“Missionary Work in the Central Australian ‘Outback’” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 75–76
Now receiving the gospel in one of the most isolated areas of the world is the aboriginal Warramunga tribe of the Central Australian “outback.”
Approximately eight years ago, Sister Lorna Fejo, a descendant of the Warramunga tribe of Elliott, Australia, joined the Church in Darwin, a city in the same general area, where she had found employment. Soon after her baptism, she became enthusiastic about completing her four-generation genealogy program and on several occasions sought information from the tribal elders at Elliott. She visited in particular with tribal genealogist Beetaloo Bill, who has the distinct task of committing to memory the genealogy of tribal members. Now that Sister Fejo has presented her information to the Genealogical Society of the Church, work for the dead is being done for Australian aboriginals.
But Sister Fejo’s contact with the tribal elders has led her in another, equally significant, direction. She is helping to teach her tribe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Often accompanying her in her missionary labors are Robert King and his wife, Christine (Sister Fejo’s daughter), of the Darwin Branch, Australia Adelaide Mission, both returned missionaries who have been called to continue their missionary endeavors in their own area. These three make frequent weekend visits to the solitary township of Elliott, located halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs.
When white men first began to settle Australia, approximately 300,000 aborigines inhabited the continent. They comprised from 300 to 500 tribes, each tribe made up of from 100 to 1500 individuals. Sister Fejo’s tribe, the Warramungas, is thus one of many. Less than 50,000 full-blooded aborigines are left in Australia today. The Australian government maintains about half of the tribes in supervised camps. Along with receiving a pension, they are provided with schools and hospitals. Outside the camps, the nomadic tribes have little or no formal education.
Prior to 1980 the gospel had been taken to some of the aboriginals in Australia, but it had yet to reach the Warramunga tribe. The first major step in taking the gospel officially to the Warramungas took place in December 1980 when, in a meeting of full-time and district missionaries with Darwin Branch President Arnold Cummins, it was proposed that the gospel be preached to aboriginals in this mission area. Under the direction of Miles C. Romney, president of the Australia Adelaide Mission, the area was dedicated for the teaching of the gospel. By the end of December the first official missionary visit to Elliott took place.
Having first obtained the consent of the governor of Northern Territory and of Mr. Bill Hayes, the leader of the Warramunga tribe, Brother and Sister King and Sister Fejo entered the aboriginal encampment near the Elliott township and commenced preparations for a Saturday evening fireside. The only suitable building, a community canteen, was then renovated for this purpose by the tribesmen, with the help of the missionaries. Since the canteen had no power, the missionaries used long extension leads (cords) to bring electricity to the site for the organ, projector, and lighting.
In the meantime, word was circulated among the several tribes using the camp that a meeting was to be held in the community canteen. The response was overwhelming. The small building was packed to overflowing with more than 180 people. With enthusiasm the crowd listened to a selection of hymns and joined in with some they knew. Whether they sat on the concrete floor, or stood outside looking in through the windows, they were enthralled as the film Man’s Search for Happiness introduced them to the gospel.
The aboriginal religion of this tribe teaches of life in a premortal existence and also life after death, concepts that harmonize with some aspects of the gospel as taught by the Church. Also strongly family oriented, the tribes are ruled by a chief and a council of tribal elders, elderly men held in great respect. The elders sit together in ceremonial council, and during what they call “dream time” they claim to communicate with their dead ancestors. Members of the council are forbidden under penalty of death to discuss the secrets of their religion with anyone other than the other tribal elders. They do not disclose the name of Deity, but they acknowledge their belief in a supreme being as the God and the Father of all men.
Because that first fireside visit was so enthusiastically received, Sister Fejo and Brother and Sister King made a number of subsequent weekend trips to Elliott. Each time they received a warm welcome, and each time the local people flocked to Saturday evening firesides.
At the beginning of February 1981 President Arnold Cummins of the Darwin Branch accompanied the Kings and Sister Fejo one weekend and held a sacrament meeting in the canteen. Some thirty-six people, most of them nonmembers, attended. The presence of the Spirit was most evident. “It was as reverent and spiritual a sacrament meeting as I have experienced,” said President Cummins. “It was very clear that these fine people are indeed ready for the gospel.”
Shortly afterward, President Romney assigned two proselyting missionaries to work with the aboriginals at the camp: Elder Matthew Cowley Tuhourangi Tarawa, a Maori from Auckland, New Zealand, and Elder Lloyd Lance Young from Brush Prairie (Vancouver), Washington—the first missionaries ever to work in this aboriginal camp.
These two young men found some of the conditions in which the aboriginals live rather challenging. Temperatures range from 20° C. (68° F.) to 40° C. (104° F.) in summer and drop to a nighttime minimum of -5° C. (23° F.) in winter. During the hot daytime hours, the aboriginals seek shade under trees and sleep. When the cooler hours of night approach, they begin to forage.
The nomadic tribes wander within their geographical area, obtaining their living by hunting, trapping, fishing, and collecting seeds and other edible portions of the natural vegetation in the area. Their only domestic animals are dogs. Among their relatively few material belongings are wooden spears and spear throwers, clubs, stone chisels, stone axes, wooden dishes, grinding stones, digging sticks, and, in some cases, boomerangs, shields, fishing nets, baskets, and temporary huts. Kangaroos and wallabies are a major source of protein for them, along with emus, large Australian birds similar to the ostrich.
Dust, flies, and mosquitoes fill the air. Sewage facilities are nonexistent, and running water is rare. Although some of the local people have houses (tin sheds in which they sleep only on rainy nights), many live in “humpies,” bivouac-style shelters that provide very little protection from the elements.
The missionaries’ adjustment to these living conditions has been somewhat eased, however, with living quarters erected by members of the Darwin Branch, under the direction of President Philip Baker, Darwin Branch president, and with a modification of the usual missionary attire. They live with the members of the Warramunga Tribe, but obtain groceries from the local store in Elliott, cook their own meals, and sleep in their own living quarters. Instead of regular missionary suits, they wear levis and “work” shirts most of the time. They also have planted a garden, which has attracted the interest of some of the natives who are developing a desire to raise their own vegetables and bananas. Several banana trees, procured from the members in Darwin, are being cultivated under the direction of the missionaries.
Elder Tarawa and Elder Dennis Richard Bate (from Queensland, Australia), who replaced Elder Young, have added new purpose and new interest to the camp. The young aboriginals now congregate around the missionaries, who, besides teaching them gospel principles, are involving the youth and young adults in cleanup projects and sports programs. Complementing their work are the efforts of Sister Fejo and the Kings. With each visit they make, progress is accelerated. Plans for the future include preparation of vegetable gardens, redecorating the canteen for church meetings, holding health and sanitation seminars, and providing advice on personal budgeting.
The teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is now a very real and productive force in this area. Already Beetaloo Bill, the tribal genealogist, and his wife Biddy have been baptized. Following their baptism in June 1981, seventeen others were baptized by mid-July. More will enter.
Since beginning work in Elliott, the Church has been invited to visit other aboriginal areas in the Territory. No doubt this will happen in due course, but it is felt that real progress should be demonstrated in Elliott first.
And so the work of the Lord goes on, with the gospel being introduced to yet another new people, the Warramunga tribe of the Central Australian “outback.”