and the Fabrication of Aboriginal Mythology
|Introduction||The Hindmarsh Island Bridge|
|The Jacobs Report||Enter Sarah Milera & Lindy Warrell|
|The Onkaparinga||Enter Cheryl Saunders|
|The Royal Commission of 1995||Alleged Late Disclosures|
|Alleged Lack of Pre-1993 Anthropological Evidence||The Evidence of Dissident women|
|Nonsensical Claims||Ms.Kartinyeri Changes her account of matters|
|Creative Mythology||The Anthropologists fight back|
|Mr.Justice Non Dousa||The Mathews Enquiry|
|Return to Publications Page||Conclusions|
‘Women’s business’ of various sorts was very common among Aboriginal groups: indeed, initiation rituals at puberty are almost universal among hunter-gatherers in every continent. To demonstrate the existence of such practices and related beliefs is in no way sufficient to establish the existence of ‘women’s business’ of the kind Doreen Kartinyeri claimed in 1994 existed in Hindmarsh Island.
Even though they generally held that their beliefs had remained unchanged since the Dreamtime, and though their way of life has often been regarded as the archetype of the ‘closed society’, some Aboriginal groups changed their myths over the generations. The dingo was adopted as a totem animal by many Aboriginal groups and has a prominent role in many Dreamtime myths, but dingoes entered Australia long after the first Aborigines. By 1852 the Ngarrindjeri story of the Pleiades told of seven men smoking tobacco. More recently, a clan on the Glynde River in Arnhem Land adopted a square-faced green liquor bottle as a totemic symbol. After a mullock of copper rubble was formed by nineteenth century mining on their traditional lands, the Ngulugwongga people became known as Mulluk Mulluk.
Some changes in myth and tradition had obvious political value. The Gunwinggu people became the dominant group at Oenpelli only in the 1950s, but they quickly established Dreamtime links with their new territory. When the Parlamanyin of the Northern Territory died out as a separate group, the Kungarakany quickly laid claim to Parlamanyin territories and myths. When the Maranunngu found that there was rich potential value in lands to the north of their traditional territories, they rapidly made new land claims, backed by the assertion that they were familiar with the mythic lore of the northerly area.
The rapidity with which myths can gain credence was demonstrated by Kenneth Maddock’s study of six Aboriginal myths collected during the last forty years about the visit of James Cook to Australia. In the Victoria River myth, the first white arrival was Ned Kelly. Ned was kind and gave the Aborigines horses and bullocks, but Cook came along, killed Ned and despoiled the Aborigines. There seems no doubt that the Aboriginal informants considered such manifestly mistaken accounts of relatively recent events to be historically factual.
The Hindmarsh Island Bridge
In 1984 the Binalong Pty Ltd, controlled by Tom and Wendy Chapman, began work on what they hoped would become a major marina complex on Hindmarsh Island. Their preparation seemed meticulous and environmentally friendly. The chairman of the Conservation Council of South Australia asserted that the Hindmarsh Island development was a model of how to proceed. The ALP government of John Bannon supported the project enthusiastically but made it a condition for building the marina that a bridge be built to connect Hindmarsh Island to the mainland at Goolwa, so as to prevent interminable delays on the existing ferry if and when the marina and other developments were completed.
The first opponents of the marina and then the bridge included retired persons and people with holiday homes on the island, environmentalists concerned about nesting grounds for birds, migration of feral animals, rabbit infestation, and pollution effects on the Coorong and Lower Murray. Their ranks came to include prominent SA Liberals, such as Ian McLachlan, Dean Brown, Michael Armitage, Legh Davis and Diana Laidlaw, as well as Greenpeace, the Australian Democrats, and union militants such as Davey Thomason of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.
Aborigines were absent from the early ranks of the opponents. The Chapmans were anxious that all known Aborigines in the area should be consulted, but this was by no means easy, since none had lived on Hindmarsh Island for many years. The Chapmans commissioned Dr Rod Lucas to investigate possible Aboriginal sites of significance. Dr Lucas reported in 1990 that there were no recorded mythological sites specific to Hindmarsh Island. This statement proved later to be an embarrassment to Dr Lucas, when his wife, Dr Deane Fergie, became a central figure in Hindmarsh Island disputes.
Dr Lucas advised the Chapmans in 1990 that, like Norman Tindale in the 1930s and Catherine and Ronald Berndt during the 1940s and 1950s, he had found it difficult to construct genealogies and thus to know who should be regarded as traditional custodians of any Aboriginal sites there might be. His report recommended the Chapmans to ‘consult directly with the relevant Aboriginal representative bodies identified herein, and with any other Aboriginal persons chosen by these bodies’. The Chapmans consulted Henry Rankine and George Trevorrow, leading figures of the Raukkan (once Port McLeay) Community Council, the Coorong Consultative Committee, and the Ngarrindjeri Lands and Progress Association. George Trevorrow and Henry Rankine both knew considerable Ngurunderi lore. When controversies about the marina and bridge first arose, they made no objections on grounds of traditional beliefs or practices. Nor did Jean Rankine, Henry’s wife, described later by Professor Cheryl Saunders as a ‘senior Ngarrindjeri woman.’ Nor did any members of the Campbell clan who claimed to be the traditional owners or custodians.
Commissioned by the South Australian Department of Environment and Planning, Dr Vanessa Edmonds reported no evidence of any Ngarrindjeri or other Aboriginal beliefs about Hindmarsh Island, although she identified middens, burial places, which the Chapmans were very willing to protect, even though no Aboriginal interest had been shown in them in living memory. Dr Neale Draper, a senior archaeologist in the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs, also found no Aboriginal burial sites or other cultural associations of sufficient importance to warrant a ban on a bridge rather than the barrages. His department gave the go-ahead to the contractors for the bridge.
Frustrated by the apparent progress of the marina and plans for a bridge, one local opponent, Bill Longworth, suggested to Davey Thomason, ‘Let’s see if we can get some Aboriginals down from Murray Bridge to help us with our cause.’ During 1993 Sally Francis, an ardent conservationist with a weekend shack on Hindmarsh Island, persuaded George Trevorrow and Henry Rankine to join the coalition. Subsequently, both men denied that they had been consulted by the Chapmans about their plans, and George Trevorrow spread false rumours that the Chapmans had carted away ‘truckloads of Aboriginal bones’ and that a Goolwa taxi driver had boasted of having a ‘boot load of boong bones.’ A newly formed Lower Murray Aboriginal Heritage Committee, with George Trevorrow as Chairman and Doug Milera as Secretary, now declared that Hindmarsh Island had a sacred shape and a ‘spiritual character’ that would suffer fatally if it were joined to the mainland. Next they decided that the proposed bridge might interfere with the ‘meeting of the waters’, salt seawater and fresh Murray water. As yet, however, they made no reference to ‘women’s business’ in or near Hindmarsh Island.
The distinctively male Ngurunderi was the central figure in traditional Ngarrindjeri lore. Among other feats Ngurunderi had pursued and killed a gigantic Murray Cod with a spear, which may have been his phallus, and he created the Murray from his own urine, possibly supplemented by that of his wives. In another story his wives were disobedient and ate some bream, a fish forbidden to women. Ngurunderi was obliged to take revenge on his wives: they were drowned and became islands. These stories may not have seemed a promising basis for ‘women’s business’.
One anthropological source for Ngarrindjeri traditions generally regarded after its publication in 1993 as highly authoritative was The World That Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia by Ronald and Catherine Berndt. Ronald and Catherine Berndts were told by the Ngarrindjeri that the River Murray was to them ‘like a lifeline, an immense artery of a living ‘body.’ The body was ‘symbolic of Ngurunderi himself.’ However, the Berndts gave no hints of significant ‘women’s business’ connected with Hindmarsh Island or Goolwa. One index entry is: ‘secret-sacred issues, absence of.’ Steve Hemming of the South Australian Museum claimed in late August 1994 in the presence of his colleagues Philip Jones and Philip Clarke that Ronald Berndt had said the Lower Murray region bore some resemblance in Ngarrindjeri mythology to a woman’s body. Clarke and Jones denied this claim and asked Hemming to provide a reference to substantiate it, but he could not do so.
In 1989 Peggy Brock edited a book entitled Women: Rites and Sites: Aboriginal women’s cultural knowledge, which contained contributions by female anthropologists, such as Catherine Berndt, Catherine Ellis and Linda Barwick, Helen Payne, Jen Gibson, Jane Jacobs, Luise Hercus and Fay Gale, who have scholarly interests in South Australian sites important to Aboriginal women. Several sites in South Australia are named in these essays as having special spiritual significance for Aboriginal women, but none in or around Hindmarsh Island or Goolwa.
The Jacobs Report
The Liberal government formed after the 1993 state elections was keen to scrap the bridge, but previous ALP governments had entered into contractual obligations, disregard of which might cost more than the bridge itself. Samuel Jacobs QC, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia, was commissioned to make an inquiry. He confirmed the new government’s worst financial fears, so that the decision was made to proceed with building the bridge. Samuel Jacobs wondered why Trevorrow and Milera had not raised their concerns about the shape of Hindmarsh Island earlier and why it would suffer more if joined to the mainland by a bridge rather than by a ferry. Judge Jacobs was unimpressed by Dr Neale Draper, who criticised the shortcomings of earlier investigations, several of which he had himself conducted, and who raised totally new concerns about the spiritual character of Hindmarsh Island.
Enter Sarah Milera and Lindy Warrell
As Cheryl Professor Saunders noted of events up till 1993, ‘the Aboriginal women still had not been involved at this stage.’ The first women to enter the drama were Sarah Milera, wife of Doug, and Linda Warrell. The Mileras were brought up from Murray Bridge to help the anti-bridge campaign. They were recruited by union officials and offered a house on Hindmarsh Island by anti-bridge campaigner Ann Lucas. Sarah Milera knew little about Hindmarsh Island to start with, but began to remedy that deficiency by reading the Berndts’ 1993 The World That Was. ‘Women’s business’ of various sorts was, of course, very common among several Aboriginal groups, and some in the north of South Australia had been studied by archaeologist Linda Warrell. She visited the bridge campaigners on 26 March 1994. Lindy Warrell said to Aborigines Tom and Ellen Trevorrow, ‘It would be nice if there were some women’s business.’
In 1992, following disputes about building a marina at Sellicks Beach, Lewis O'Brien, a Kaurna Aborigine, and G. Williams, claimed that the mouth of the Onkaparinga River was an Aboriginal women’s site. They suggested that a phrase used by German scholars Teichelmann and Schurmann in their 1840 dictionary of the Kaurna language was evidence that ‘the Kaurna people talked about body parts.’ They concluded that Aborigines could identify the internal sexual organs of women and had noted their similarity to the Onkaparinga estuary. The Kaurna (Adelaide Plains) Aborigines are an entirely separate group from the Ngarrindjeri, but this was probably the start of women’s business at Hindmarsh Island. At a gathering of leading men in the LMAHC, Chairman Victor Wilson showed Secretary Doug Milera an aerial photograph of Hindmarsh Island and said, ‘This is a woman, it’s a creation of the Ngarrindjeri people and I’m going to Doreen Kartinyeri to explain it and to find out about it.’ Wilson and Milera had been involved in the Onkaparinga dispute and were able to apply the vagina/river mouth analogy to the Murray mouth and Hindmarsh Island.
The article was in one important respect, however, damaging to later claims about ‘women’s business’ at Hindmarsh Island, since the beliefs asserted about the Onkaparinga were not regarded as secret. The maps of the Onkaparinga estuary and mouth, provided by courtesy of the Adelaide Street Directory and the South Australian Education Department, were of the very same kind which opponents of the bridge claimed later would be a sacrilege to display in public, as well as threatening to Ngarrindjeri women, physically and spiritually. Furthermore, any such belief associated with Hindmarsh Island would have been used openly by opponents of the Bridge long before June 1994, just as Mr O'Brien did during the Onkaparinga dispute.
Enter Cheryl Saunders
When Professor Cheryl Saunders of the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies, University of Melbourne, was appointed by Robert Tickner in 1994 to inquire into ‘women’s business’ at Hindmarsh Island, authorities she took as guidelines included:
1. Menham, who wrote in his report to the Federal government on the Old Swan Brewery Area in Perth:
It is in my view sufficient to report
to the Minister on whether the area is of significance to Aboriginal people
in accordance with their traditions and to report on the evidence that
touches upon the degree and intensity of belief and feeling that exists
in relation to the area under discussion.
In 1994 no Ngarrindjeri women claimed that dire consequences to their health and fertility had resulted from building barrages on the Murray, although these had changed the landscape considerably and sometimes prevented any ‘meeting of the waters.’ The foundations of the Goolwa barrage alone required 4770 timber piles of up to ten metres in length to be driven into the river bed. A central line of interlocked steel sheet piling 10-12 metres in depth acts as a cut off. The building of the ferry approaches required pylons to be driven into the riverbed, 30-40 metres from each side, to a depth of up to 18 metres. Many Aborigines helped build these barrages; John McHughes, the sole remaining Aboriginal resident in the Goolwa area by the 1990s, took a leading part in that work. He never heard of any objections or of 'women's business’ relating to Hindmarsh Island.
At first Doreen Kartinyeri and Deane Fergie praised the barrages, whilst condemning bridges. Doreen Kartinyeri even suggested that ‘in a sense, the barrages aid the proper functioning of the Lower Murray waters in modern conditions and drew an analogy with a “pace-maker.”’ Some Aboriginal women told Dr Fergie that any bridge would ‘make the system sterile’, because a bridge ‘goes above the water’ and ‘is a shore to shore, direct and permanent link.’ However, Hindmarsh Island and Mundoo Island were already joined together by a bridge. If the key point had been to ensure continued ‘meetings of the waters’, bridges were surely preferable to barrages, which are built to restrict the free flow of tidal water in order to preserve fresh water up stream. Judge Stevens concluded that 'there is no foundation for any distinction between the construction of a bridge, a second ferry or the Goolwa barrage in the context of the "women's business."‘
Since 1994 Doreen Kartinyeri and her supporters have turned against barrages as well as bridges. Doreen Kartinyeri told feminist anthropologist Diane Bell in 1996 that the construction of the barrages ‘stopped the flow of water with the tides’ and thus ‘destroyed the rushes the people used for weaving.’ Although, of course, she could not ‘go into the details because of the sacredness of it,’ Kartinyeri revealed to Bell that Auntie Rose, no longer around to contradict her niece, had once told her that when the jetty was built at Raukkan, ‘the women were in a lot of pain, young babies were dying and women were having miscarriages…There was crying. There was moaning. And the older women were rolling around just like they’d had a stake driven into their side.’ Diane Bell looked up the diary of George Taplin and found a reference to the building of the jetty but none to the agonies of the women. Bell asked, ‘could we expect him to have recorded it had he noticed?’ It would be, she suggested, like asking ‘for evidence of the hell to which sinners go in order to acknowledge that following the Ten Commandments is a central Christian doctrine.’
in Doreen Kartinyeri’s accounts
Doreen Kartinyeri was born in Raukkan in 1935 but at ten went away to school in Adelaide. Then she lived at Point Pearce and married there a non-Ngarrindjeri man with whom she had six children before moving to the north of South Australia with a western desert man. She became interested and skilled in genealogies. However, before she realised what the future held for her, she admitted in a Rigney family history she wrote in 1983, ‘I didn’t know much about the culture, customs and language but I do know the identities of the Point Pearce and Point McLeay people.’ She obtained a modest position in the Family History Unit of the South Australian Museum, but soon her powerful personality enabled her to exert influence over her nominal superiors.
On 9 May 1994 Doreen Kartinyeri claimed that the Hindmarsh Island was sacred because during the nineteenth century Ngarrindjeri women had gone there to abort foetuses if they thought the fathers might be white. The preferred method was to place rocks on their stomachs to procure miscarriages. In many cases what she alleged was infanticide, not abortion. She told the women that one baby was killed if there were twins, although twin boys were both allowed to survive. She asserted that ‘women’s business’ began 40,000 years ago, although for much of that period there were no white men around to father mixed race children and Hindmarsh island was not an island. ‘Women’s business’ about Hindmarsh Island, Doreen Kartinyeri proclaimed, had been passed down to women, from mother to daughter, throughout the generation. She did not claim to have received the secret knowledge from her own mother, but named two other women as her informants: her grandmother, Sally Kartinyeri, and her aunt, Rose Kropinyeri. Later, in a letter to Robert Tinker of 12 May 1994, Doreen Kartinyeri made a poor move and claimed as a further source her aunt Laura Kartinyeri. ‘Nanna Laura’ was the daughter of Pinkie Mack, a midwife of the interwar years looked upon with veneration by many Ngarrindjeri women. Although the other two supposed informants had died many years earlier, Laura Kartinyeri was still alive and could be questioned.
Margaret Simons pinpoints as a ‘crucial moment’ the incident on 9 May when, according to Dorothy Wilson, a leading Aborigine, Victor Wilson, pointed to an aerial photograph of the Murray Mouth, Doug Milera compared the map to a ‘woman’s privates and Doreen Kartinyeri responded with, ‘Yes, I can see it now. I can see it’. According to Tim Wooley, when interviewed by Margaret Simons, it was George Trevorrow who had pointed at the map and commented simply, ‘It’s obvious isn’t it?’ but there seems no doubt that one man or another pointed at the map. According to Simons, Tim Wooley and George Trevorrow told her there was no reference to female anatomy at all. Indeed, on the Simons version, which I take to be approved by Doreen Kartinyeri, the women’s business now current includes little, if anything, about any similarity between women’s sexual organs and the Murray Mouth.
According to Simons, Doreen Kartinyeri ‘was certain nobody would have mentioned a woman’s privates in front of her: “I would have smacked them in the mouth if they’d said that to me’. Confidence in Kartinyeri’s fastidiousness concerning language is, however, slightly reduced when we read later in Simons’ book that she described Colin James, a journalist who had bent over backwards to please the militant Aboriginal lobby, as a ‘fucking white cunt’ and advised him to ‘fuck off and never come back’.
Dorothy Wilson certainly worked very arduously and cunningly if she invented the supposed comparison between the Murray Mouth and a woman’s sexual organs. In his interview with journalist Chris Kenny, Doug Milera claimed several times that the women’s business was based at least in part on supposed similarity between a woman and/or her sexual organs and the Murray Mouth. Chris Kenny was in no doubt that Milera ‘corroborated Dorothy Wilson’s version of events in the Mouth House.’ A letter from Rick Marshall, a non-Aboriginal supporter of Aboriginal causes, to The Advertiser had alleged that his grandmother told him of an Aboriginal legend with the Murray Mouth as the vagina. At the next meeting of the Ngarrindjeri women at Graham’s Castle, Doreen Kartinyeri herself displayed a small version of the aerial photograph of the Murray region, pointed to it and described the parts of the body that the various bits of the landscape represented. In other words she repeated the sort of performance that one of the Ngarrindjeri men had carried out earlier. Later on Kartinyeri repeated the process before Cheryl Saunders, who was told by one of the women, ‘Well, you know, work it out for yourself’.
Doreen Kartinyeri’s references to similarities between the Murray Mouth and sexual organs become fewer and fewer after 1996, as did her references to Hindmarsh Island as a birthing or abortion site. This may have been because she and those close to her decided that such references were too secret to be made again. On the other hand, it may be because they realised that those claims, whether true or false, were deeply damaging to the reputation of the Ngarrindjeri.
In 1860 a Dr Wyatt testified to a Select Committee of the South Australian Legislative Council that infanticide, particularly female infanticide, sometimes took place among the Ngarrindjeri, most often if the mother was still suckling another child. The missionary George Taplin told the Select Committee that, although the men ‘do not like the idea of allowing their wives to prostitute themselves to white men,’ many of the men and women ‘like to have white children…because they excite more compassion among white women and can obtain larger gifts of food and clothes.’ To lessen family discord, the fiction was developed of claiming that the women with pale-faced babies had eaten too much white flour. There was no indication that Ngarrindjeri babies of mixed descent were more likely to be killed than were other babies, but if anything the reverse. By 1913, the next time a Royal Commission was appointed in South Australia to investigate Aboriginal issues, the decisive majority of the Ngarrindjeri people was of mixed descent. No evidence before 1994 links Ngarrindjeri infanticide or abortion with Hindmarsh Island.
The dissident Ngarrindjeri women indignantly rejected Doreen Kartinyeri’s claim that there was such a link. When told by Doreen Kartinyeri that white men took the Aboriginal women to Hindmarsh Island to destroy their half-caste babies, one Ngarrindjeri woman replied ‘If that’s the case, why are we the colour we are today?’ Pinkie Mack, whom Doreen Kartinyeri claimed as the ultimate authentic source of the ‘women’s business’ at Hindmarsh Island was the daughter of a white Australian, the Sub-Protector George Mason, and received her nickname from her colouring.
The sexual organs business did not disappear completely and with the passing of time, Doreen Kartinyeri’s recall became ever more powerful. By 1996 she had remembered that in 1954, when her first child was born, she looked at a map on the back of a door. She realised in 1996, ‘I was looking at Mundoo and between Hindmarsh Island, and I could see the inside of a woman, like it represented the shape of the womb and the ovaries.’ Her insight was remarkable, since it was apparently a small-scale map ‘from Port Augusta down.’ By the time Margaret Simons interviewed her a few years later still, Doreen Kartinyeri had remembered even more detail. She was then able to recall that, after seeing the map: ’I couldn’t wait to talk to Aunty Rosie about it. I delivered the milk to Aunty Rosie the next Saturday and I said, “How did you fellows know?”’ Apparently, Doreen Kartinyeri, at least by the time Margaret Simons was writing her 2003 book, ‘had not read the Royal Commission transcript, nor the report. Sandra Saunders had kept it away from her. “It will make you too angry”, she had said’. Perhaps Sandra Saunders has become her keeper. If Doreen Kartinyeri ever decides to read the Royal Commission report and transcripts, it may jog her memory into renewed activity.
In her evidence to Judge Matthews, Doreen Kartinyeri concentrated on the relationship between the sky and the waters of the Goolwa channel. Here, she claimed, ‘is the starting of life. It begins here, of the Ngarrindjeri nation’. She explained that the old people believed that if they were a boat on the Goolwa channel, they could not stay motionless, because ‘You’ve got to let the waters look up to the sky, and the sky look down to the waters, and on nice evenings when we were sitting out they’d talk about the Seven Sisters in the sky and our Ngarrindjeri up there, the bright stars in the Milky Way.’ Kartinyeri does not seem to have told Matthews that this was secret knowledge, so it is difficult to understand why she did not use it earlier, if known to her then.
In 1996 Maggie Jacobs told Diane Bell that the Ngarrindjeri had suffered ‘because ‘the rising water’ had covered the fish traps. In contrast Eileen McHughes was concerned that the water level has fallen, which indeed it has since white settlement began, and is now too low. Diane Bell did not seem to notice that Maggie Jacobs and Eileen McHughes had opposite complaints about the water level, or that no Aborigines had been on Hindmarsh Island to set fish traps for many years.
Although both bridges and barrages are now deemed bad for Aboriginal health, literature can effect wondrous cures. Or at least books by Diane Bell can. According to Margaret Simons, Ellen Trevorrow had been trying to become pregnant for years, but without success, until she read Bell’s book and was pregnant soon afterwards. Evidently, ‘the Ngarrindjeri community was full of such stories’ and Simons ‘heard of post-menopausal women who had read the book and had their first pregnancy for years.’ Simons ‘heard of other surprise pregnancies and gynaecological problems resolved’. Ellen Trevorrow told Margaret Simons that she ‘didn’t know of secret women’s business when the fight against the bridge began, but she believed in it when her Elders told her’ and when her miwi told her. Simons explains that ‘miwi is a Ngarrindjeri word that translates as something between soul and instinct’ and ‘is located in the stomach, has to do with the umbilical cord, and is passed from parent to child, but training can develop it.’
There are no grounds for any fears that mythic inspiration is fading in Australia. How much ought to be termed fabrication is hard to determine, but one can only wonder at the extent of memory recovery of which many people seem capable. Before the emergence of Doreen Kartinyeri in April 1994, Sarah Milera had been regarded as the leading Ngarrindjeri women opponent of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge. Sarah knew little about Hindmarsh Island in 1993, but began to remedy that deficiency by reading the Berndts’ The World That Was. On 15 April 1994 Sarah told a group that included the new Liberal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Dr Michael Armitage ‘I have found where I come from’, but she gave no indication then of any specifically ‘women’s business’ there, which it seems likely she would have done, had there been anything to relate.
Now Margaret Simons, attributing this information partly to Sarah Milera and partly to Rose Draper, then the wife of Neale Draper, has related that Sarah and Rose were once walking in Hindmarsh Island, where both were then employed there in the archaeological survey organised by Neale Draper. Sarah had been in communication with her magpies, when suddenly ‘the hair stood up on the back of our necks’ and Rose realised that something was ‘grinding away inside’ Sarah. Sarah told Rose that she could tell her husband that the Murray Mouth was a ‘women’s fertility site’. According to Margaret Simons, Sarah had given this information to Rose before Christmas 1993, so that ‘women’s business’ was not simply concocted in April 1994. When Margaret Simons contacted her, ‘at first Rose had no idea’ when this highly significant exchange had taken place, but within a few days Rose conceded that it might have been in 1993. Margaret Simons asks her readers: ‘Why was Rose Draper not called to give evidence, and cross examined on the crucial question of dates?’ However, even Homer nods and the handwritten letter from Rose Draper that Margaret Simons found in the Royal Commission archive began: ‘During 1994 I had been employed as a crew member…’ In addition, Rose Draper is an Aborigine, from New South Wales, and almost every Aboriginal woman who had been urged to appear before the Royal Commission had refused and by then Rose Draper, separated from her husband, was living far away. In fact the secretariat of the Royal Commission did contact her and Margaret Simons concedes, ‘Perhaps when Rose was contacted she was, as she admits she might have been, less than coherent…’ Simons did not tackle the problem of Sarah Milera’s failure in April 1994 to divulge these revelations.
Sarah Milera told Diane Bell about the effect of contractors on Hindmarsh Island, ‘It’s not just a feeling. The injury can put you in hospital. When they drove the pegs into the ground I felt a spiritual wounding….they rushed me to the hospital. They didn’t know what to do with me, because I was wounded with pegs going into the ground where children were born. I was really hurt.’ Sarah also told Bell, ‘I was directed to Goolwa through my dreams,’ not by militant Davey Thomason to the house of Ann Lucas, as was thought earlier. In like vein Eileen McHughes revealed to Diane Bell that when in 1994 at Hindmarsh Island a toilet was taken from a truck, ‘it sort of moved, made a dent in the earth…it was just like we’d been stabbed in the heart.’ Sarah Milera’s cousin, Rocky Koolmatrie, told the Royal Commission in 1996, ‘I just cannot understand how she knows or have anything to do with Hindmarsh Island. She comes from Meningie, the same as the rest of our family, and I know I was not told one thing about Hindmarsh Island until I seen it on TV.
Veronica Brodie has also enjoyed renewed powers of recall. In her evidence to the Royal Commission In her evidence to the Royal Commission, where she was the only proponent of women’s business to appear, Veronica Brodie claimed that she told the other women she knew about ‘women’s business’. This claim conflicts with the accounts of not only Dorothy Wilson, but also Deane Fergie and Cheryl Saunders, who, if Veronica had spoken, would surely have named Veronica Brodie in their reports among the ‘custodians’ and informant about ‘women’s business’. Veronica Brodie told the Commission she had not received her knowledge of women’s business from her mother, Rebecca Wilson, also known as Kumi, as Betty Fisher had stated earlier, and denied that her mother ever had 'secret' knowledge of that type. Veronica Brodie named her deceased sister Leila as her informant.
White radical activist Betty Fisher, who is also an astrologist of the school of Hypatia of Alexandria, is a major figure in Margaret Simons’ efforts to rehabilitate women’s business at Hindmarsh Island. Fisher claimed to have a typewritten transcript of a conversation in the late 1960s with Rebecca Wilson. On 26 April 1994 Betty Fisher met Shirley Peisley at the International Women’s Day Committee and arranged to be put in touch with Doreen Kartinyeri. When they met Betty Fisher for some strange reason denied that she had any information about Ngarrindjeri ‘women’s business’, but Doreen Kartinyeri told her, ‘Betty, I know all the stories, but these whities have to have written proof’. Fisher produced for the Royal Commission a partial transcript of two tapes that she said included conversations with Kumi. The transcript included: ‘…our women went over to the island - that’s Hindmarsh Island - to undertake all our women’s things there…they went to acknowledge all those places over there…things we still regard as sacred…All around the Murray Mouth, all the waters, so important. Our people knew about those places, the tides, the Coorong secrets, the Islands, so special, sacred to us. We don’t talk about those things - too secret, too old, all part of the old times, what you call the dreamtime…’ Kumi covered the barrages as well: ‘I learnt when I was very young, when those old people cried over the barrages…’
Clearly, if authentic, this tape would prove that there was significant Hindmarsh Island women’s business well before 1994. However, Betty Fisher refused to provide it for the Royal Commission, partly because ‘the information now belonged to Veronica Brodie’, her mother having died. Fisher overcame her scruples and on 23 June 1995 a press conference was called by the ALRM to hear her revelations. The conference was called off at the last minute, but Fisher made arrangements instead to reveal her secrets through Alison Caldwell of the ABC 7.30 Report and the program was broadcast on 7 August 1995. Extracts from Fisher’s old notebook that Veronica Brodie shared with the ABC viewers included: ‘Down there at Hindmarsh Island, that place, our sacred place. We go there, fires there, very important to men, too. Women’s stories in that place all secret…Nothing must lie between the waters and sky’. At this time Veronica Brodie identified herself as a Ngarrindjeri woman, but a few months she later claimed that ‘her tribe’ is the Kaurna. This arose during a ‘sacred-site’ case concerning the former CSR factory in Glanville, which became a key part of a projected major development of Port Adelaide. Two or three years later Veronica Brodie told Diane Bell that as a result of women’s traditional ceremonies coming to an end, the whales had left the Ngarrindjeri shores, but would return if and when those ceremonies resumed. Veronica Brodie’s grandfather, Dan ‘Killer’ Wilson had, she said, many magical powers, so it is not surprising that Veronica has much of interest to reveal. Old Dan could sing people to death or just whack them down with his waddy.
Culturally sensitive Alison Caldwell did not ask Betty Fisher why, if the information was so secret, Rebecca Wilson had decided to reveal it to her. At the Royal Commission, which rightly recognised the potential importance of Fisher’s claims and changed its timetable to accommodate her the very next day, culturally insensitive Michael Abbott QC was not so considerate. As Margaret Simons acknowledges, Fisher ‘made an appalling witness’ The most important parts of her supposed transcript, the passages I have quoted, were not on the tape, because, absolutely rotten luck, the tape she had been using had run out. Although the information was so vital, she had not thought it worthwhile to return with a fresh tape. Fisher stated that she had promised Rebecca Wilson never to reveal what she had told her. This made it even odder that Fisher herself should have been informed in the first place, or that she should then have released the information over the ABC. Later in her evidence, Fisher claimed she had typed the most secret information on a separate piece of paper that was lodged in a bank security box. Then, surprise, surprise, Fisher stated she was not prepared to make this piece of paper available. Michael Abbott recommended that Fisher be charged with perjury, but her son died and she was excused any further appearance before the Commission.
Although she had had made poor use of her day in court, Betty Fisher battled on. She posted the precious scrap of paper, folded in a cardboard cover, to Veronica Brodie. According to Simons, the story inside concerned ‘seven sisters who were very beautiful’ and variations of Seven Sisters myths from around the world. However, Simons does not include any references to Hindmarsh Island or the Murray Mouth in her rendering of this scrap of paper.
Fresh recollections of traditional beliefs flourish among the affirmative Ngarrindjeri. Eileen McHughes remembers learning from her grandfather, Michael Gollan, that dead bodies were ‘smoked’ on Mundoo Island. When his family were going home from Raukkan, they would hear a baby crying, until one day they found the baby on the ground and put it up in a tree. They never heard those sounds again. Maggie Jacobs related that in 1967, when David Unaipon died in hospital, the bird he used to talk with began to sing and flap his wings to tell his niece some miles away that he had died and in Tailem Bend, because they bird looked straight in that direction. Sheila Goldsmith had a bird that told her when a letter was coming from her fiancé.
anthropologists fight back
The Royal Commission was a significant setback for radical anthropology in Australia, but its leading practitioners were as determined as Doreen Kartinyeri to fight back. This required an assault on the Berndts and others early regarded as authoritative. Dr Rod Lucas led the attack on delinquent women anthropologists. He asserted that Alison Brookman, an anthropologist who testified before the Royal Commission, was only ‘young and inexperienced’ when she spent time with ‘the renowned song-woman, midwife and Berndt informant, Margaret ‘Pinkie’ Mack’ and ‘had not established a relationship of trust with Pinkie Mack.’ Dr Lucas ‘would not be surprised if culturally sensitive information had not been imparted to her’. He doubted whether Dorothy Tindale ‘was in a position of trust to have had restricted or esoteric knowledge revealed to her’. He claimed that ‘at the time of her fieldwork amongst the Ngarrindjeri, Catherine Berndt was young, childless and inexperienced’. Dr Lucas doubted, too, ‘that Fay Gale knew as much as she thought she did, precisely she had not “mingle or lived amongst” Aboriginal people’.
Dr Lucas was appalled that the Royal Commission used ‘various empirical “facts” in order ‘to discredit Ngarrindjeri belief’. These empirical ‘facts’ included changes in the sea level and the course of the Murray, which among other things ensured that there was for a very long time no Hindmarsh Island at all, of any shape. Dr Lucas noted correctly that ‘the use of an obscure and remote geological history to refute Aboriginal heritage claims is not new.’ And many other heritage claims as well. Indeed the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century was transformed by empirical ‘facts’ that made it very unlikely that the world had been created in 4004 B.C. or that the whole world had been inundated by Noah’s flood. Dr Lucas is a typical cultural relativist. He believes that ‘the assertion of a documentary reality is itself an ideological and rhetorical act’ that requires entry into ‘a relationship of knowing in which it does not matter who we are, where we stand…’ Given his contempt for the concept of documentary reality, it seems strange that Dr Lucas was so anxious to discredit anthropologists who ‘stand’ differently from him and his wife, Dr Deane Fergie.
Dr Fergie launched vituperative attacks on the Royal Commission. She agreed that there had been ‘a fabricated account of the “women’s business”’ but alleged that the fabrication had been ‘in and by the commission itself’ (emphasis as in original). She was very angry about the use in the Royal Commission report of the phrase ‘secret sacred women’s business’, whereas, she claimed, the phrases she used were ‘women’s secret knowledge’ and ‘oral tradition’. Her implication seems to have been that Doreen Kartinyeri never thought that anything sacred was involved in her claims. By 1996 Dr Fergie argued that earlier she had only suggested that the ‘restricted knowledge related to a specialist domain in Ngarrindjeri culture - the domain of the female putari or midwife.’ This move partly solved one problem for Deane Fergie and Doreen Kartinyeri: why was it that so few Ngarrindjeri women knew anything about women’s business, knowledge or oral tradition, secret or open, sacred or profane, relating to Hindmarsh Island, especially if, as Doreen Kartinyeri claimed at first, this information had been routinely passed on from mother to daughter. A problem with the new account was that Doreen Kartinyeri and Deane Fergie were not midwives. Deane Fergie might have been wiser had she placed all her writings into sealed envelopes.
Neale Draper and Peter Sutton rallied to the cause. Dr Draper found in the diary of early twentieth century white Goolwa resident Charles Harding that a ‘native’ had told him that the name ‘Goolwa’ might not mean ‘elbow’, as generally held to be the case, but referred instead to fresh water or waters meeting. The idea was taken up by another male anthropologist, Peter Sutton, despite his fear that it was ‘just speculation’ that Goolwa might have this alternative meaning. Peter Sutton also found that in 1969 Annie Rankine had recorded a Seven Sisters story: her father had told her not to swim when the Seven Sisters were moving and the dandelions were in bloom. When the flowers died and the constellation moved further, they were allowed in to the water.’ Dandelions are, of course, an introduced species, but that only shows the vigour and adaptability of Ngarrindjeri myth. The same could be said of the nineteenth century version in which the Seven Sisters change sex and also enjoy a good smoke. Sutton elaborated his Seven Sisters ideas and seems to have become a true believer himself
…the building of a bridge would undoubtedly constitute desecration. The injury caused by a bridge would be, in part at least, that the dead and the unborn, who move up and down respectively between the same two places, would no longer have free passage to their destination, as that specific point in the landscape, and thus in Ngarrindjeri belief conception would be hindered.
Informed amateurs can also help. When the Mileras were brought up from Murray Bridge to provide the first Aboriginal input into the anti-bridge campaign, it was Ann Lucas who arranged their accommodation. A few years later Ann Lucas told Margaret Simons that she had discovered about the Goolwa channel, at ‘exactly where the bridge was to be built’, that ‘the sun shone on the equinox, and perhaps here too the waters used to meet at equinox’. Indeed, the ‘”mouth of the longest river in the most ancient land” might be a giant astrological clock’.
‘Aboriginal Studies’ in our universities are controlled by a peculiar ideology that combines postmodernism and primitive superstition. In a special 1996 number of the Journal of Australian Studies, published by the University of Queensland, on ‘Secret Women’s Business: Hindmarsh Island Affair’, the seven contributors were Deane Fergie, Rod Lucas, Steve Hemming, Betty Fisher, Lyndall Ryan, whose work on Tasmanian history Keith Windschuttle has recently demolished, Christine Nicholls and Kathie Muir. Although they are great advocates of ‘Aboriginal autonomy’, the editors of the Journal of Australian Studies evidently could not produce a single Aboriginal contributor. Dulcie Wilson or Dorothy Wilson would have obliged if asked, but such politically incorrect Aboriginal women are beyond the pale of our current university establishments. Australia is likely to witness many more follies similar to that of the ‘women’s business’ at Hindmarsh Island. In the end, however, the spirit of the dissident women of the Ngarrindjeri will triumph. Magna veritas et praevalebit.