BERNDT, RONALD (1916–1990), an Australian anthropologist, was the first to transcribe, translate, and analyze Aboriginal stories and songs; he also wrote extensively on social organization, sexuality, poetry and song, art and material culture, as well as social change and acculturation within Aboriginal societies. Born in Adelaide, South Australia, to an Australian-born Huguenot mother and a German father he was attracted to anthropology at an early age. Fascinated with the Great Pyramids of Egypt, he even taught himself to read hieroglyphics as a child.
His interest in ethnology and in Aboriginal culture led him first to pursue local field research. In 1940 he entered the University of Sydney as a student of Professor A. P. Elkin, earning a diploma of anthropology (1943), bachelor of arts (1950), and master of arts in anthropology, first class (1951). While at the university he also met New Zealander Catherine Helen Webb (1918–1994), whom he married in 1941 (Stanton, 1994).
The Berndts' very close professional partnership spanned almost five decades; neither of their achievements can be considered apart from the other's. The extent and breadth of their fieldwork were exceptional, and their publication record reflects this. They first worked together in South Australia at Ooldea from 1940 to 1941, continuing the research Berndt began there in 1939; they then went to the Murray Bridge area to for two years, followed by a year in the Northern Territory at Birrundudu.
It was, however, during his thirty-three years of work in Arnhem Land (1946–1979) that Berndt's most detailed descriptions of Australian Aboriginal life were focused and for whose publications he is best known: Kunapipi (1951), Djanggawul (1952), An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land (1962), and Love Songs of Arnhem Land (1976). The Berndts also carried out pioneering fieldwork at Balgo Hills on the northern edge of Australia's Western Desert (1951–1981) as well as in highland New Guinea (1951–1953). The latter work formed the bases of their respective doctoral theses from the London School of Economics in 1955.
Berndt was trained within the British structural-functionalist tradition, taught first by Elkin and then supervised by Firth in London. The dominant anthropological and sociological school of the mid-1940s through the early 1970s, structural-functionalism taught that societies are an interrelated collection of groups that must maintain order and balance to function smoothly. In this view, shared norms and values form the basis of society, and social order rests on tacit agreements between groups and organizations. As a student of this method, Berndt pursued a holistic approach to gaining an understanding of Australian Aboriginal societies.
Berndt was preoccupied with all aspects of Aboriginal religious life; it was his point of convergence in articulating the nature of these societies (see, for example, his Australian Aboriginal Religion, 1974). By the start of the twenty-first century, however, his contribution to the wider understanding of Aboriginal religion had been little evaluated. The 2004 republication of Djanggawul and An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land, two of his major works, was expected to provoke such an assessment.
The scope of Berndt's fieldwork in Australia added a more global vision to his perspective on the nature and articulation of Aboriginal societies—their commonalities as well as their divergences. The couple's best-known work, The World of the First Australians (1964), sought to explore the transformations, as well as the consistencies, of Aboriginal social practices. It became the classic reference for students and others, continuously in print for over forty years and often found as the sole volume on Aboriginal Australia in many of the world's libraries.
For Berndt, Aboriginal religion found tangible expression in both sacred and secular art. It was through these media, he believed, that social relations were most clearly expressed, and the tenets of religious experience most substantively uttered, affirmed, and transmitted to oncoming generations.
Writing of Aboriginal art decades before its renaissance in the 1970s and its widespread acceptance within the international art world a decade later, Berndt avowed the primacy of the religious experience in the daily lives of Aboriginal people, past and present (1964). Indeed, he saw the widespread distribution of contemporary expressions of artistic creativity as a demonstration of the enduring power of Aboriginal knowledge to communicate, challenge and shape the future (1973, 1982).
Collecting such material expressions of cultural diversity and local perspectives throughout his lifetime (Stanton, 1990), the works he and his wife donated to the University of Western Australia form the unique collection at the core of the museum founded in 1976 to house those works. In 1980 the museum was renamed the Berndt Museum of Anthropology in recognition of their contributions to Australian and world anthropology.
Berndt, Ronald. Kunapipi: A Study of an Australian Aboriginal Religious Cult. Melbourne, 1951.
Berndt, Ronald. Djanggawul: An Aboriginal Religious Cult of North-eastern Arnhem Land. London, 1952.
Berndt, Ronald. An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land. Paris, 1962.
Berndt, Ronald. Australian Aboriginal Religion. Leiden, 1974.
Berndt, Ronald. Love Songs of Arnhem Land. Melbourne, 1976.
Berndt, Ronald, ed. Australian Aboriginal Art. Sydney, 1964.
Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine H. Berndt. A Preliminary Report on Fieldwork in the Ooldea Region, Western South Australia. Oceania Bound Offprint. Sydney, 1945.
Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine H. Berndt. The World of the First Australians. Sydney, 1964.
Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine H. Berndt. End of an Era: Aboriginal Labour in the Northern Territory. Canberra, 1987.
Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine H. Berndt, with John E. Stanton. Aboriginal Australian Art: A Visual Perspective. Melbourne, 1982.
Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine H. Berndt, with John E. Stanton. A World that Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia. Melbourne, 1993.
Berndt, Ronald, and E. S. Phillips. The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction through the Arts. LP Recording. Australian Society for Education through the Arts/Ure Smith. Sydney, 1973.
Berndt, Ronald, and John E. Stanton. Australian Aboriginal Art in the Anthropology Research Museum of the University of Western Australia. Nedlands, Australia, 1980.
Stanton, John. "Obituary: Ronald Murray Berndt 14 July 1916–2 May 1990." Australian Aboriginal Studies (1990): 95–99.
Stanton, John. "Obituary: Catherine Helen Berndt 1918–1994." Australian Aboriginal Studies (1994): 93–96.
John E. Stanton (2005)
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