Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.
“Never put black history on white paper” the elders taught her. One time Doreen Kartinyeri did not follow this instruction. She wrote about secret women’s business on Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island), South Australia, in a bid to stop the desecration of important Aboriginal sites on the island. The instruction, “to be read by women only” was written on the outside of the sealed envelope and it was sent to the office of the Federal minister for Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra.
In this memoir Doreen Kartinyeri gives her explanation of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy of the 1990s. Kartinyeri shares the story of her life and explains how she came to know about the secret women’s business. Her life story clearly establishes her expertise in Aboriginal knowledge and her identity as a Ngarrindjeri woman.
Kartinyeri was devastated when the Federal shadow minister for the environment, Ian McLachlan, threw her instructions aside and tabled the contents of the envelope in parliament. “I knew I would pay for this error of judgement”, she says. “That day my mi: wi [soul, spirit] was ruptured. I should never have put black words on white paper, and my punishment for breaking that Ngarrindjeri law was about to begin.” “It was still no consolation when two days later McLachlan did resign or even when Deane Fergie brought the secret envelopes back from Canberra. I was feeling really disturbed, really sick to my stomach about it all”.
A Royal Commission was held in South Australia to ascertain whether the Aboriginal women had fabricated evidence about secret women’s business. It concluded that they had lied. “I cried enough tears to flush the River Murray”, said Kartinyeri.
This book sears with emotion. Kartinyeri’s childhood on a mission living in a two-room house built from flattened kerosene tins was rent apart when her mother died. At the age of ten she was forced to leave the mission and live in the Fullarton Girls Home in Adelaide.
There were two worlds in Australia while Kartinyeri was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. Non-Aboriginal Australians lived a life of relative freedom. Aborigines were strictly controlled by the government. Aborigines on the mission had to seek permission from the superintendent of the mission to see a doctor. If the superintendent, who had no medical training, thought it was not warranted, the person would have to wait for the next weekly doctor’s visit. Kartinyeri had to ask for permission from the authorities to visit her home on the mission after she was removed as a ten-year old.
Kartinyeri explains how ‘exempted’ Aborigines were treated differently to those living on missions. These Aborigines could live and work away from the missions but they were still treated as inferior to non-Aboriginal Australians:
To prove you were exempted you had to wear a tag on a chain around your neck, which we called ‘dog tags’. That seemed an appropriate title because we were still treated like dogs. This was so the police could know who was exempted and who wasn’t. That was useful for the police because under the same legislation it was a punishable offence to ‘consort’ with an Aboriginal person. That meant that no white people or exempted people were allowed to have any sort of relationship with an Aboriginal person, and most Aboriginal families suffered greatly because of that.
Some of Doreen Kartinyeri’s experiences are reminiscent of what we read in the history of other countries. Aboriginal patrons of Tailem Bend cinema had to enter via a side door and were only allowed to sit at the front of the cinema. In the early 1950s a tram conductor told Kartinyeri to stand for a white girl on an Adelaide tram. Kartinyeri refused so the conductor ordered her off the tram.
The poverty was relentless largely due to the lack of economic opportunity resulting from restrictions on movement, lower payment for Aboriginal work and other discriminatory practices by the governments and people of the time. On the mission a group of people would pitch in together to buy a newspaper. It was too expensive for one Aboriginal person to buy it. Child endowment money from the government varied according to the colour of the skin of the child. Different amounts would be paid for children of the same family if they were assessed as having different skin colour to their siblings.
The relentless prejudice and discrimination that Kartinyeri received from white people affected her:
It had got to the point where every time I saw a white face I just felt sick… No child should have to have so much hate in their body, but I had it for white people, and I wasn’t brought up to hate.
Yet Kartinyeri acknowledges that some white people treated her with respect. When she left Fullarton Girls Home she went to work for the Dunn family:
Mrs Dunn was the first white woman who had ever said ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ to me. Mr and Mrs Dunn senior were also nice to me. All of a sudden my whole attitude towards white people started to change.
Treating people courteously and with respect makes a huge difference to human relationships.
This book not only documents the oppression under which Aborigines lived. Kartinyeri also shares some memories of Ngarrindjeri culture on the mission.
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.
Historian, Sue Anderson, is the co-author of this book. Kartinyeri explains that she sought the assistance of trusted people to help her write important documents:
Just let anyone try and put words in my mouth. I never got much education in the white way and I won’t take anyone using big words around me. I often say to people, ‘Don’t use them big jawbreakers. I don’t know what they mean. Tell me what you’re saying in words I can understand.’ Same with writing a formal letter. It’s hard for me to put it in the right way, so often I will get someone I trust to help me.”
Sue Anderson wrote an Afterword which is valuable as it explains the writing process between Kartinyeri and Anderson. It is clear that Doreen was in charge of writing her memoir. They started the project by constructing and signing a “contract of mutual respect and understanding.”
Any book about Aboriginal history needs to address the different ways European history and Aboriginal history are constructed. Sue Anderson says:
This book is not a comprehensive account of Dr Doreen Kartinyeri’s life, and particularly not of the Kumarangk affair. It is the way Doreen saw it; the way she remembers or doesn’t remember it. Certain issues and events were simply not important to her and so don’t feature strongly in her account, if at all. It is Doreen’s personal recollection of events in her life, and some episodes may be remembered differently by others.
Earlier in the book a statement that Aboriginal women presented at the Royal Commission is reproduced. The Aboriginal women stated:
… 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?
This book is compelling and emotional to read. The Hindmarsh Bridge controversy was a torrid, emotional episode in our history. The emotion ran strongly amongst white people as it did among Aboriginal people. It was evident from the media coverage that emotion and base motives clouded the history which was key to ensuring people were treated justly. Seeing this I withheld my opinion and followed the news feeling bewildered. There was no possibility for an outsider to understand the truth of this matter. Doreen Kartinyeri deserves to be listened to, as do other Ngarrindjeri people caught up in this episode.
This is a well written and constructed book. Each chapter in the first part of the book starts with a memory from the Hindmarsh Bridge controversy before going back to tell the story of Kartinyeri’s early life. This maintains the reader’s focus on the topic and reminds readers that the life she lived is the reason why she was an important source of Ngarrindjeri traditional knowledge and why she was a significant person in the Hindmarsh Bridge controversy.
Doreen Kartinyeri did not live to see this book published but her legacy lives on, not only in this book but in her important genealogical work in South Australia. She established the Aboriginal Family History Unit at the South Australian Museum and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia. This book has made me interested in reading other books by Doreen Kartinyeri.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more from Aboriginal people about their history. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to read this book.