Australian Indigenous Religions: New Religious Movements

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Indigenous new religious movements or cultic developments have a certain exotic appeal for theorists from state societies. But new religious developments in kin-based societies are not dissimilar in role to new political movements in state societies. For kin-based peoples, the ancestral realm is the source of life, knowledge, and power. During the original cosmogonic journeys, ancestral substances and energies were transformed into landforms and water sources. At the end of their journey the ancestors grew tired and merged into the landscape, taking the forms of hills, rocks, and trees. For their human descendants, following the ancestral way ensures protection from unknown and potentially malign outside forces. Breaking ancestral laws can lead to withdrawal of protection, revenge, and calamity. Indigenous people acted on the world and achieved their political and economic goals through religious ritual and activation of ancestral power.

The Western mind compartmentalizes human-world enterprises into separate domains, such as economics, politics, and religion. It reifies "religion" and gives it a sui generis status, setting it above "mundane" spheres of life. But for Aboriginal people and people of other non-Western cultures, human-ancestral interaction is not separate from politics or economics or any other sphere of life.

New religious movements in Aboriginal Australia did not come into being as a result of European colonization. New cults were continually being generated from old religious forms. They were used to legitimize migration and establishment of land claims in new areas and were widely used as alliance-forming mechanisms. For Indigenous people, the new is really just a discovery (or rediscovery) of something that was there from the beginning but had become lost or hidden. Sociocultural practices are "always in flux, in a perpetual historically sensitive state of resistance and accommodation to broader processes of influence that are as much inside as outside the local context" (Marcus and Fischer, 1986, p. 78). For I. M. Lewis, new religious movements are the idiom in which those who aspire to positions of leadership compete for power and authority (Lewis, 1971, p. 128). Such movements are often generated by younger people to challenge the established leaders of the central ritual system who are perceived as incompetent to deal with contemporary reality.

Indigenous leaders are expected to be "strong, powerful and dangerous physically vigorous [with] forceful personalities" (Williams, 1987, p. 44). Leaders of new cultic developments, who are generally widely traveled, may attempt to engage with new and stronger forms of power in order to deal with new conditions of life. They, like traditional clever men, attempt to appropriate strange and mysterious powers from faraway places. In the early colonial period some cultic leaders clearly attempted to appropriate European colonial power-knowledge in order to achieve their goals.

Old and New Typologies

Early colonial studies of Indigenous new religious movements reflect European colonial beliefs and values. In this period it was taken for granted by missionaries and social scientists alike that colonized peoples would become like them. Theorists and policy makers saw assimilation as an appropriate goal for Indigenous peoples within a colonial state. Confronted by strange religious phenomena that appeared to be neither Christian nor Indigenous, religious theorists appealed to their traditional frameworks of reference. They classified new religious movements along a pagan-Christian dimension and used descriptive terms from their own religious traditionsmessianism, millenarianism, and prophetism in order to render the strange cults familiar. Early attempts at categorization proliferated into a bewildering array of typologies, including Neopagan, Hebraist, Sabbatarian, Ethiopian Zionist, syncretist sects, aladuras, prophet healing, Apostolics, revelatory, enthusiastic movements, spiritual churches, and separatist sects (Turner, 1976, p. 13).

Anthropologists entered this discourse in the 1930s and 1940s and, using the terminology of the religious theorists, began to construct their theories of social change. In this colonial period anthropologists saw new religious movements as prime examples of acculturation to the European way of life. These strange hybrid cults, however anticolonialist in theme, were believed to be transitional stages along the road to full acculturation or assimilation. Ralph Linton (1940) set his analysis of new religious movements within this general framework. "Nativistic movements," that is, "organised attempts to revive or perpetuate certain aspects of their native cultures," were believed to be set in motion by the impact of European culture on traditional societies. Linton classified his nativistic movements as revivalistic-magical, revivalistic-rational, perpetuative-magical, and perpetuative-rational (Linton, 1979, pp. 497501). This began a new spate of typology construction. Anthropologists began to speak of dynamic nativism, passive nativism, reformative nativism, adjustment movements, accommodative movements, transformative movements, crisis cults, denunciatory cults, protest movements, vitalistic movements, and revitalization movements (Burridge, 1969, p. 102). However, these descriptive terms do not refer to types that are mutually exclusive. In the 1970s there was a movement away from synchronic typology construction stimulated by historical research and phenomenological studies (Fernandez, 1978, p. 204). With a new generation of researchers, colonial studies of "millenarian" and "messianic" cults developed into postcolonial studies of anticolonial movements, cultural persistence, and "discourses of resistance."

The concept of the Dreaming is nonmillenarian, nonutopian, and nonhistorical. Localized Dreaming narratives are unable to account for cataclysmic changes (Wild, 1987, pp. 562563). However, local and regional Dreaming tracks and story lines can be extended indefinitely as new tracks can be discovered, ancestral routes changed, and different routes connected together. Erich Kolig describes a universalizing project that occurred in the Fitzroy Valley region of the Kimberley in the 1970s. Walmajarri people brought the ancestors of local totemic cults together to travel over vast areas along newly interconnected tracks in order to eliminate religious particularism and unify themselves organizationally (Kolig, 1981, pp. 3743).

Anticolonial movements in Australia occurred most commonly at colonial frontiersplaces of extreme violence and dissymmetries of power (Carey and Roberts, 2002). These politico-religious cults were precipitated by failed military resistance, massacres, and catastrophic population decline brought about by introduced diseases, falling birthrates, and high infant mortality. Through participation in religious ritual, Aboriginal people attempted to mobilize powerful ancestral forces to engulf and destroy the colonial invaders.

The Baiame Waganna, 18331835

The Baiame waganna (dance ceremony) was one of the earliest anticolonial movements recorded in Australia. This traveling cult was precipitated by a catastrophic smallpox epidemic (18301831) followed by continuing population decimation. European men on the colonial frontier were usurping Aboriginal men's sexual rights to women. The Wiradjuri spirit beings, Baiame and Tharrawiirgal, were emasculated by European colonial penetration into Wellington Valley. Tharrawiirgal lost his tomahawk (and sent smallpox into the valley in revenge). One of Baiame's wives was stolen by a white man, and he was angered into retaliatory action (Carey and Roberts, 2002, pp. 822843).

The Baiame waganna was performed to access the power of Baiame (who had defeated Tharrawiirgal in an earlier altercation), to protect Wiradjuri people against further smallpox depredations, to enforce nasal septum piercing, and to direct Baiame's anger toward European men and the Aboriginal women who consorted with them. Hilary M. Carey and David Roberts describe the Baiame waganna as a "nativist" or "revitalist" movement (Carey and Roberts, 2002, p. 823).

The Mulunga Cult, 1890s1930s

Tony Swain (1993, p. 224233) traces the Mulunga cult to the Kalkatungu wars in northwest Queensland and the wholesale slaughter of the Kalkadoon warriors in 1884. The traveling cult that spread into South Australia and Central Australia excited the research interests of Walter Roth, Baldwin Spencer, Otto Siebert, and Adolphus Elkin. Performers in this cult not only reenacted the bloody confrontation between colonists and Aborigines but danced out the desired end of this interaction. Dances showed Aborigines being shot down by whites until the "Grandmother," a powerful ancestral being, emerged from the sea to swallow the whites, gesturing in every direction to show that the destruction of whites would be complete. Leaders of the Mulunga cult exhorted adherents to follow the ancestral laws, especially marriage and sexual relations (Carey and Roberts, 2002, p. 835). Siebert saw in the Mulunga cult millenarian and nativistic themes (Kolig, 1989, p. 79).

Bandjalang Pentecostalism

Bandjalang people on the northern coast of New South Wales were first evangelized by the fundamentalist United Aborigines Mission (UAM). In 1952, as a result of UAM missionary shortages, Aboriginal UAM adherents transferred their allegiance to a Pentecostal fellowship. The Christian God merged with the ancestral being Ngathunggali, the Virgin Mary with Ngathunggali's wife, and Jesus Christ with their son Balugan (Calley, 1964, pp. 5053). Beginning in the 1950s Bandjalang people developed some elaborate foundation stories from biblical and Dreaming sources. For example, Ngathunggali-God landed on the north coast of New South Wales in a bark canoe. His people, the Bandjalang, are the descendants of Jacob, who set out from the Holy Land in a sailing ship that was wrecked off the coast of New South Wales. The crew safely reached shore, built a bark canoe, and continued on their journey. Twelve tribes of Aboriginal people developed from these "founding fathers." The Bandjalang identified themselves as one of the "lost" tribes of Israel (Calley, 1955, pt. 2, pp. 67).

The Old Law was a special revelation of Ngathunggali-God to the Bandjalang. God spoke to Aboriginal people through the clever men. Balugan-Christ was killed by enemies (white people) at Kempsey and is buried on the Arakoon racecourse, from whence he will return to the Bandjalang. The white people, prosperous and powerful, crucified Christ and are rejected by God. The Bandjalang, humble and poor like Christ, are the beloved of God. Aborginal people will go to heaven and white people to hell (Calley, 1964, pp. 5253).

The Dingarri-Kuranggara Song Cycle

New politico-religious developments in northern Australia have been studied by the scholars Ronald M. Berndt, A. Lommel, Erich Kolig, K. P. Koepping, Helmut Petri, Gisela Petri-Odermann, Deborah Bird Rose, Tony Swain, and others. The celebrated Gunabibi traveling cult originated in the Victoria or Roper River regions of the Northern Territory and spread into Arnhem Land, Central Australia, and East Kimberley (Berndt, 1951, p. 233; Meggitt, 1955, p. 401; Petri, 1954, p. 265). In Central Australia and East Kimberley the cult developed into the Gunabibi-Gadjeri complex with masculinist forms and ideologies (Meggitt, 1966, pp. 8486). This cult complex merged with the wandering Dingarri-Kuranggara song cycle of the Western Desert. Dingarri traditions celebrate the long migrations of Dingarri ancestors through the Western Desert. These migrations ended at Dingarri, a mythical location. The Kuranggara cult emanated highly dangerous life forces that originated in Anangu Pitjantjatjara country.

The Dingarri-Kuranggara song cycle brought the desert jarnba, spirits of the dead, into regional prominence. Visible only to initiates, jarnba were tall, skeleton-like spirits with menacing faces, horns, and long sexual organs. They could see what was hidden and were able to kill at a distance using sacred boards as rifles that they pointed at their enemies. As the pastoral industry penetrated into the desert regions, the jarnba with ferocious appetites and raging thirstwere sucking the land dry (Koepping, 1988, pp. 401402; Kolig, 1989, p. 84; Mol, 1982, p. 67). They also acted as fearsome guardians of the anticolonial desert cults, exhibiting fierce aggression toward European encroachments (Petri, 1968, p. 254).

Within the northern pastoral industry, in a context of structural inequality and exploitation, Aboriginal people continued to carry out ceremonial responsibilities for land and people. Aboriginal workers conducted complex negotiations with employers over generations in order to maintain a fragile security of land tenure. People adapted their cultural practices to the seasonal cycle of pastoral work, holding their large ceremonies during the wet season layoff period. However, employers failed to reciprocate in kind. They provided meager accommodation and in the early years paid workers only in clothing, kits, and rations. Even in later years they paid poor wages, avoided compensation payments, and neglected the health of their workers (McGrath, 1997, pp. 37).

In the 1930s the Dingarri-Kuranggara cult began to engage with new forms of power to counter the catastrophic effects of colonization. Cultists trafficked in the deadly power of the introduced diseases leprosy and syphilis. The jarnba leader had access to European forms of power-knowledge and lived in a white man's house; there he grew leprosy and syphilis from poisonous weeds in his backyard. This toxic power was ritually transferred into ceremonial boards that were distributed throughout Northwest Australia by motor vehicle, steamer, and airplane (Lommel, 1950, p. 23). The song cycle also predicted a reversal of Indigenous gender relationships. At this time women were becoming powerful and dangerous because they associated with white colonial forces and looked like half-castes; it was believed they would live on after death as powerful ghosts, that they would take control of cultic life, and that men would have to do the everyday work (Koepping, 1988, pp. 402409).

The Dingarri-Kuranggara movement was strongly aggressive and antiwhite, yet it was also an attempt to incorporate European colonial power-knowledge into Indigenous cultic forms. Colonized people do more than just conform to or resist hegemonic forms and practices. They may creatively manipulate the forces of colonization by appropriating and transforming its signifiers according to their own political and cultural needs. Petri (1954, p. 268) regarded the cult as the reaction of younger Aborigines to the increasing incapacity of elders to rally against European encroachment. Cult organizers were named "clerks," "policemen," and "cooks." Petri and Lommel's descriptions of the movement contain nativistic, revivalistic, and antiwhite themes. Kolig finds millenarian, apocalyptic, and cargoistic themes in the Kuranngara cult (Kolig, 1989, pp. 8485).

The Woagaia-Jinimin Movement

Modes of resistance to colonial incursions vary from ritual performance to overtly political (in the Western sense) forms of struggle. From the 1930s Aboriginal people on remote pastoral stations organized to have their working conditions improved. Most governments supported employers' refusal to grant Aborigines award wages, and it was not until the late 1940s that Aboriginal workers attracted significant union support. In 1946, assisted by Don McLeod, a white bore sinker, Aboriginal cattlemen walked off twenty-two stations in the Pilbara. During this strike a number of agitators were jailed. In the mid- to late 1940s McLeod organized Aboriginal mining cooperatives along socialist principles, and in 1949 "the Pindan mob" formed their own company in order to control financial enterprises on their land (McGrath, 2001, p. 144).

Central Australian and West Kimberley people at this time were the recipients of intensive missionization. The Lutheran Church established its missions with Arrernte people of the Macdonnell Ranges, Haasts Bluff, and Simpson Desert in 1877. The Australian Baptist Missionary Society began mission work with Warlpiri people of Central Australia in 1947. Walmajarri people of the northern Great Sandy Desert were influenced by both the United Aborigines Mission (at Fitzroy Crossing from 1952) and the Catholic Church (at La Grange from 1955).

In 1963 the Dingarri-Kuranggara traditions merged with the new Woagaia-Jinimin movement developing out of the Gadjeri-Woagaia cult complex of Central Australia. Woagaia is a generic term for several cults introduced into the Kimberley by Warlpiri, Gurindji, Ngadi, and other Central Australian groups (Kolig, 1989, p. 124). On a mission station in Central Australia, Jinimin, the precocious son of an old venerable ancestral being, revealed himself to Aboriginal people as Jesus Christ. This epiphany occurred during the performance of a Woagaia ceremony. Jinimin-Jesus proclaimed himself the protector and preserver of ancestral laws (Petri and Petri-Odermann, 1988, p. 393).

The black-and-white-skinned Jesus favored Aborigines over whites. He proclaimed that the land from the beginning had belonged to Aboriginal people and that he would help them regain their land. The Dingarri ancestors were returning from the mythic land Dingarri in the east. By participating in the Woagaia cult, Aboriginal people would gain the power and strength needed to rally against the colonizers. In order to succeed in their campaign, they must rigorously adhere to ancestral laws. If they did so, the European invaders would be defeated, and Holy Water would fall from heaven to drown all white people and turn Aboriginal skins white. Aborigines would thus regain sovereignty over their lands by becoming white-skinned (Koepping, 1988, p. 404; Kolig, 1989, p. 86; Petri and Petri-Odermann, 1988, p. 393).

In June 1966 stockmen walked off Newcastle Waters Station, followed by two hundred Gurindji workers at Vesteys Wave Hill station. Vesteys, an English cattle company, owned ten stations across the Northern Territory and East Kimberley, controlling a pastoral empire almost the size of Tasmania. One of the richest families in Britain, the Vesteys made more than a billion pounds in the global meat trade, and yet their Aboriginal workers were paid a pittance and lived in substandard conditions. The Gurindji strike that began as a demand for equal wages and working conditions emerged as the politics of an oppressed people who had never relinquished sovereignty over their land. The Gurindji mounted a land claim over their traditional lands and the right to run their community free from exploitation by the Vesteys and from "welfare" control (Jennett, 2001, p. 122).

By 1966 the Woagaia-Jinimin cultproclaimed as "God's Law"had spread to the west. Walmajarri people had been migrating in a northwesterly direction from desert areas three hundred kilometers southeast of Fitzroy Crossing since the beginning of the twentieth century. Under Walmajarri direction, Dingarri ancestors were "returning" from the desert to their "true" country in the northwest. The Dreamtime groups were marching along underground routes (which were used to traverse the country of strangers) with camels to carry their darrugu (secret-sacred objects). Their leader and protector on this journey was Jinimin-Jesus. The Woagaia-Jinimin traveling cult was used to legitimize the northwesterly migration of Walmajarri people and their establishment of land claims in new areas. It was also an attempt by people who had been marginalized by European colonization to find again "the centre of the world" (Petri and Petri-Odermann, 1970, pp. 251272).

In the northwestern coastal areas Jinimin-Jesus was black-skinned. Missionaries were accused of falsifying God's message to keep Aboriginal people in bondage. Apocalyptic visions of an end-time deluge continued, and a new Noah appeared at Fitzroy Crossing. This Walmajarri man had discovered a gold-laden ark, sent from heaven by Jinimin, that had been hidden in the land since the Dreaming. At Myroodah-Looma, an Aboriginal "Bible" revealed the ark to be a refuge from the flood that would destroy all whites and the basis of a new Aboriginal world that would be superior to European colonial society (Kolig, 1981, p. 160, 1988, p. 167, 1989, p. 119; Petri and Petri-Odermann, 1988, pp. 393394).

The 1969 Pastoral Award that granted Aboriginal workers equal wages was followed immediately by a pastoralist countermove to remove Aboriginal people from stations. The pastoralists' strategy was to evict Aboriginal people before they were forced to grant them land or fuller access rights. The 1970s thus saw a new dispossession of pastoral Aborigines, with many forced to live in camps on the fringes of towns. The expulsion coincided with a rise in Aboriginal political consciousness (McGrath, 2001, p. 144).

The Woagaia-Jinimin movement combined Don Mc-Leod's sociorevolutionary ideas, an emerging Land Rights politic, and apocalyptic biblical themes. In ceremonial performance (under the protection of Jinimin-Jesus) the cultists appropriated dangerous colonial powers and harnessed them to their own cause. Apocalyptic forces were projected toward the colonizers, while Noah's ark provided safety and security for Aboriginal people. Erich Kolig (1988, p. 166) sees chiliastic features in the Noah's ark story. For Helmut Petri and Gisela Petri-Oderman (1988, pp. 391394), the Woagaia-Jinimin cult was a new nativistic-millenarian movement with strong revivalist and revitalistic tendencies.

Julurru Traveling Cult

The Julurru cult that developed out of the Dingarri-Kuranggara and Woagaia ceremonial complexes made its first appearance in the Pilbara region. Tony Swain traces the cult to Don McLeod's Aboriginal lieutenant, who had frustrated leadership ambitions (Swain, 1993, p. 259). Malay ghosts of the sunken ship Koombana visited him in dreams and revealed to him their colonial adventures. Julurrua dangerous Malay or Japanese ghosttraveled through Australia by Afghan camel trains, horse teams, cars, ships, and airplanes. He united disparate Dreaming tracks, tracked wandering Dreamings, and brought them to Dingarri. This fearsome warmonger was also involved in World War II airplane battles, ship sinkings, and bombing raids in Aboriginal country. Through the performance of his traveling cult, Julurru passed his military-technological power-knowledge on to Aboriginal people and asserted the equality of Aborigines and whites in Australia (Kolig, 1989, pp. 120121; Swain, 1993, p. 261).

In the 1960s and 1970s the cult traveled up the Fitzroy River and into southern Kimberley, where "prisoners" (cult initiates) were held in "gaol" (jail) and guarded by "policemen." Dance sequences included soldier battles, airplane battles, spectacular fire dances, the bombing and sinking of ships, and appearances of Adolf Hitler (Kolig, 1989, p. 122; Swain, 1993, p. 258).

The cult reached Central Australia in the late 1970s. There Julurru assumed a pastoral guise, dressing in stockman garb with a cowboy hat and pistols. He rode a white horse or a motorbike, consumed vast amounts of alcohol, and caused vehicles to crash when drivers failed to assist Aboriginal people (Swain, 1993, pp. 254255). The cult was embraced by Warlpiri people at Lajamanu during a period of political empowermentin 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was passed, and in 1978 Gurindji and Warlpiri people were granted ninety-five thousand square kilometers of land south of Wave Hill. However, the 1979 Julurru ceremony at Lajamanu was attended by a Noonkanbah contingent that resulted in increased understanding of Aboriginal powerlessness in the face of mining interests and increased cynicism about government goodwill toward Aborigines (Wild, 1981, p. 3). Aboriginal people from twenty-six communities assembled at Noonkanbah in April 1980 to prevent the land being mined, engaging in direct political action and in the performance of politico-religious ceremonies.

Stephen Wild sees the Julurru cult, at least in part, as an alliance-forming mechanism operating between Western Desert, Kimberley, and Central Desert Aborigines in the wake of land rights successes and failures. At Lajamanu the cult was managed by relatively young Aboriginal administrators who were politically aware, skilled in negotiations with Europeans, and in control of community transport and communications. The aim of cult leaders at Lajamanu was to replace the old ceremonies with the new (Wild, 1981, p. 14, 1987, p. 565).

Local and regional Dreaming stories were unable to account for the devastation of European colonization. Traveling cults that trafficked in strange and mysterious life forces were unable to generate powers sufficiently dangerous to expel the colonizers. Aboriginal people appropriated narratives available to them from the colonists' repertoires. The Biblea colonial documentwas an excellent source of stories about catastrophe and devastation. The Old Testament God punished wrongdoers with plagues, famines, floods, wars, exile, and slavery. Aboriginal cultists incorporated increasingly dangerous colonial powers into their ceremonial performances and, under the protection of powerful spirit beings, unleashed apocalyptic forces onto their enemies.

More recently Aboriginal people have appropriated "nonreligious" colonial narratives, such as Captain Cook and Ned Kelly stories, to construct discourses of resistance but have used these stories in religious-mythic ways. Aboriginal narratives featuring Captain Cook as the major agent of colonization have been studied in northern Australia by Kolig, Rose, Chips Mackinolty, and Paddy Wainburranga. Captain Cook, like the Dreaming beings, was a lawmaker, but he refused to recognize Aboriginal law. The prior occupancy and ownership of the country was obvious: "You [Captain Cook] been look around, see the land now. People been here, really got their own culture. All around Australia we the one on the land. Sitting on the land, Aboriginal people. You got nothing, all you government we got all the culture. That Dreaming place, important one" (Danaiyairi, in Rose, 1984, p. 34).

Captain Cook carried out his colonizing program by imposing his own immoral law over the top of Aboriginal law. Aboriginal country, its products, and human labor were appropriated by Europeans to enhance their own political and economic well-beingto "make themselves strong" at Aboriginal people's expense. This particular Captain Cook narrative locates responsibility for colonization not in the spirit realm but in European law and practice and finds this law immoral (Rose, 1984, p. 35, 1988, p. 371).

If Captain Cook has been a negative presence in most Aboriginal colonial narratives, Ned Kelly has been given a different focus. In Yarralin stories Ned Kelly and his band of angels came down from the sky. Friends of Aboriginal people, they traveled around the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, shooting the police. Kelly's life story has been conflated with biblical stories about God, Noah, and Jesus. For example, Kelly created dry land after the flood and fed many Aboriginal people with one billy of tea and a small damper. And in one version of the story, he was killed by Captain Cook, buried, and on the third day rose from the dead, ascending to the sky to the accompaniment of a great noise and the shaking of the earth (Rose, 1988, p. 369, 1992, pp. 182184).

Colonial and postcolonial narratives continue to be generated by Aboriginal people in contemporary Australia. They construct histories of the world by incorporating Dreaming stories, "the old people's stories," and their own life histories into biblical and Australian colonial frameworks (see Beckett, 1993; McDonald, 2001). They (like all human beings) appropriate stories and characters from larger explanatory narratives, reworking them to fit present needs, and inserting into these frameworks their own narratives of the self. These narrative sources are subject to readings, misreadings, rereadings, and interpretations as Aboriginal people move away from colonial towns and reserves to develop their own independent communities. In northern Australia:

[Aboriginal people's] main goal is a form of segregation that will enable them to achieve the necessary measure of detachment from White hegemony and thus once again give them control over their own existence a separation willed and desired by a politically powerless group so that they may be able to live their own lives, at their own pace, and realizing their own ideals. (Kolig, 1989, p. 33)

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Australia and New Zealand.


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Heather McDonald (2005)

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Australian Indigenous Religions: New Religious Movements

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Australian Indigenous Religions: New Religious Movements