Berndt, Catherine H.

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BERNDT, CATHERINE H. (19181994). Born Catherine Helen Webb on May 8, 1918, in Auckland, New Zealand, Catherine Berndt grew up in households rich in the sounds and stories of many places and in the company of strong, supportive women. From her maternal grandparents and their siblings, Catherine heard of their early life in Nova Scotia. She heard tales of Scotland from her "great-aunt" Catherine, who had informally adopted Catherine's mother and in whose house Catherine was born. It was to this house that her mother returned with her three children after Catherine's parents separated and her father went to Australia. Her parents reconciled when she was about ten, and, in her father's house in Wellington, Catherine had access to libraries that reflected his interests in travel and anthropology. In her great-aunt's house in Auckland she read Celtic history and heard, in her great-uncle James's lilting singing, the rhythms of the Scottish lowlands. Missionaries visiting the Webbs at both locations brought tales of faraway places. Her later research interests in women's religious lives, race relations, social change, oral and children's literature, myths, and her exploration of a number of languages, at university and in the field, resonate with these early experiences.

During her undergraduate years, 19361939, at Victoria University College (now Victoria University), Wellington, Catherine studied classics and majored in Latin. She learned from fellow Maori students of their struggles, and later, in 1986, was proud to discover her Maori forebears. In getting an education Catherine enjoyed the unfailing support of her female kin. Her great-aunt cared for her during the first years of her postprimary education. Then, after her great-aunt fell ill, Catherine's younger sister moved to keep her company. Catherine's mother, wanting her daughter to have the university education denied to her, considered anthropology a good field and, with a fourth child born after another reconciliation, moved the family to Dunedin so that Catherine could complete a one-year certificate of proficiency in anthropology at the University of Otago. There, H. D. Skinner (18861978), director of the Otago Museum, encouraged Catherine to pursue her anthropological interests in Australia. In 1940, shortly after her mother's death, Catherine headed to Sydney to work with Professor A. P. Elkin (18911979), and there she met fellow student Ronald M. Berndt (19161990), whom she married in 1941, beginning a remarkable partnership spanning five decades and research in a number of indigenous communities in Australia and New Guinea.

Catherine Berndt's contribution to the study of the religious lives of Aboriginal women across Australia, particularly in Balgo, Victoria River Downs, Oenpelli, and Ooldea, reinforced and expanded upon the earlier pioneering work of Phyllis Kaberry (19101977) in the Kimberleys. Berndt documented the separate and secret religious lives of Aboriginal women, the richness of their songs and myths, the wide range of their religious activities, and the complementarity of the genders. It is a great loss to the field that much of Catherine Berndt's remarkable research remains inaccessible. (The field notebooks of Ronald and Catherine Berndt are under a thirty-year embargo in the Anthropology Museum at the University of Western Australia. In her publications Berndt often notes that they are sketches only and that further research is needed.)

Berndt's first fieldwork in Ooldea in the west of South Australiawhere, along with her husband, she studied the impact of transcontinental railway on the local populationset the stage for much that would follow. She wrote of women's knowledge of the land and rituals associated with marriage, pregnancy, spirit children, and childbirth; of women's "secret life, in which men have no share, [that] centres round the ancestral myths and songs told by the old women" (Berndt and Berndt, 19421945, p. 230); and emphasized that women had "no feeling of inferiority in regard to religion" (p. 260).

In subsequent fieldwork and publications, Berndt mapped the diversity of women's religious activities and teased out common themes. In "Women's Changing Ceremonies in Northern Australia"her 1949 M.A. thesis (with first class honors from the University of Sydney), published in 1950 in L'Homme and praised by Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) for its contribution to the sociology of religion and attention to the dynamism of Aboriginal societyBerndt argues that, on the whole, culture contact in the Victoria River Downs region of the Northern Territory and Western Australia was having a "discouraging and deleterious" effect on women's ceremonial life (p. 9). Relying solely on female informants, Berndt set out three categories of ceremonies: ones in which men and women participate as equals, those in which women's roles are supplementary, and those kept secret by women, at which men are not present. Her 1965 article on women's secret life explores their songs, designs, dancing, and myths against the background of the historical and theoretical literature, in particular Durkheim's sacred-profane dichotomy. In "Digging Sticks and Spears; or, The Two-Sex Model," written in 1970, Berndt characterizes gender relations in Aboriginal society as facilitating women's independence within a societal framing of interdependence.

The Berndts' research of the early 1940s among the Yaraldi (Ngarrindjeri) of the Lower Murray region of South Australia, a people whose contacts with outsiders reach back to the 1800s, is ambivalent regarding the extent of women's secret religious traditions and has been subject to critical scrutiny in the context of a major court case.

Following their 19511952 fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, the Berndts, from 1953 to 1955, studied under Raymond Firth (19012002) at the London School of Economics, where they also completed their dissertations. Catherine Berndt's dissertation on myth in action, written in 1955, remains unpublished.

Catherine Berndt had a complicated relationship with feminism and feminist scholars. She had little time for what she termed "militant feminists," and she celebrated her "separate but together" fieldwork style with her husband. Catherine was raised to believe in the equality of the sexes, but, in common with a number of other talented women scholars, she never held a tenured position. In 1956 the Berndts moved to the University of Western Australia, Perth, and together they established the anthropology department: Ronald as senior lecturer and then in 1963 as foundation professor, and Catherine as visiting tutor and later as visiting lecturer.

Catherine Berndt was the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Winifred Cullis grant from the International Federation of University Women (19541955), a travel grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the New South Wales Premier's Special Children's Book Award for Land of the Rainbow Snake, shared with illustrator Djoki Yunupingu. She was a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies) and, in 1982, was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. In 1987 she received the Order of Australia and an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia, where a prize is awarded annually in her name to the female whose Ph.D. thesis made the most outstanding contribution to social anthropological knowledge of Aboriginal Australia.

See Also

Berndt, Ronald.


Berndt, Catherine H. "Women's Changing Ceremonies in Northern Australia." L'Homme 1 (1950): 188.

Berndt, Catherine H. "Mythology in the Eastern Central Highlands of New Guinea." Ph.D. diss., London School of Economics, London, 1955.

Berndt, Catherine H. "Women and the 'Secret Life.'" In Aboriginal Man in Australia, edited by Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt, pp. 238282. Sydney, 1965.

Berndt, Catherine H. "Digging Sticks and Spears; or, The Two-Sex Model." In Women's Role in Aboriginal Society, edited by Fay Gale, pp. 3948. Canberra, Australia, 1970.

Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt. A Preliminary Report of Field Work in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia. Sydney, 19421945.

Berndt, Ronald M., Catherine H. Berndt, and John E. Stanton. A World That Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia. Melbourne, Australia, 1993.

Kaldor, Susan. "Catherine H. Berndt." In Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Ute Gacs et al., pp. 816. New York, 1988.

Tokinson, Robert, and Myrna Tokinson. "Obituary. Catherine Helen Berndt." Australian, May 25, 1994.

Von Doussa, John. "Reasons for Decision." August 21, Chapman v Luminis Pty Ltd (No. 5) Federal Court of Australia, 1106, No. SG 33 of 1997. 2001.

Diane Bell (2005)