Monday, 6 March 1995: the envelopes

It was late afternoon and I was exhausted from all the work. I had my full-time job in the South Australian Museum and now the extra work of trying to protect the heritage of my Ngarrindjeri people. I had been running all around town, talking to lawyers, anthropologists and others who were keeping me informed of what was happening, and I was busting my brain trying to take it all in and thinking of what to do next. I didn’t know anything about the legal system or how it worked, so I had been talking to lawyer Tim Woolley at the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in King William Street to try and understand what was happening, and now I was keen to get home. I headed downstairs to reception and was just making my way out the front door when Sandra Saunders, the Director of Aboriginal Legal Rights, called out to me. ‘Doreen,’ she yelled, ‘wait a minute!’

Sandra was on the phone to Sue Kee from Robert Tickner’s office [Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs]. She said she had some terrible news for me. She took me upstairs to her office and told me that the shadow minister for the environment, Ian McLachlan, had one of his staff members open the secret envelopes and he had tabled them in Federal Parliament.

I felt like someone had punched me hard in the stomach, had kicked me with full force in the guts. I went numb. I screamed, ‘Oh no,’ and fell to the floor. I clutched my stomach tight as I rocked back and forth on the floor of Sandra’s office. I closed my eyes and started to cry and then I could visualise all the pakanus [grandparents] and ngatjus [aunts] and muthar [grandmothers], all the old ladies looking down at me. They were looking at me wild way, anger in their faces. Where was Aunty Rosie? I needed to see her now. As I looked at the faces of my ancestors one by one I apologised to each of them. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. You told me never to tell a man and now I have. I know now I’ve done the wrong thing’. I sang out for their forgiveness, all the time wailing and crying. Although it wasn’t my fault that McLachlan had done such a terrible thing, if I had not written the information down in the first place, he couldn’t have done it. One thing the old people used to say, ‘Never put black history on white paper’. And this is what I’d done. Goodness knows, if anyone was well aware of how treacherous some whitefellas could be, it was me, but somehow I still believed the system would protect us. Aunty Rosie’s words came into my mind: ‘Never tell whitefellas what you know about your culture; they’ll pick your brains and bleed you dry’. I had lived by that as a young woman, but this time I was in an impossible situation. If I didn’t tell the whitefellas at least some of what I knew, they wouldn’t protect Kumarangk [Hindmarsh Island]. Now that I had, McLachlan had threatened to tell the world and betray my people. I knew I would pay for this error of judgment. Finally Aunty Rosie’s face came into view and I felt a little better. She didn’t look at me as wild as the others. She was there with me. How could this have happened?

Then I started to get fuckin’ angry.


I am Doreen Maude Kartinyeri, second child of Thelma and Oswald (but always called Oscar) Kartinyeri. Nicknames are a big thing with my people, and mine is Dodo, and I got that because my older brother Oscar stuttered. I am a Ngarrindjeri mi:mini [woman], but like many Aboriginal people today I have different ancestral roots. I am Ngarrindjeri, but I am also descended from the Wirangu, Nauo, Barkandji, Boandik and Ngadjuri Aboriginal peoples of South Australia. My children have strong connections with Narrunga through their father and they were brought up in the Narrunga community at Point Pearce on the Yorke Peninsula. On both my parents’ sides I have an English great-grandfather. I know all my family genealogy. I learnt a lot about kinship from my parents and grandparents when I was just young and it’s been important all my life. As a young married woman I learnt more from my Aunty Rosie [Kropinyeri] and other old people about many different families. According to my Mainu [grandfather], the name Kartinyeri means ‘We came, we stayed and we belong’. My culture is my life.

The greatest thing that ever happened in my life was giving birth to my nine children — seven sons and two daughters. That was a magnificent achievement. Not just because I’m so proud of them all, but also because family is so important. I learned that from my Mum and Dad growing up on Raukkan [Point McLeay Aboriginal Mission] with my brothers and sisters, grandmother and grandfather, all my aunties and uncles and lots of cousins. We were a big loving family and the children respected the old people.

The most traumatic thing? Well there were two. Losing my Mum when I was ten, just a little girl, and then losing my first child at seven months. It’s a terrible thing to have a baby die in your arms.

Apart from my own children, over the years I’ve raised twenty-three foster children; so here I am, a mother of nine, with twenty-seven grandchildren and nine great-grannies [grandchildren].

Looking back on my years at Raukkan I feel two very strong emotions — happiness and sadness. When I was a young teenager I had to get special permission from the Protector of Aborigines to go back there, and I went along to the office in Kintore Avenue in Adelaide and got permission, because this is what the rules and regulations were for Aboriginal people then. I took a chance they would say no, I can’t go back. I was on edge waiting for that permission to come through. But when they said yes, it was great, because I was going home to see my loved ones.

Now that I don’t need a permit to go back onto Raukkan, usually I’m only going back for funerals, to bury a family member. I am now the oldest living person in the Kartinyeri family from my grandparents Archie and Sally Kartinyeri.

The trip in to Raukkan has always been a very rough ride. The road has never ever been surfaced. On the left you pass Poltalloch, a great big mansion with only a few white people living there. Not like Raukkan where lots of big families lived in little two roomed houses. Uncle Ted and Aunty Sarah Karpany used to live in a little shack there on the shore front, Granny Tokey Butcher used to work in the big house, and a couple of other young girls a bit older than myself used to go out there and do domestic work. They had some beautiful horses there, lovely stables. The owners of that house were pretty well off.

Then you come past Glenora — the dairy that belongs to the mission — and over a cattle pit into Raukkan. When you come up the hill into Raukkan you’ll see some of the cottages, and then as you go through the first little lane of cottages on your left-hand side you can look up the road and you’ll see the church. I’ve got photographs of Raukkan taken in 1861, in the 1880s, and right up to the present time, and you can see the different stages of development.

My Mum, Thelma (née Rigney), lived all her life on Raukkan. My Dad was born and brought up there too. I was born there in a little tin place in 1935. Although there was a little hospital on the mission then, not always was the white sister there and she hardly ever delivered babies, so the Aboriginal putharis [midwives] would have to go to the homes to deliver the babies in the tribal way. Some of the putharis I remember were Aunty Martha Rankine (my father’s sister), my Aunty Laura Kartinyeri (my father’s aunt), and old Beattie Gollan, who was excellent. Before that there was Ivy Karpany, who would sit with the women from the time they sent for her. Ivy and her husband Bill Karpany eventually moved to Point Pearce [Aboriginal Mission on Yorke Peninsula], and she passed all her knowledge on to the women at Point Pearce. Midwifery is a very important part of Ngarrindjeri culture and so is weaving, which brings people together.

The house where our family lived was just two rooms made of flattened kerosene tins, and the only stone part was a little chimney, but I was lucky I could live with my parents, because when my Mum and Dad were young, the kids had to live in dormitories. My earliest memories of the mission was when I was about six, I suppose, when we lived down near the lake. There were about eight little brick houses along the lake and one right on the end near Mungarawa. They were built by the Aboriginal men when the mission was set up. We were only living in a two-room cottage, my Mum and my Dad, my elder brother Oscar and my two younger sisters, Nancy and Doris Alma (called Alma by my parents). Alma was just a baby when she died of diphtheria and I hardly remember her. Then my mother had Ron and we moved up to the mission into my Aunty Martha’s house in about 1942. I loved Aunty Martha and got on very well with her, even though she wasn’t very popular with a lot of our other relations. She was a bit stern, but she had a big family and quite a lot of responsibility. Her husband, Uncle Reggie, was a returned soldier from the First World War and he needed to get treatment at the Repatriation Hospital, so we moved into their house when they moved to Adelaide. My father’s parents, Archie and Sally Kartinyeri, moved in with us, and that’s where my sister Connie was born, so then there was my Mum and Dad, Oscar, me, Nancy, Ron and Connie. One more sister, Doris Eileen, was to be born later.

I never knew my mother’s parents, Rachel (née Disher) and Ben Rigney, because they died before I was born, but I learnt from Aunty Rosie that her mother was Boandik. Grandmother Rachel and her brother Richard Disher were from Mypolonga. There was a massacre up the river and they were put in a bark canoe and they floated down the river to Renmark, from where they were sent in to Raukkan. Aunty Rosie said that her mother used to talk about that massacre.

Mum had a lot of photos of the family stuck on the wall. There was a lovely one of her grandmother, Mutyuli, and old James Rankine, who used to work together at Poltalloch in the late 1800s. James was the chauffeur in a horse and buggy, and Mutyuli (or Isabella as she was also known) used to do the cooking.

Point McLeay (Raukkan) Mission

The mission had a hospital, school, church and there was a big square of lawn. There was the superintendent’s house, the headmaster’s house, the store, the dispensary and there were tennis courts. Up the top of the hill is a row of houses we call the Top Row.

There was no electricity on Raukkan in those days. We had candles, kerosene lamps or lanterns. Some people had big long silver torches, which took about six to eight batteries that had to come from Tailem Bend, but mostly people used candles. We’d use an empty camp pie tin with the top rolled back to act as candle holders. We had a little pelmet on the wall and we’d hook it up on that. It was beautiful. Each of us kids had our own piece of candle to see our way to bed. There were four or five of us to a double bed and the last one to bed would have to blow out the last candle.

In the adjoining house lived Bertha Wilson and her parents and brothers and sisters. My bedroom wall was the wall of their kitchen. Bertha was fifteen years older than me, and not long afterwards she had her first child. I could hear Bertha talking in the kitchen next door and I was fascinated to listen to what she was talking about. Connie shared my room and when we were going to sleep I would tell Connie to shush so I could listen to Bertha. Bertha was a big gossip and would talk about all the people on Raukkan, and who was going with who. Some of this stuff was a shock to a young girl like me, so sometimes I put my hands over my ears. But my interest in kinship made it intriguing. For the same reason I also used to listen to people yarning while they sat on the lawn waiting for the mail.

But her gossiping turned me off Bertha. And I could never work out how she knew all the details of everything that went on, because she wasn’t one to be going from house to house. I wondered how she felt she had the right to talk about others like that.

There’d be one tap between about three houses and you’d have to cart buckets of water on a yoke over your shoulders. All the houses had wood ovens and meat was kept in a meat safe. This was a metal box with sieve wire right around it. They used to hang it in the doorway to let the breeze blow through it and this would keep the meat cool. There was no sewerage or septic tanks, so the toilets were buckets emptied by the men into a big pit.

Camping at the Kurangk

When trees were cut down, the people would plead with the super-intendent not to burn the limbs so they could use them to build their wurlies [windbreaks, tent-like structures]. We used to pick the sheoak apples and bring them home in sugarbags and boil them in a saucepan with sugar and they were beautiful. The people didn’t want to cut the trees down because so much had been cleared and so much had been destroyed, but they had to do that work or they wouldn’t get paid or they’d get their rations cut. What the men used to do was smooth down the branches with pieces of broken bottles — because they never used to have tools in their homes that a lot of people have today — and then before they’d really dry out they’d lay them in the waters of the little creeks running off the Kurangk [Coorong] and the Lake. This is to keep them pliable, so that when you bend them they don’t snap. They would bend them over in a dome shape. In the old days they’d use the sinews of the kangaroo and wallaby legs to tie them together and cover them with brush or seaweed. We used string and flour bags cut open and pegged together with little thin sharpened sticks, woven in and out. Then they’d throw the bags over the sticks, leaving a flap for a door.

Sometimes we’d just have a windbreak. They were different. People would collect up branches with lots of leaves on them. They’d have one big piece of wire and they’d hook the branches onto the wire. These sorts of branches would also be used as a broom for sweeping the ground.

I didn’t know what the men used to go out the Kurangk for, camping, and we never asked questions. We were told only when we were supposed to be told. At Raukkan we would be able to go and play and run around anywhere, but down there we couldn’t. There were certain places we were allowed to go, and certain places we weren’t allowed to go and we were told that we were not to touch anything we found, but to go and tell the old people. We went in a horse and cart and we never took wood with us, or water. Even though we were on the edge of the sea my grandfather knew exactly where to find fresh water, and he’d dig wells and he’d tell us about other things the old people used to do down the Coorong.

My grandfather used to tell us about a lot of things, but my grandmother would want to stop him. Mainu used to cut all the kids’ hair at Raukkan, and he made each child pick up their own hair and get rid of it themselves. When I asked him why he did this, he told me that no woman is allowed to touch the hair of a man’s body, chest, head, anywhere, and we could be milin [killed by sorcery] if we did. In the old days the men used to think their hair was the main part of their manhood. They used to rub their loose hair like wool, stick it together with clay and make hair hats out of it. There’s a film in the South Australian Museum of Clarence Long (Milerum) making hair hats.

My grandmother used to say to Mainu, ‘Don’t go filling those kids’ heads with those silly stories, Archie’. I was only small and I didn’t think much about why she wanted to stop him, but later I started to understand that people were bitter about how white people used our information, often against us. I can remember her plain as anything telling us. ‘When the white people want to ask you questions, don’t go telling them anything.’

Down at the Coorong we slept on beds of dried seaweed covered with old grey government blankets with a nice fire going. A couple of the men played mouth organs and guitar and we’d sit around the fire and sing Christmas carols. It was wonderful. We’d have Christmas dinner there. Cape Barren geese and swans would be boiled in a kerosene tin to tenderise them and then they’d be wrapped up in seaweed and put in the ashes to cook. Lovely, beautiful.

For school holidays during the year we’d go up to Tailem Bend to stop with Aunty Connie [née Varcoe, her mother’s maiden name] and Uncle Roly [Kartinyeri] who lived at the Three Miles [camp, three miles out of Tailem Bend]. My sister Connie was named after her, my Mum’s elder sister, and she worked in the hotel and the Tailem Bend Hospital. She used to get a ride into town each day and we kids would run amok. Aunty Laura was there a lot and Knocky and Gertie lived in the shack next door. Uncle Roly used to pull up the dead willow roots from the banks of the river with a horse and rope and he’d leave them on the cliff to dry out for firewood.

The store

What they had in the store was what the government felt was necessary for the people on the mission, like sugar, tea and flour. When they opened the store at nine o’clock in the morning, there would already be a line-up outside the store. If they ran out of things, the ones at the end of the line would miss out and that would cause a lot of conflict.

The store also sold clothes and they weren’t what you’d call expensive, but I think they were things that the government got as contributions for Aboriginal people. The churches and the Aborigines’ Friends Association also used to come in and have sales of hand-me-down clothing from white families, but mostly clothes were made from second-hand items by the women on the mission.

An abundance of wild food

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