Hindmarsh Island Bridge Controversy - Royal Commission

Royal Commission

In June 1995, the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission was called by the South Australian government. The proponent Ngarrindjeri women were sharply divided. Some believed nothing of the secrets could be revealed for any reason, while others argued that some cultural rules had to be broken in order to protect the area. 23 of the proponent Ngarrindjeri women withdrew from the Royal Commission, rejecting an inquiry into people's spiritual beliefs as unlawful. Those that did attend refused to testify and heckled from the gallery or were otherwise generally disruptive. The 12 dissident women (and one man) by contrast were well behaved.

The terms of reference for the Commission implied that the contents of the envelopes were central to the Ministers decision to implement the 25 year ban. The Commission sought clarification from Premier Brown who confirmed the contents were not central. However, the counsel for the dissidents continued to emphasize the importance of knowing what the contents stated.

Chief spokesperson for the dissident women, Dorothy Wilson testified to the Royal Commission how she first heard about the ‘’secret women's business’’ at a meeting called by the Lower Murray Aboriginal Heritage Committee. She initially believed the story as Dr. Doreen Kartinyeri was in a position to have secrets passed to her by the female elders. Following the meeting the women went to the local Heritage Committee where the men were. One of the men later pointed to an aerial map of Hindmarsh Island hanging on the wall and commented that it looked like "female privates". As a map of the island along with the same claim was in the secret envelope, Wilson had second thoughts It just doesn’t add up to being secret women’s business if the men actually told us. If our old women didn’t know about it, well then why did the men tell us about it? I thought it must be a load of nonsense. The premise was that a man should not know what Hindmarsh Island looked like. Kartinyeri later responded that the man shouldn't have said that, because he was a man but that pointing at an aerial map that's been surveyed does not imply that the claim itself was fabricated.

None of the dissident women were able to take their claims of fabrication further than their own lack of knowledge of the beliefs. Several admitted that they had no knowledge of any Ngarrindjerri culture or traditions at all. Some admitted that it was not unreasonable for only a limited number of women to be privy to traditional secrets. One took the position that they saw no point in living in the past even if the claims were true. The women all identified themselves as Christians and it has been suggested some saw The Dreamtime as incompatible with their own beliefs, was a Pagan belief and as such, wrong.

It had been shown before the Commission that no anthropological work regarding the Ngarrindjeri, specifically Ronald Berndt’s authoritative book A World That Was, mentioned the existence of a secret life for Ngarrindjeri women. Cultural geographer Dr Jane Jacobs argued that these publications needed to be seen as a product of their times. In the case of Berndt, we are assuming a male anthropologist walking into an Aboriginal community in the 1940s got the truth. His enquiries were likely not directed towards secrets held by female members of the tribe. Connie Roberts, who was born in 1919 and was one of the elders who had passed the "women’s business" on to Doreen Kartinyeri, was asked about talking about such things with an anthropologist: You can't. You're not supposed to talk about things like that. My parents told me, only the old people used to tell certain people.

In December, without knowing what was in the envelopes, the Royal Commission found that the idea of Hindmarsh Island as being significant to the Ngarrindjerri women had come about at the meeting of the Lower Murray Aboriginal Heritage Committee. Despite evidence that mention of the island as a fertility site had been mentioned in 1967, predating the meeting, the Royal Commission found that the secret women's business was a fabrication and hoax.

Specifically, the Royal Commission based its finding on five points. The way the secrets were revealed, at the last minute then progressively was suspicious. The lack of mention of the secrets in the anthropological record. The Seven Sisters Dreaming story belonged to the western Aborigines and was never part of the Ngarrindjerri Dreaming. The testimony given by dissidents Dorothy Wilson and Doug Milera supported fabrication and lastly, that the secret women's business was irrational because the barrages were a more intrusive barrier than a bridge could be.

Read more about this topic:  Hindmarsh Island Bridge Controversy

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