015), 135.

33 Portelli, A., The death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories: form and meaning in oral history, Albany 1991, 2.

34 Ibid. 143; Orsi, R., ‘Everyday miracles: the study of lived religion’, in Hall, D. (ed.), Lived religion in America: toward a history of practice, Princeton 1997, 7.

35 McGuire, M. B., Lived religion: faith and practice in everyday life, Oxford 2008, 13. See also Hall, Lived religion.

36 Orsi, R., Between heaven and earth: the religious worlds people make and the scholars who study them, Princeton 2005, 2, 18.

37 Hokari, M., Gurindji journey: a Japanese historian in the outback, Kensington, Sydney 2011, 258; Kenny, Lamb enters the Dreaming, 176–7.

38 Venbrux, E., A death in the Tiwi Islands: conflict, ritual, and social life in an Australian Aboriginal community, Cambridge 1995, 61.

39 Mountford, C. P., The Tiwi: their art, myth, and ceremony, London 1958, 61.

40 Pirrawayingi Marius Puruntatameri, unrecorded personal communication, 17 June 2016.

41 Goodale, J., Tiwi wives: a study of the women of Melville Island, North Australia, Washington, DC 1971, 310.

42 Ibid. 259.

43 Rademaker interview with Elaine Tiparui, 31 Aug. 2016.

44 ‘Mauliantanili awangtini tangini mu mu’: Mountford, The Tiwi, 30.

45 ‘Mythology’, C. W. M. Hart paper, AIATSIS, ms 4540.

46 F. X. Gsell to Paul Flemming, 4 Apr 1927, MSC archives, Kensington, Sydney, 0564.

47 Joseph Kerrins to William Henschke, 14 Oct 1943, ibid. 0560.

48 Rademaker interview with Dulcie Kerinaiua, 9 June 2016.

49 Rademaker interview with Bernard Tipiluoura, 20 June 2016.

50 F. X. Gsell ‘Report about Bathurst Island Mission’, n.d., MSC archives, 0564.

51 Fallon, J., ‘The Good Old Days’, Nelen Yubu xlviii (1991), 13.

52 J. Morris, ‘Continuing “assimilation”? A shifting identity for the Tiwi 1919 to the present’, unpubl. PhD diss. Ballarat 2003, 259.

53 Goodale, Tiwi wives, 237.

54 ‘Ngawenterapenamanjimi all-together kuwijelanjimi’: M. Brandl, ‘Pukumani: the social context of bereavement in a North Australian Aboriginal tribe’, unpubl. PhD diss. Western Australia 1971, 508.

55 Morris, J., ‘Christianity welcomes tribal lore’, Arnhem Land Epistle (Dec. 1968), 1.

56 Wilson, M., ‘Aboriginal religion and Christianity’, Nelen Yubu lvii/2 (1993), 10.

57 Mountford, The Tiwi, 60.

58 J. Goodale, ‘Melville Island expedition, field notebook’, vol. 1, AIATSIS, ms 4676, series 1, item 1.

59 Idem, Tiwi wives, 255–6.

60 Rademaker interview with Francis Kerinaiua, 11 June 2016; Morris, ‘Continuing “assimilation”?’, 257.

61 ‘Annual Report – 1964/64’, NAA, F1 1962/1051.

62 Morris, ‘Continuing “assimilation”?’, 257.

63 J. Pye, ‘Bathurst Island or Nguiu’, MSC archives, 0564.

64 Rademaker interview with Romolo Kantilla, 22 Nov. 2015.

65 Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 23 Sept 2015.

66 Venbrux, Death in the Tiwi Islands, 59, 61, 116, 216.

67 Rademaker interview with Barry Puruntatameri, 23 Nov. 2015.

68 Venbrux, Death in the Tiwi Islands, 62.

69 Rademaker interview with Calista Kantilla, 1 Sept. 2016.

70 Pirrawayingi Puruntatameri, unrecorded personal communication, 17 June 2016.

71 Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 26 Sept. 2015.

72 Rademaker–Romolo Kantilla interview.

73 Rademaker–Barry Puruntatameri interview.

74 Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 23 Sept. 2015.

75 Rademaker–Romolo Kantilla inteview.

76 Rademaker–Calista Kantilla interview.

77 Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 24 Sept. 2015.

78 Ibid.

79 Swain, A place for strangers, 2.

80 Hokari, Gurindji journey, 118.

81 Ibid. 120.

82 Rademaker–Barry Puruntatameri interview.

83 ‘Summary of proceedings of Missions/Administration Conference, 5th–9th June 1967’, NAA, A452 NT1967/4400.

84 John Leary to Kerrins, 25 June 1967, MSC archives, 0561a; Kerrins to J. P. O'Loughlin, 12 Nov. 1967, 0561a; ‘Minutes of meeting called by Bishop J. P. O'Loughlin msc’, July 1968, 0561a.

85 Pirrawayingi Puruntatameri, unrecorded personal communication, 17 June 2016.

86 Portelli, The death of Luigi Trastulli, 2.

87 Rademaker–Romolo Kantilla interview.

88 Orsy, L., Receiving the Council: theological and canonical insights and debates, Collegeville 2009, 83; Rush, O., ‘Ecclesial conversion after Vatican II: renewing “the face of the Church” to reflect “the genuine face of God”’, Theological Studies lxxiv (2013), 785.

89 O'Malley, J. W., What happened at Vatican II, Cambridge, Ma 2010, 1314.

90 Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, Nostra aetate, proclaimed by Pope Paul vi, 28 Oct. 1965.

91 R. Reynolds, ‘Catholic sacrament engaging with Wadeye ritual’, unpubl. PhD diss. Northern Territory University, Darwin 1999, 7.

92 Dodson, P., Elston, J. and McCoy, B., ‘Leaving culture at the door: Aboriginal perspectives on Christian belief and practice’, Pacifica: Australasian Theological Studies xix/3 (2006), 253, 257.

93 Fallon, ‘The good old days’, 13.

94 Ibid. 13–14.

95 Ibid. 14.

96 Aubrey Collins to Kerrins, 27 Oct. 1967, MSC archives, 0651a.

97 ‘Minutes of meeting called by Bishop J. P. O'Loughlin msc’, July 1968, ibid. 0561a.

98 M. Sims, ‘Liturgy among the Aborigines’, n.d., ibid. 0562a.

99 Morris, ‘Christianity welcomes tribal lore’, 1.

100 ‘Proceedings of special MSC conferences’, Aug. 25–29 1975, AIATSIS, ms 1061.

101 Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J., Of revelation and revolution, I: Christianity, colonialism and consciousness in South Africa, Chicago 1991, 4.

102 Ibid. 310.

103 Huhndorf, S., Going native: Indians in the American cultural imagination, Ithaca 2001, 2, 5; Ahmed, S., Strange encounters: embodied others in postcoloniality, London 2000, 124.

104 McNally, ‘The practice of Native American Christianity’, 844.

105 Rademaker–Calista Kantilla interview.

106 Brandl, ‘Pukumani’, 510.

107 Grau, Andrée, ‘Tiwi Catholicism: dance and religious syncretism among a Northern Aboriginal people’, in Porter, S., Hayes, M. and Tombs, D. (eds), Faith in the millenium, Sheffield 2001, 477.

108 G. Campbell, ‘Ngarukuruwala: we sing: the songs of the Tiwi Islands, Northern Australia’, unpubl. PhD diss. Sydney 2013, 9.

109 Brandl, ‘Pukumani’, 308–9; Rademaker–Bernard Tipiluoura interview.

110 Rademaker–Calista Kantilla interview.

111 L. Rademaker, ‘Language and the mission: talking and translating on Groote Eylandt, 1943–1973’, unpubl. PhD diss. Australian National University 2014, 298.

112 Rademaker interview with anonymous informant, 26 Sept. 2015.

113 Rademaker–Dulcie Kerinaiua interview.

114 Rademaker–Bernard Tipiluoura interview.

115 Evangelii Nuntianti: apostolic exhortation of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, 8 Dec. 1975.

116 Sanneh, Translating the message, 51, 298.

117 Comaroff and Comaroff, Of revelation and revolution, i. 252.

118 Rademaker interview with Henrietta Hunter, 19 Nov. 2015.

119 Walker, M., ‘Converting the Church: Richard Rodriguez and the browning of Catholicism’, English Studies in Canada xxxv/2 (2009), 93.

I thank the Tiwi people for their generous support of my research. I also thank Professor Shurlee Swain, Dr Hannah Forsyth, Dr Altin Gavranovic and Samuel Blanch for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. This research was supported by funding from the Australian Research Theology Foundation. All interviews took place on the Tiwi Islands.

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