Unexpected Kindness

Unexpected Kindness

The Weekend Australian, 11–12 March 1995

… Ms Kartinyeri tells of the effects on her of the events.

We Ngarrindjeri women decided to reveal we had secrets concerning the Lower Murray River in South Australia, where our people used to live, when it became clear last year the new State Government was determined to build a bridge to Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island).

They voted unanimously for me to speak for them, because I knew the stories. They voted for me to tell the stories because it was the only way to stop the bridge.

My aunt Rosie, my mother’s older sister, and my grandmother told me everything, and that is how I learned about our genealogy.

I sat with my aunt during seventeen years, until she died in 1981 in her early nineties. Some of the other women feel they should have stopped me telling the stories. They’re blaming themselves, too.

A lot of Ngarrindjeri people did not know of the women’s business and you can blame the Government for converting the people [to Christianity] in the nineteenth century.

I am slowly and gradually putting family trees together now so people can claim their identity.

In the past, people lost their heritage. They could not stop desecration because the whites could stop their rations, or sack them. The old people just had to cry.

But our oral history, they can’t take that away. They can’t say the black fellas have no culture, because they have their stories, and they are reality, not myth. They are now trying to take them away, by demeaning and talking about our oral history as if it is nothing.

In olden days people would have been punished by killing for breaking Aboriginal law by revealing secrets. I don’t thing [sic] that would happen now but people remember stories of these punishments, they date back hundreds of years.

But there are other consequences for us, sickness or possibly death may come. I never experienced them myself but it’s what can happen to you when you know things have occurred, when you know any kind of law has been broken.

This is women’s business. Men aren’t supposed to know about these things. My biggest fear since I told of the secrets has been men finding out. I had to wonder, do I tell? Will they respect the confidence of it? I realised I could only tell if the secrets were kept safe.

Mr Robert Tickner, the federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who had promised to keep the secrets safe, sent them back to Adelaide for the Federal Court case in which the developers, the Chapmans, were appealing against Mr Tickner’s ban on the bridge to Kumarangk.

It’s white man’s law, they had to be presented in the event the judge wanted a woman lawyer to read them.

I got a call last year from Dr Deane Fergie, the woman anthropologist who prepared a report on the women’s business for Professor Cheryl Saunders, who in turn reported to Mr Tickner. She told me Professor Saunders felt I hadn’t given her the full story, that I was withholding something.

So I stated everything to Professor Saunders in the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement offices in Adelaide. Those words became the basis of the two confidential letters attached to Dr Fergie’s report to Professor Saunders.

I feared Mr Tickner would read the secrets but he promised he would not. But I still had a doubt, that something like the letters getting into the wrong hands would happen.

The public needs to know the full story of our struggle, they know only little parts. It affects all women around Australia. It’s been twisted, no one can understand it.

If those who breached the women’s confidence were white people in olden days, blackfellas would have speared them for invading women’s business.

I’d like to see Mr Ian McLachlan and the Coalition’s Aboriginal affairs spokeswoman, Ms Chris Gallus, sacked from Parliament, and the man who did the copying sacked as well.

Getting sacked from Parliament would be only minor compared with what they would have got under our old law. I can only hope although this dreadful thing has happened, these people will be punished.

Where they want to build the bridge is all we’ve got left. Otherwise they might as well poison us off. The Government has gone everywhere with roads and bridges. Our people have a voice now — don’t build that bridge.

The bridge must be stopped. I think the Government owes me that. I am feeling guilty for all my people.

Kumarangk and the surrounding area is the most sacred site we Ngarrindjeri have ever had, it’s our Ayers Rock, and we cannot sit back and see it destroyed. I don’t want to see our grandchildren deprived of their heritage.


It was just before the school year was about to start in 1949, and I had been given pencils for the first time and a pen and nibs for writing with ink, because I was going into Grade 4. This was a big step up for me, but I never got to use that pen. I had just turned thirteen and I was feeling really good. Not only had I stood up for two little white disabled girls, but I was going home to my family at last. I was sorry that Lieutenant Jones had hurt her arm, but it wasn’t my fault that the gate swung open. To me that was an accident.

After breakfast, Lieutenant Appleton made an announcement that I would be leaving that day. All the other Aboriginal girls were hugging and kissing me because they were happy for me that I was going back to Raukkan but sad they weren’t going home too. That afternoon Sister McKenzie came for me and all the kids stood on the verandah and waved goodbye.

When she was in Adelaide, Sister McKenzie used to be driven around in a car like a queen. Usually she sat in the front, but that day she got in the back with me and I watched the waving girls through the back window. She sat silent in the car and kept me quiet all the way. I thought she was taking me down to the railway station. It wasn’t until we went past it and headed towards North Adelaide that I realised that something was wrong. We pulled up outside a big church in Sussex Street. I saw some high gates and then I knew it was another Home. The caretaker, Mrs Mills, came out of the door of Sussex Street, as it used to be known. She took me into her office and had me stand there while Sister McKenzie told her that I would be there for two weeks. I thought that wasn’t so bad, I could hack that for two weeks if I was going home.

Sussex Street was a place where Aboriginal women would live when they came to Adelaide for medical treatment, and I knew some of the women who were there. Aunty Joycie Rigney and her sister Aunty Kate from Raukkan were there at that time, and a couple of women from Point Pearce. There were a couple of tribal women from the far north as well. They spoke to me in English, but when they talked together I couldn’t understand them because they spoke in Pitjantjatjara or Antakirinja or Yankunytjatjara.

I stayed at Sussex Street for several days before Sister McKenzie came and picked me up and took me in to the Protector’s office. I remember watching Mr Penhall’s secretary, a little old lady, sitting there typing on a great big typewriter. I was thinking I must be at the office to get a pass to go home on the train. Sister McKenzie interrupted my thoughts. ‘Come this way, Doreen. Mr Penhall will see you now.’ We went into Mr Penhall’s office and they talked to one another about me. It didn’t seem to matter that I was sitting there listening to them. I heard Sister McKenzie say, ‘Barton Vale would be the appropriate place’. Mr Penhall said, ‘No I don’t think so. She comes from good stock’. I was puzzled by their conversation.

But I knew what Barton Vale meant. It was a girls’ reformatory. A couple of people I knew were in Barton Vale. Confusion was setting in again. Eventually Mr Penhall said to Sister McKenzie, ‘As soon as I hear I’ll notify you’, and that was the end of their conversation. Sister McKenzie took me back to Sussex Street.

A few days later she took me into Cox Foyers, a department store in the city, and got me a suitcase and some clothes and a pair of lace-up shoes. Then she took me to the Adelaide bus terminal. She paid for my ticket and told the driver that someone would be at the other end to meet me. As I stepped onto the bus, she handed me a letter and I put it in my pocket. I didn’t know anything about what was happening.

Once the bus had started off I took out the letter. On the envelope was written, ‘Mr and Mrs George Dunn, per Doreen Kartinyeri’. I didn’t know what this meant either, so I put it back in my pocket and forgot about it. It was a warm afternoon so I dozed off a bit, and before I knew it the bus had stopped. I got off and looked around. I thought, ‘This doesn’t look like Tailem Bend. Where’s my Dad?’ There was something wrong, but I just couldn’t work it out. A nice-looking couple came over to me and politely asked if I was Doreen. They introduced themselves as Joan and George Dunn, and told me that I was in Charleston in the Adelaide Hills and that I was going to be staying with them for a little while. Charleston was only a tiny town with a store, post office, garage and a few houses. They said they would take me back to their farm a few miles out of Charleston for a nice hot drink and a good sleep.

Getting to know the Dunns

They were complete strangers, but they spoke to me so nicely I didn’t try to fight them. I got in their car and before long we were in the country and pulling into their farm. By now it was evening, so I couldn’t see very much, but when they took me inside, their house looked like a real home. There were family photos on the walls, just like Mum had at home at Raukkan. Although I didn’t know any of the people in them, it made me feel comfortable. They gave me a hot cocoa. I wasn’t in the mood to eat anything so we went upstairs and they showed me to my room. It was a small room with a bed, a dressing table, a little wardrobe and a chair. Mr Dunn put my case on the bed and said he had some work to do downstairs and wished me goodnight. I think I answered him, but I was still trying to work out where I was and what was going on.

After he left, Mrs Dunn helped me unpack and she said, ‘I suppose I’ll get instructions about you tomorrow’, and it was then I remembered the envelope. I pulled it out of my jacket pocket and said, ‘This must be for you’. So I sat on the bed and she sat on the chair while she opened the envelope and read the letter. Then she folded it and put it back in the envelope and said, ‘I’ll show you where the bathroom is’. When she’d done this she said, ‘You might as well go to bed. You must be exhausted you dear little thing’.

I didn’t know what to think. I wasn’t used to white people being so nice to me. I thought maybe that meant they were going to put me on the train home the next day.

I didn’t sleep well that night; I kept on waking up. I got up and opened the curtains and looked out over the paddocks. I opened the window a little bit and I could hear the cows mooing. It looked like familiar country and I was trying to work out where I could be. I wondered how far from Raukkan I was. Charleston is only about 30 kilometres from Adelaide and 120 kilometres from Raukkan, but it could have been another world away as far as I was concerned. I worked out it was too high for me to jump out of the window, so I sat on the big windowsill and just stared out the window. Next morning Mrs Dunn came and got me for breakfast and when we’d finished eating, she told me what the letter from Sister McKenzie was about. She said, ‘You have been placed in our care and control for two years and you will be working here as a domestic’.

I was stunned. I could not think, I could not ask questions. She went on reading, but I didn’t hear the words she was saying. All I could hear was that first sentence. She went on and on, referring to the letter in her hand. I wanted to snatch the letter away, but I didn’t have the strength to do that. I couldn’t even lift my arm. I wanted to see for myself what Sister McKenzie had written about me, but I never did.

Mrs Dunn talked to me about Fullarton. She told me I should be very grateful that I hadn’t been put in a reformatory after all the trouble I’d been in. She didn’t understand what it was like for me to be in the Home and that I was only in trouble because I had been taken away from my family. Lovely voice, lovely woman telling me these things, but I felt like tearing her hair out. She said that her family made lots of trips into Adelaide and Matron had given permission for me to visit my relatives in Fullarton. She also said that if I was very, very good, I might be allowed to go back home to Raukkan to visit. That’s when I realised I wasn’t anywhere near home.

She didn’t have very much for me to do that day, so she showed me where the library was if I wanted to do some reading, told me to help myself to the fruit basket and left me to look around while she went upstairs for the children. You couldn’t have asked for anything better than that from a woman. Rosemary was about five and John was a toddler. They looked at me and smiled, but I wasn’t in the mood for smiling. I was too confused. Rosemary wanted to chase me and hung onto my hand with a beautiful little smile on her face, but I just wanted to get away. I was to help keep an eye on them, because Mr and Mrs Dunn were going to be busy with the farm. I was to make my bed and do the dishes. These weren’t strenuous duties considering what I’d had to do in Fullarton.

Home away from home

Despite my confusion and disappointment at not going home, in their home I felt kindness, acceptance, protection and respect. I hadn’t felt any of those things since I left Raukkan. The Dunns’ place was like a home. Fullarton was like a concentration camp to me, because I felt as if I was being punished and I didn’t know what I had done wrong.

Mrs Dunn showed me around the farm. In the afternoon Mr Dunn’s mother came to meet me from her adjoining farm. She smiled and talked very nice to me and told me she also had one of the girls from Fullarton with her. I wish I’d known then it was Rosie Brumby. She said she thought Fullarton Girls’ Home was bringing up the Aboriginal children very well. I thought to myself, ‘Fullarton never brought kids up that well. Some of them finished up in the reformatory, some of them finished up on the streets, some of them finished up going back to broken homes, so that wasn’t a good result’.