Putting Black History on White Paper

Putting Black History on White Paper

Having published the Wilson and Rankine genealogies in 1990, I was now the author of five genealogies, the Poonindie book and an article in We Are Bosses Ourselves. In the six years I had been with the Museum I had given guest lectures at Adelaide University, Flinders University and the University of South Australia, as well in TAFE. I had held workshops in schools, universities and TAFE, and weeklong workshops in Darwin, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat, Port Lincoln, Ceduna, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Murray Bridge, and the Riverland, as well as shorter workshops at Yalata, Coober Pedy, the Lower Murray and Camp Coorong. I had attended three national conferences and delivered papers and had them published. I had given interviews for newspapers, radio and television.

Syd and I were living in Baroota [Aboriginal Lands Trust owned community] on the northern Yorke Peninsula because Syd got work there, and again I was mostly working from home. It was lovely living there and we had some really lovely times there. After the Yalata trip, some of the West Coast women came over and stopped with us for the long weekend to talk about our different cultures. Syd’s Aunty Martha Edwards welcomed everyone and Aunty Ivy Stewart spoke last and thanked me for the work I was doing. We built a big fire in the back yard and cooked wombat, sleepy lizards, kangaroo tails and rabbits that Syd had hunted, and we yarned into the night.

It was just after that in early 1994 when the issue of the bridge came to my attention. I felt that this thing was going to be the biggest destruction that they could ever do to the Ngarrindjeri people and I thought they’d done enough already, ripping off our land without compensation. I thought, ‘I know the history. I might as well speak up for it now as never’, because I had never been involved in something like this before. The ferry was there before I was born; I was just a baby when the barrages were built; the highways and roads were already built and the burial ground just out of Wellington had been destroyed to put in the Wellington punt so you could take a shortcut to Adelaide. This was the last straw. Enough was enough.

My mind went to a report I had seen in the Museum about the building of a bridge at Swanport in the early 1900s. When the work started on that, they uncovered a mass grave of Ngarrindjeri people. Edward Stirling from the Museum had examined the bones and said they were the victims of a nineteenth-century smallpox outbreak. But then they found bullet wounds, so they could have been the victims of a massacre, because plenty of those went on in the early days. The people were from Raukkan, and so many of them died they buried them in a mass grave just the other side of Murray Bridge. I heard rumours in the Museum that those bones they dug out of that grave were sent over to England and some to Edinburgh in Scotland, to have scientific tests done on them. I thought this was unbelievable. Some of them would have been my relations. Whitefellas wouldn’t send their grandparents’ bones overseas. Just damaging a headstone would be enough to get them going.

By this time the developers, Tom and Wendy Chapman, were carrying on about how they had hired Dr Lindy Warrell to do an anthropological report on the area and that they had done full consultation with the relevant Aboriginal communities. But proper consultation hadn’t happened because there were so many knowledgeable people who hadn’t been consulted. I hadn’t been consulted, even though I was born on Raukkan, and by then I was nearly sixty years old.

I didn’t know what for, but I remembered that Rod Lucas did an anthropological report on the area in 1989, because he came and talked to me. We had several conversations about how sacred that area was and he consulted me properly. And then four years later, Neale Draper, who was the government archaeologist at the time, did a report on significant sites on Kumarangk, and it seemed to me Neale Draper did what he wanted to do. He came and talked to me, but I don’t think he heard me, because he went ahead and finished his report, I felt without including what I told him. He’s come to me for a lot of information and I’ve given it to him over the years, but in my opinion he wasn’t including in his reports the things that I thought were important.

The fight begins

On Sunday, 8 May 1994, Victor Wilson picked me up to drive me for a few meetings over on Kumarangk. Victor is my cousin Aileen’s son, but has always owned me as a big sister and I always owned his mum as a big sister. On the trip south Victor was trying to work out what I knew. I told him he could ask me anything he liked except women’s business. I used the word ‘business’ because I didn’t want to go into details. Well now Victor was beginning to understand and realised this was something he shouldn’t be getting into. It’s not that long a trip, but by gee it seemed like it that day because I could see Victor wanted to talk to me about it, and yet he didn’t know how to.

So to fill the silence I was talking to him about the right way to fight this bridge. I told him it was up to him and the other members of the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee, together with the South Australian State Heritage Committee, to act on that. By the time we got to Goolwa we realised that this had to be fronted by not only the Heritage Committees but by the people as well.

Sure enough, later in the paper they said that Victor and I had schemed up a plan to stop the developers building the bridge! But the media was not in on that conversation, was not in the car all the way from Adelaide to Goolwa, and did not hear what Victor and I said. There was no plan, no such thing. This was just the beginning of a vicious media campaign to discredit our beliefs and our reasons for wanting to stop that bridge.

We were staying at the Pines because it was cheap, and a number of us all bunked in together. There were about a dozen of us Ngarrindjeri women down there, and that night we gathered in my bunk room and I talked to them all about the things I knew that were important to women about Kumarangk. We yarned for a long time that night and they all listened very carefully to what I had to say. Some of them said they had heard little bits and pieces from their relations and what I was saying fitted with that.

Sarah and Doug Milera were living in the Mouth House, Anne Lucas’s little place at the mouth of the Murray River, and the next day we had a meeting there to talk over what was happening. As well as the women I talked to the night before, Shirley and George Trevorrow, Victor and Glenys Wilson, Glenys’s sister Bronwyn and their father Brucey Carter and his wife Cathy, Doug Milera and Tim Woolley from ALRM [Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement] turned up too. A few more women then arrived, including Dorothy Wilson, who took the time off from her job as Program Director at the Lower Murray Nungas’ Club to drive down. I was pleased to see my cousin Billy’s wife, even though they had separated, and I knew she was fighting with Victor [her brother-in-law] over things happening at the Nungas’ Club.

I didn’t think nothing much of it; feuds like these have been ongoing in the Ngarrindjeri community, sometimes since we were kids. Certainly I had never had a good relationship with Dulcie Wilson from the time we were little. I always had the feeling that Dulcie, being a whiter coloured skin, considered herself superior to me, even though I led a very respectable life.

Tom Trevorrow chaired the meeting, and that’s when it came out that Sarah Milera and I had both been separately to see David Rathman and that I had spoken to Barbara Weise. I explained that even though David Rathman was head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, he was still employed by white people and had to do what they wanted.

This time I talked again generally about the fact that there was some very significant women’s knowledge to do with the island but I didn’t go into detail in front of the men. Nobody objected or complained that it wasn’t true, including Dulcie.

We spent all day discussing ways of dealing with the problem. We decided to send a letter to Alexandrina Council and elected a committee to deal with it. The decisions that the meeting made would be processed by the committee, who would represent our views to the State. We thought that was the right and proper way of doing things. I didn’t want no violence.

While this was going on, Doug Milera pointed to the map and said the area represented women’s internal organs. I said to Doug, ‘If you know so much, how come you’ve missed the most important thing?’ And the most important thing is that him being a man, he’s not supposed to be talking about that, because it’s women’s business. Of course, later on the media said that the men had told the women about ‘women’s business’. How ridiculous. Women knew there was men’s business and men knew there was women’s business; just not the details. The important thing was not to talk about it.

We discussed what we could do to protect the area against them building a bridge, and Tim Woolley said the best thing to do was for us to write to Robert Tickner and ask him to put a ban on it, so that’s what we decided to do. The women, including Dorrie Wilson and Sarah Milera, got together at the University of South Australia’s centre at Goolwa, Ngarrindjeri Pulgi [Ngarrindjeri house], and wrote a letter, but we weren’t prepared to give him any details. Tim Woolley said this wouldn’t be enough; that we’d have to reveal some of the information for it to be possible for Robert Tickner to act. But that was forbidden. Over my dead body would I tell a man! I was feeling very stressed out about the thought of telling more. I left them with it. I was planning to write my own letter. But I understand that Dorrie Wilson was one of the ones that signed that letter to stop the bridge and that it was sent off in the afternoon from ALRM.

The next day, on 10 May, a protest was scheduled to block construction work from beginning. A big crowd of Aboriginal people and supporters were gathered at Amelia Park on the river front and it was a big chaos. The police were there and the media were there to record the protest. There were speeches by Matt Rigney, representing ATSIC, and Sarah Milera, who was speaking for the Ngarrindjeri Action Group which had formed to stop the bridge. Then the people all linked arms and blocked the way for the workers wanting to set up. People were jostling and shouting and Doug Milera got dragged away by the police. It was all on the television that night. I was shocked by it all. I didn’t know the Ngarrindjeri people had organised such a big protest. I just didn’t know all this had been going on because I had only just heard about it.

But it was this protest meeting that got the media going. Apparently the Chapmans had first proposed the bridge a few years earlier and some people saw it as Aboriginal people were only raising a stink at the last minute. I don’t understand what they thought we were doing it for — whether they thought we were just being bloody-minded or what. But people don’t realise how out of touch a lot of Aboriginal people can be. A lot of us live on former missions away from the cities. Aboriginal people don’t have much money to make long-distance phone calls all the time. Many people don’t have transport; I don’t even drive, and it’s hard work catching long haul buses all the time. Organising meetings and getting together costs money, something not many Aboriginal people have. So very few people knew anything about it until then. But when I spoke out I didn’t know much of what had been going on in the lead up to the bridge proposal. But I didn’t intend to hurt anybody; I did it because I needed to protect something that was important to my people. I actually never thought nothing much about the Chapmans at all. To me, they wasn’t even worth thinking about.

Letter to Tickner

After the protest that day, I went back to Adelaide, and that’s when I composed my own letter to Robert Tickner that Steve sent off from the Museum. It read:

My name is Doreen Kartinyeri. I am a descendant of the Raminyeri people of the Coorong, Hindmarsh and Mundoo Islands. I am also the Aboriginal Research Officer in the SA Museum’s Family History Project.

My concern is that we need to let you know of the Women’s Business associated with Hindmarsh and Mundoo Island only known by the Raminyeri and Ngarrindjeri women.

Thank you for intervening in the Hindmarsh Island issue and allowing us time to provide you with the information about this place.

I also want to bring to your attention the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act which I feel has not been followed through appropriately by the State Government. There really hasn’t been a chance for women to tell about their traditions associated with Hindmarsh and Mundoo Island and the Coorong. This can only be told to women and all those involved in the Heritage process in SA have been men. I would like to talk to a senior woman in your Department about some of the details of this Women’s Business.

I have always known about the stories associated with Raminyeri and Ngarrindjeri Women’s Business but until recently I didn’t know the exact place that they referred to. My Grandmother Sally Kartinyeri, my Great Aunt Laura Kartinyeri and my Aunty Rose Kropinyeri passed these stories about Women’s Business to me.

This is really important to the Ngarrindjeri and Raminyeri people and to the whole of the River Murray and the Coorong.

There is also a lot of records about burials on Hindmarsh and Mundoo Islands which I will send to you and I am putting together family trees of the people who belong to Hindmarsh and Mundoo Islands. I need a couple of weeks to put all of this together and then I will send it to you.

The Raminyeri and Ngarrindjeri people thank you for your help and interest.

Later on I came under fire for saying that ‘until recently I didn’t know the exact place that they referred to’. What I meant was ‘the place they referred to where the bridge was going to be built’. That lack of white education means I never learnt much grammar and it catches me out sometimes.

After receiving my letter, Robert Tickner banned the building of the bridge for thirty days and appointed Professor Cheryl Saunders to undertake an investigation into Ngarrindjeri heritage to see whether the bridge should be permanently stopped. I didn’t see why they needed an investigation, but if that’s what it took, okay.

Controversy over the bridge was starting to brew into a storm. On 5 June an anti-bridge protest was held at Goolwa, attended by about 800 people. Then five days later the pro-bridge mob protested, and they got a crowd of about 600.

Cheryl Saunders was coming to talk to us, so a meeting was organised for the women to get together beforehand to talk about what we were going to say to her. The meeting was held at a conference centre called Graham’s Castle in Goolwa on Saturday, 18 June. Graham, the owner, was happy to have us there.

I was getting ready for the meeting when I had a phone call saying that Rocky Marshall, a gunya whose family had lived in the area from the earliest times of white invasion, had published a letter to the editor, telling details of Ngarrindjeri women’s business his grandmother had told him about. I got hold of a copy of the paper and I just couldn’t believe what I was reading. Now that old lady must have been close to the Aboriginal women in the area and learnt a bit from them, but not enough to know she shouldn’t pass things on to the men in her family. I was furious that this had been published in the paper.

We got into the minibus and headed for the island. When we got there over the ferry, I happened to see Deane Fergie. Deane was appointed by ALRM to be their anthropologist to assist Cheryl Saunders. I thought that was wonderful, but I was surprised that they appointed her to work with me, because Deane and I was good friends and we done a fair bit of work together. Deane was with the University of Adelaide and would sometimes come over to the Family History Unit. She had invited me on a trip with her to the tribal country up north, but I was too busy in Adelaide.

I had already had a couple of meetings with Deane on this stuff before the others came on the scene, and I gave her the names of other women to contact, such as Aunty Connie Roberts, Aunty Maggie Jacobs, Aunty Laura Kartinyeri, Aunty Emmo Webster, Aunty Marj Koolmatrie, Veronica Brodie, Pansy Wilson. I even suggested Dulcie Wilson. She was older than me and because Lyndsay knew so much I just assumed Dulcie did too.

I jumped in Deane’s car and told her to drive. I gave her directions to Rocky’s house. I didn’t know him well, but I met him through all this. Rocky and his wife were having a meeting at their house for the Friends of Goolwa. I marched in there and blasted Rocky for publicly telling our knowledge. Sarah Milera and Amelia Campbell were at that meeting. Afterwards, I wanted to talk to them about what they knew of women’s business, but they wouldn’t talk to me about it, so I left.

Meeting at Graham’s Castle

That evening we had the meeting at Graham’s Castle. The Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee made sure as many women as possible were notified. Victor and Glenys made sure I had transport here and there. About four carloads of people came from Raukkan, a bus and several cars came from Murray Bridge, Tailem Bend and Adelaide. About 160 women were there for that meeting. Lots of strong Ngarrindjeri women were there, like Val Power (née Karpany) and her sister Muriel van der Byl, Sandra Saunders, Shirley Peisley and Vi Deuschle, who have been wonderful supporters. Daisy Rankine was there; Aunty Laura is her aunty as well as mine. Isobel Norvill1 was there. Henry and Jean Rankine, who represented the Ngarrindjeri Council when they talked to the Chapmans and gave the bridge the go-ahead, did not come to the meeting. They must have been worried about how the Chapmans took it that they were speaking for all Ngarrindjeri people, but it’s a shame they didn’t come because that would have been a chance for them to explain why they had done that and clear the air.

Everybody showed interest in what was going on and it was a good meeting. It was an open meeting, no-one chairing it, no-one taking minutes, so we could all feel free to say what we wanted. There were people that were speaking at that meeting that I never ever heard speak out in any other meeting. I think a lot of them felt very strongly about the issue. Some of what were later to become known as the ‘dissident women’ were there, including Dorrie Wilson as well as Amelia Campbell, and they gave us nothing to believe they weren’t with the rest of us. I addressed the meeting and told them I didn’t really know what’s going to happen, all I knew was they were looking to build a bridge over to Kumarangk and I didn’t think we should let them because Kumarangk is very significant to Ngarrindjeri people. It’s something that the old people used to be very, very proud of; they used to go there to teach the young ones hunting and gathering and to pass on culture and for many, many things.

I told them that a lot of the women had been raped by white settlers in the early days and that’s where the women used to go to abort these babies. I didn’t go into how they did that then, even though I knew it, because I didn’t want the younger women to hear that. I told them that kumari