This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Moses Tjalkabota (c.1869-1954), Aboriginal evangelist, was born at Laprapuntja, east of Hermannsburg, South Australia (Ntaria, Northern Territory), fourth of five children of Tjita and Aranaljika; he and his family were western Arrarnta (Arrernte) speakers. He was called Tjalkabota (lump of meat) by his father, and chose the name Mose (German for Moses) at his baptism at the Lutheran mission, Hermannsburg, on Christmas Day 1890, when his age was stated to be 12. His recollection of the Irpmankara massacre (about 1875), however, suggested that he was older. His childhood followed the traditional nomadic patterns of his people.
Moses, his parents and others in his group thought that white men were 'black men who had died, and then returned as spirits to the place where they had died long ago'. When the missionaries made overtures for the children to go to school, Moses's parents at first hid him, but relented and he began attending classes. The children were taught the Christian faith through Bible stories, as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. Moses also worked in the mission garden and as a shepherd. About 1891 his father and mother urged him to leave Hermannsburg:
Boy, if you continue here, your head will implode, and you will dry up. Then the wind will blow you away to the sand hills like a dried-up cicada, and we will be unable to find you.
But when his parents returned to Laprapuntja, Moses stayed working at the mission, where in 1903 he married Sofia Ingkamala, an Arrarnta-speaking woman. Having suffered a heat stroke that affected his eyesight, by 1905 he became blind and began to assist with the formal instruction of people desiring to be baptized.
Moses worked as a catechist and lay preacher at Hermannsburg until, on a visit to Horseshoe Bend, he arrived at Henbury station, where he was persuaded to stay and teach the word of God. So began his immensely influential Gospel ministry, in the course of which he visited Aborigines living at Deep Well, Alice Well, Horseshoe Bend, Idracowra, Jay Creek, Alice Springs, Undoolya, Arltunga and other places. He travelled by donkey, camel, buggy, on foot and occasionally on the back of a truck.
Mostly, Moses was welcomed. In a few places, however, his message that the men should put their trust in Jesus and give up their tjurunga (sacred objects) met with polite rejection. He recorded one such dialogue with a man called Njetjaka:
I am the tjurunga called Ilbangura and I have the songs and decorations. Look, at the uncreated home of the kangaroo at Krenka, we have many more tjurunga, and more powerful ceremonies. I said, 'You men are unbelievers'. They said, 'We have another one that we believe in. You at Ntaria believe in one God, but we have another one'.
Moses used the methodology by which novices were instructed about their tjurunga, telling the story with Bible pictures, and teaching hymns and the Commandments, and prayers by rote. He had a prodigious memory and could recite whole chapters of the Bible.
'Blind Moses' assisted the missionary C. F. T. Strehlow with his translation of the New Testament into Western Arrarnta, and later the anthropologist T. G. H. Strehlow. In his last ten years Moses preached and taught children at Jay Creek, near Alice Springs, and dictated a valuable account of his life. Predeceased by his five children, Moses died on 6 July 1954 at Hermannsburg and was buried there with Lutheran rites. His wife and three grandchildren survived him.
Paul Albrecht, 'Tjalkabota, Moses (1869–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tjalkabota-moses-13219/text23937, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 31 August 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005