The Royal Witch-Hunt
The Royal Commission
On Friday, 9 June 1995 I was at the Aboriginal Community Centre in Murray Bridge attending meetings, when Dean Brown announced that a Royal Commission would be held to investigate whether our beliefs were fabricated. Later the same day Robert Tickner announced the Federal Government would conduct its own judicial inquiry. The Royal Commission was supposed to report in less than two months — by 1 September — so Dean Brown was obviously trying to get in first. How could it investigate properly all the things that had gone on in that time, especially if I wasn’t going to cooperate? I didn’t even know what a Royal Commission was, but I felt confident that a Federal inquiry would have to override a State one, and still held out hope that this would happen.
That was my very first reaction to that Royal Commission. I couldn’t believe they could hold an investigation into our traditional religious beliefs. Nor could the churches, who were quick to condemn such an outrageous thing. Sister Janet Mead1 was always very supportive. The first thing I did was to say to Sandra and Val and Muriel was that I would not co-operate with that Royal Commission, and they agreed with my decision and supported it. All the women who supported me also agreed — Aunty Connie, Veronica, Aunty Maggie — lots of them — and so we worked on a document.
The ALRM had its lawyers, and the Ngarrindjeri men got Steve Kenny to represent them. Claire O’Connor agreed to act for the women. Whitefellas had been in charge of me and my family all my life; they weren’t going to tell me what to do now, so I wanted us not to appear in the Royal Commission.
Next thing Bertha Gollan is quoted in the media as saying she and the other dissident women’s lives have been threatened. Bertha is saying someone’s gone up north to the Pitjantjatjara Lands to get a kadaitcha man [sorcerer, clever person, assassin] to come down to ‘sing her to death’. Funny how they believe in this, but not their own Ngarrindjeri culture. I never knew anything about threats against them. Maybe someone misunderstood the visit of the women from Coober Pedy or maybe someone did threaten that. I had plenty of Aboriginal people who told me I just had to say the word and they would do someone over. In fact I had my work cut out calming people down and stopping violent things from happening. Anyway, it worked both ways. We were getting threats too, but we didn’t go running to the media about it, because we didn’t have a guilty conscience.
We got support from the Aboriginal leaders in the country. The national native title conference held in Melbourne at the time called for the Royal Commission to be disbanded because they saw it as an attack on the rights of Aboriginal people. ALRM tried its hardest to stop the Royal Commission too, by challenging its validity in the Supreme Court, but without success.
On the opening day we got Claire O’Connor to ask the Commissioner Iris Stevens if we could speak to her in private, so she agreed to ask all men and white women to leave the room. When they left, Mantatjara Wilson [a Pitjantjatjara elder], who had come down from the Lands [the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands] especially, presented two traditional women’s items to the Commissioner — a ceremonial law stick and a painting. Iris Stevens looked horrified, but we tried our best to explain to her what women’s business meant to us and to get her to feel how important it was. She said she would take this as evidence. But she never mentioned it in her final report.
After that the commission went back to proceedings and all the men and white women came back into the room. Claire O’Connor stood up and addressed the Royal Commission. She read out the statement we had prepared. It said:
We as Ngarrindjeri women believe the women’s business, the subject of the Royal Commission into Hindmarsh Island is true.
We are deeply offended that a Government in this day and age has the audacity to order an inquiry into our secret, sacred, spiritual beliefs. Never before have any group of people had their spiritual beliefs scrutinised in this way.
Under Aboriginal law, women cannot speak about women’s business where there are men concerned.
Our law for Aboriginal women prohibits us from talking about this business, not only to any men, but also to those not privileged to be given that information.
It is our responsibility as custodians of this knowledge to protect it, not only from men, but also from those not entitled to this knowledge. We have a duty to keep Aboriginal law in this country.
Women’s business does exist, has existed since time immemorial and will continue to exist where there are Aboriginal women who are able to continue to practice their culture.
… The most common thread linking all Aboriginal peoples is the way in which we record our history. Aboriginal history is recorded orally. It is passed on orally. Does that fact invalidate our history? Aboriginal law is strict and uncompromising. Despite all the efforts both past and present of Government bodies and agents to cast the law aside, stamp it out and ignore it, business exists.
We do not seek to be represented at this Royal Commission. We do not recognise the authority of this Royal Commission to debate and ultimately to conclude that women’s business relating to Hindmarsh Island exists. We know women’s business exists and is true.
We do not recognise you, Madam Commissioner, as a custodian of law in our society. We shall continue to practise our customs and law according to our customs and law as Aboriginal people have since time began and especially since the invasion.
Our only motivation for protecting our stories is our responsibility to the land and surrounding waters and to our people.
We refuse outright to recognise your commission as having any right to decide whether we fabricated anything when we know that we have not.
There is also the issue that there is to be a Federal inquiry into this matter. We are prepared to participate and co-operate fully with this inquiry, because we feel that we can be confident that this inquiry will investigate the matters sensitively and appropriately and with the respect our spiritual beliefs warrant. We believe the Federal inquiry will achieve the appropriate goals of uncovering the actual fabrications in this matter and the motives and corruption associated with those fabrications, determine who is to benefit from those fabrications and make the necessary recommendations.
The timing of Premier Brown’s Royal Commission is entirely inappropriate. The Federal Court is still to determine the appeal before it and there is an appeal before the South Australian Supreme Court that has yet to be determined against the refusal yesterday to grant an injunction. What is the hurry? Whose interests are being served by the holding of this Royal Commission now?2
At the end of all the opening statements Iris Stevens met with the women. Andrea Simpson [junior counsel assisting the Royal Commission] and Iris Stevens were the only white women at that meeting, and no men were allowed to be there. After the meeting, I got up and walked out, with honesty, dignity and pride for my people. The others followed me. No disrespect to Christianity, but that day I felt like I was about to be crucified. I wondered if anyone had ever walked out on a Royal Commission before, but I didn’t care if they had or not.
After the private viewing of the objects with Iris Stevens, a few days later Colin James was saying that a curse had been put on the Royal Commission by Mantatjara. He was saying the Commission would have to move to another building because of it, and he had been told this by Chirpy Campbell. Chirpy reckoned he was going to turn up in traditional clothes to defy the curse. At this stage Sandra was mostly keeping the papers away from me. She didn’t want me to see what was being said because it made me so angry and hurt. But the sight of Chirpy turning up at the Commission in a cloak made of car-seat covers was too much! This just made a mockery of our culture, while I was trying to protect it.
It was a shock to hear that the first witness to the Royal Commission was Philip Clarke. He was apparently sitting up there accusing me of fabricating stories and bringing them down from the north. This was a young man I had taught, that I’d worked closely with, that I’d so generously shared my knowledge with and who should have respected me. I was devastated to hear that he would do that. I felt he really betrayed me and I was disgusted.
Sandy was putting me up at her house and doing her best to protect me from all that was going round about us. I wasn’t involved with the Royal Commission but I was constantly dodging the media, who wouldn’t leave me alone. Sandra gave me a key to her house, and if she got wind of anything happening that might cause the media to come after me, she would ring me and say, ‘Go home and get out of the way’. So I’d get a taxi back to Sandra’s and let myself in, lock the doors and wait. People didn’t catch on that I was there with her; they thought I was still staying with my friends Margie and Ron at Croydon Park, because that’s where I first stayed when all this blew up. I had to go and stay somewhere else after there was a high-speed police chase and the police caught the driver outside Margie and Ron’s house. We went outside to see what was happening and there were all the media. The Channel Seven reporter said, ‘Doreen, what are you doing here?’ I quickly said, ‘I’ve come to visit a friend’. But they cottoned on that I was staying there and were harassing Margie and Ron in the end. The media just never let up. They even went round to my sister Doris’s house one time, because she was in the phone book as ‘D. Kartinyeri’. Doris suffers from bipolar disorder and I was worried they would make her sick.
Sandra wouldn’t let me read the newspapers, especially the Adelaide Review. Christopher Pearson was the editor of the Adelaide Review, and he and Chris Kenny wrote a lot of really nasty articles about me and the others. They were dead set against us right from the start, and in with the Liberal Party, and all their articles rubbished us something terrible. In my opinion they were not good journalists, but they both ended up getting promoted. Christopher Pearson went on to be Prime Minister John Howard’s speech writer — which says quite a lot considering Howard’s position on Aboriginal issues — and Kenny wrote a book that I think is very one-sided.
In the early days Betty Fisher first got in touch with me to tell me she also had evidence from tapes she had done with some of the old Ngarrindjeri ladies in the 1960s, including Kumi, Veronica Brodie’s mother. I told her to go straight away and get them out of the State Library and put them somewhere safe and that she was never to let anyone have access to them. We talked about how she would handle it and I agreed that I didn’t mind if she appeared to the Royal Commission, but under no circumstances could she show the details of those tapes. I was very grateful for Betty’s co-operation with this.
Even though I never went into the Royal Commission again, just walking around town with Sandra the media would be chasing us. I remember one day we were walking along Gawler Place and all the reporters spotted us coming and they were standing there in our way and we didn’t know what to do. Suddenly Sandra grabbed me and we rushed into the nearest shop. We didn’t have time to see until we got inside, but it was a bridal shop! One of the reporters said, ‘What are you doing in there?’ Sandy said, ‘We’re getting married!’ I had to catch my breath, so we just stayed there laughing and saying how ridiculous it was. All the people in the shop were looking at us and wondering what was going on.
In our travels around town, say of an evening we would stop in for a drink at the Crown & Sceptre or the Arab Steed or one of the other pubs, if there was a pile of Adelaide Reviews there, Sandy would just pick them up in big bunches and dump them in the bin outside so that other people couldn’t read them. True! Everywhere we saw that free paper, Sandra would do that. I didn’t do it because I was too frightened that I might get into trouble. We ended up sticking to certain pubs, because people would harass us most places we’d go.
Sandy and I spent a lot of time at her home just sitting round with the combustion fire going and yanun and I told her lots of stories about my life and about my children and what was happening in their life, and Sandy did the same with me. Sandy became like my sister and we shared things. I think we bonded really close that night we heard about McLachlan tabling the envelopes, and our relationship just grew stronger from there. We got closer and closer, and now I think of her and her kids as being part of my family.
Of course, our children were affected by all the publicity. They were being challenged by people and copping the flak. One of my sons ended up punching someone who said something bad about me, and so did one of my granddaughters. I remember my daughter Christabel and Sandy’s son Malcolm were in the pub in Port Lincoln watching the news on TV. Christabel said, ‘There’s my Mum and Sandra’. At the same time Malcolm said, ‘There’s my Mum and Doreen’. Although they already knew each other, they didn’t know who each other’s mother was!
Between calls from the Ngarrindjeri people and from reporters, Sandra’s phone was running hot all the time. Sandy always let Val and Muriel know when I was in town, because we are very close cousins. If a reporter rang, Sandra might say, ‘Well I think she’s in town, but I don’t know. You could try Legal Rights’. And I’d be sitting right there. Shirley Peisley and Vi Deuschle often came round to Sandra’s to see how I was getting on. So did the lawyers from Legal Rights, and Steve Kenny and Deane Fergie came round to keep us informed on what was happening in the Royal Commission.
It seemed to me like a lot of the people who spoke out against us were getting funded from one source or another. I couldn’t understand why Coral, Joy and Peggy Weetra, Aunty Rosie’s granddaughters, spoke out against us. It seems their grandmother did not tell them anything. Coral ran away from home as a young fifteen-year-old girl, so maybe she was thought not to be suitable to tell anything important, and nor was Joy. I can remember Aunty Rosie always trying to discipline Joy, but she would just sit about reading comics all day. On the other hand Aunty Rosie’s other grannies, Laurel and Rose, gave me their support, so what does that say? How come the dissident women’s numbers kept growing all the time when to me there was no good reason for that?
I got the chance to see Doug Milera again a couple of months after his interview with Chris Kenny. We called a meeting down at Murray Bridge in the Lower Murray Nungas’ Club, and we decided to close the gates to all the media because they weren’t doing the right thing by us. We also asked the police to keep away. Some people didn’t like the idea of closing the gates, because we normally are open to everybody, but this is the sort of thing we became forced to do. We had a lot of the young boys to stand guard around the fences. One of the TV stations sent a helicopter, but people got in its way and it couldn’t land. Then I heard one of the boys say, ‘Aunt Dodo, Uncle Mayo’s coming’. Mayo is Doug Milera. So I said, ‘Open the gate for him’ and I stayed outside until they drove in. The media were all trying to get shots of him and there were cameras everywhere through the fence. Doug got out of the car and I wondered what he was going to do. He walked towards us and straight up to me. He just put his arms out. I could not help it, I just had to put my arms out and we just hung on to one another. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t even say sorry. He just trembled in my arms. So I got hold of his hand and I led him inside. And you could see tears coming into people’s eyes. Sarah and Doug both had tears in their eyes. And I thought, ‘It looks like I’ve got to be the strong one again’. And we all walked inside.
As usual, we stood in a big circle, all holding hands. There must have been about 120 of us in the hall. I looked round that circle and everyone had tears in their eyes. I couldn’t talk; Doug couldn’t talk. No-one could talk. And it must have took a good long time before Victor spoke. He spoke beautifully. He said, ‘I would like to open this meeting and we welcome Doug back in with us’. I never asked him to say that, he just did it. Doug was forgiven.
When I went back to Point Pearce I found myself getting into arguments with white people in the wider community I had known for many years and who I had considered my friends. I remember running into Gwen, down at Port Victoria. She had heard me talking on radio. She said, ‘Do you think it’s the right thing for your people to try and stop a big development?’ And I thought, she’s had a lot of meetings with me in the past and she knows the way I feel about Aboriginal people. But what the hell did she know about our history and culture; how could she be a judge of what was right for us?
Even through all of this I tried to keep busy. I worked at Koonanda packing food and clothing parcels to be sent up to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands. Then I got an invitation from Jennie George, who was about to become ACTU President, to attend the Women and Labour Conference at Macquarie University in Sydney. They flew me over to speak to the conference on 1 October 1995. This was right in the middle of the Royal Commission proceedings, so it was a good opportunity to have a bit of a say. I gave a speech which was unanimously supported by over 200 delegates. At the conference Sir Ronald Wilson saw me outside having a cigarette and came over to thank me. He was also very interested in my work, because he was conducting the Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and that Inquiry exposed the extent of the Stolen Generations when he released his report two years later.
Prominent Aboriginal people came over to Adelaide to show their support and talk for us. Marcia Langton wrote a couple of articles and addressed a meeting at Way Hall.