"Anthropology in The Eye of The Storm"
Throughout the latter part of the 1970s, and through most of the 1980s, Bell was involved in issues surrounding Aboriginal land rights and law reform. With lawyer, Pam Ditton, she authored Law: the old and the new. Aboriginal Women in Central Australia Speak Out (Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, 1980) which addressed issues of law reform in Central Australia, in the wake of the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act (1976). Bell worked on a number of land claim cases in the Northern Territory, particularly in central Australia, but also in and around the Top End.
In the late 1990s, Bell became a key player in the Hindmarsh Island bridge controversy. In 1994 a group of Ngarrindjeri women, traditional owners of the Lower River Murray, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong (South Australia) had objected that a proposal to build a bridge from Goolwa to Kumarrangk (Hindmarsh Island) near the Murray Mouth would desecrate sites sacred to them as women. The gender restricted knowledge that underwrote their claim became known as 'secret women's business' and was contested in the media, courts and academy. In 1996 a South Australian Royal Commission found that the women had deliberately fabricated their beliefs to thwart the development. However, the women who claimed knowledge of the sacred tradition did not give evidence at the Royal Commission because they considered it to be a violation of their religious freedoms. Five years later these women and those experts who had testified on their behalf were vindicated. In 2001, federal court judge, Mr John von Doussa, heard from all parties to the dispute and found the women had not lied. Nonetheless the notion that the women lied persists in some quarters and 'secret women's business' is used as a term of derision and disrespect. Bell became involved in this matter of gender-restricted knowledge after the Royal Commission. On the basis of her research in the SA archives and fieldwork with the women in 1996-8, Bell was convinced there was sufficient evidence to support the women's claims that there was gender-restricted knowledge in Ngarrindjeri society and that the women had told the truth.
Bell's subsequent monograph, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin (1998), won the NSW Premier's Gleebook Award for cultural and literary criticism in 1999. The judges wrote: "An erudite capacious book on the politically contentious and culturally sensitive subject of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair, in which the author allows diverse voices to be heard and refuses to simplify an inherently complicated and pressing set of issues. This is an outstanding book of cultural criticism, which brings together feminist anthropology, oral and archival history, political and legal narrative." The book was also short listed for The Age Book of the Year and the Queensland Premier's History Award in 1999 and the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society in 2000. Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin is often cited as an important example of alternate ethnographic prose. Bell's most recent writing with Ngarrindjeri women, Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan (2008) is a further contribution to collaborative research and writing and documents the impact of the contesting of cultural knowledge on the Ngarrindjeri. Bell continues to work with the Ngarrindjeri and now lives on their traditional lands.
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