Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Dianne Bell
Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1998. Paperback. RRP $29.95.
Reviewed by Deborah Bird Rose
‘We know that much?’ aid one woman when she saw my weighty folder.... ‘that’s what culture is?’ said another. ‘We have plenty of that’ (p. 368).
Ngarrindjeri women’s comments to anthropologist Di Bell encapsulate much of the tragedy of Aboriginal people in the southern settled portions of Australia. An Aboriginality defined in terms of dramatic otherness – language, song, dance, ritual exclusion, and geographical remoteness – has been used to generate the proposition that Aboriginal people in settled Australia have ‘lost’ their ‘culture’. Thus, when people such as this Ngarrindjeri mob in South Australia seek to pursue their Aboriginal rights, their struggle starts from a basis of near zero credibility. The ethnographic record of Aboriginal Australia is shockingly slim concerning contemporary Aboriginal society in the southern settled areas of the continent.
Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin seeks to redress some of this neglect. Written in the shadow of devastation cast by the Hindmarsh Island controversies, this study uses metaphors of weaving to bring living labour, stories, beliefs, feelings and memories into conversation with history and with earlier ethnographic notes and studies. Bell states: ‘I was writing ethnography, not a polemic about the Royal Commission’ (p. 372). The book is not a polemic, but neither is it an ethnography in the conventional sense of the term.
I will not try to replay the Hindmarsh Bridge controversies for those who might somehow have missed them; the book contains ample information as well as chronologies. In brief summary, one of these controversies followed a scenario already familiar from disputes such as Coronation Hill and the Alice Springs Dam Site in which developers’ objectives came into conflict with Indigenous people’s responsibilities to protect their sacred places. As in the Dam Site case, this controversy tests the limits of democracy by exposing the disjunction between an Indigenous system of restricted intellectual property and the requirements of an Anglo-Australian legal system for open scrutiny. As in the Dam Site case, this radical cultural disjunction also led to gendered conflict. Do Aboriginal women have to violate their own law in order to preserve their sites, and what becomes of sites if the law which sustains them has been violated? Justice Evatt’s Review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth) urges the implementation of procedures to protect gendered confidentiality, but her recommendations have yet to be adopted.
Hindmarsh also saw the public eruption of a dispute amongst Ngarrindjeri people themselves over the truth of the assertion that the area of the proposed bridge is sacred. Bell summarises the quality of the Hindmarsh controversy thus: ‘It pitted anthropologists against anthropologists; provided the local media with a tale of intrigue; and left the general public tired, vexed, and disinclined to believe the word of these politicised Aboriginal women applicants’ (p. 10). To this I would add that it pitted oral history against the written words of highly respected anthropologists, and thus posed questions not only about culture, colonisation and gender, but also about oral traditions and the nature of expertise.
Diane Bell, a distinguished Australian anthropologist noted especially for her work on Aboriginal women’s law and ‘business’ was engaged in 1996 as a consultant in bringing the women’s case before Justice Jane Mathews. Subsequently she returned to the region in the hopes of working with Ngarrindjeri people as an independent researcher rather than a consultant. According to Bell, the ‘dissident’ women (those who oppose the anti-bridge women) chose not to speak with her; the research therefore focuses on a small group of Ngarrindjeri people, and on the massive historical record in which the lives of their ancestors has been documented. Produced rapidly because of its intense topicality, the book is nevertheless thoroughly researched, and wonderfully illustrated with historical and contemporary photos. Like anything written about this area and these people, the book treads the scarred ground of the Hindmarsh battlefield and is constantly alert to the prospect of litigation.
Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin falls into the category of books which are likely to be valuable to almost all sectors of the reading public, and at the same time to be criticised by almost all sectors of the reading public. Although Bell asserts that her study is an ethnography, I think it is fair to say that few ethnographies have been written under such pressures of time and litigation. When one considers that nothing written about the Ngarrindjeri can be free of the context of the dispute, and when one considers the large number of people who are being sued or threatened with lawsuits (some for millions of dollars), then it is clear that the context for the research and writing of this book is highly unusual. When one considers that many Ngarrindjeri people did not wish to participate in Bell’s research, and that the Royal Commission’s bias toward written documents casts a painful shadow across living culture and memory, it is again clear that this is not an ethnography in the usual sense. It is a study which cannot discuss contemporary culture without excluding the views of some people, and at the same time it must discuss contemporary culture in response to certain charges: the charge that the Ngarrindjeri people, unlike other Aboriginal people in Australia, did not have religious business, or sacred ritual; the charge that their account of the Seven Sisters Dreaming was a recent invention; the charge that Ngarrindjeri women had never practiced a form of ‘women’s business’. No study could claim to describe Ngarrindjeri culture without addressing these issues, and yet few ethnographies start from a position in which such key social issues are so contested.
Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin demonstrates the urgent need for ethnographies of Aboriginal culture in settled Australia in regions that are not under the cloud of such debilitating litigation, and it also argues powerfully for the importance of holding the written word to its own temporal and cultural context. Anthropological expertise is located in time, space and culture; just as societies themselves are neither atemporal nor unchanging, neither is anthropological knowledge.
Aboriginal people in Australia will read this book with great interest. Bell’s high standards are exactly what a subject group (there is an unfortunate and unpleasant ambiguity in the use of the term ‘subject group’ here – can you think of a more neutral alternative?) has the right to expect of anthropology: ample consultation over the use of the materials generated in the course of the research; written work produced in relations of respect, and conveying the substance of that respect to readers. Ngarrindjeri people who did not want to participate in the study had the opportunity to say ‘no’; it was proper to ask, and proper to respect their views.
I hope that lawyers and others who are interested in the law will take a hard look at this study and consider what happens to the lives and words of people when they are subjected to intense and hostile scrutiny. As I read Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin I kept encountering human beings whose living culture had been lacerated by the law. Evidence in court can and should be tested, but this is a very poor system indeed if it intends to subject whole lives and whole cultures to hair-splitting tactics, or to hold them hostage to external texts frozen in time.
Does an adversarial system necessarily impoverish people, so that the mysteries of their lives are squandered in political contestation? There are issues here for lawyers to consider, but it is important for all of us to consider how the effects of hostile scrutiny ramify. When anthropologists know that every word may be used against them in court one day, we are diminished in our capacity poetically to communicate the flesh and blood of daily life, and to report on matters that might one day be construed negatively. One clear alternative to writing under the hostile gaze is silence; such silence is a building block of tyranny. Thus, the Hindmarsh controversies test the limits of democracy for scholars too.
In my view, Diane Bell is at her best when she addresses issues of social justice. I suggest beginning with the Epilogue, which sets the stage for this remarkable study with an impassioned espousal of the values of civil society.
Deborah Bird Rose is a Senior Fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.