Anthropology and Aboriginal Tradition: The Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair and the Politics of Interpretation

By Tonkinson, Robert | Oceania, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Anthropology and Aboriginal Tradition: The Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair and the Politics of Interpretation


Tonkinson, Robert, Oceania


Early in 1995, the attention of the national media in Australia was captured by public allegations by certain Ngarrindjeri people that other Ngarrindjeri people had fabricated a secret 'women's tradition' concerning Hindmarsh Island and the surrounding lower River Murray region of southeastern South Australia, in order to stop the construction of a bridge [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Following the allegations, the South Australian State Government established a Royal Commission of inquiry, in June 1995, to investigate whether or not this set of beliefs was 'a deliberate fabrication'.

In this paper I consider some dimensions of the many kinds of conflict that emerged from the Royal Commission hearings during the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair. This affair is not the first in which allegations of fabrication of Aboriginal cultural knowledge have been made,(2) but it is probably the first time that such allegations were made publicly by Aboriginal people; also, it is by far the most publicised and controversial instance to date. To at least one observer, Hindmarsh was the culmination of an inevitable historical trajectory of sociopolitical processes relating to Aboriginal land rights as a contested field in contemporary Australian society, and one that has seriously damaged the Aboriginal land rights movement and the anthropology profession (Brunton 1995, 1996a, 1996b; Kenny 1996). To others, the affair constituted a political assault on Aboriginal people and their identity and heritage (Fergie 1996), and undermined the credibility of heritage protection at every level of government in Australia. In this vein, Tehan (1996:10) suggests that

[i]t [the Hindmarsh affair] also provides clear evidence that the dominant political and legal system has yet to find a language and means of according any significant recognition to indigenous systems of law, regulation and belief which does [sic] not operate to appropriate those systems.

Similarly, Charlesworth (1997:19) concludes that

the epic of Hindmarsh Island/Kumarangk suggests major flaws in the Australian legal system with respect to protection of Indigenous heritage. It has underlined the inability of Australian law to accommodate certain forms of belief and knowledge in the little boxes it has established.(3)

In any event, the affair has bitterly divided the Ngarrindjeri people, and has incited anthropologists and related professionals to rancorous public debate. Almost without precedent, this quasi-judicial process (the Royal Commission) has directly questioned anthropological practice. The anthropology profession has also been cast in an unflattering light outside the proceedings of the Royal Commission, via public debate and media coverage surrounding the affair. These criticisms come at a time when the profession is already experiencing strong attacks 'on the credibility of anthropologists as expert witnesses and, to some extent, on the system which makes their presence necessary or desirable within the world of the law' (Sutton 1996:84).

A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF THE MAIN EVENTS

Plans for a large marina complex on Hindmarsh Island date from 1980, and for the associated bridge project from 1989. Public opposition to the bridge emerged late in 1992 among local residents protective of their visual amenity and/or fearful of the bridge's environmental impact.(4) The opponents of the project drew strong support from various conservationist groups concerned about disturbance to wetlands and associated bird populations on the Island. Hindmarsh Island had originally been the territory of three Ngarrindjeri clans but, following European settlement there from the 1840s, the Ngarrindjeri residents suffered substantial depopulation and over time were displaced; in 1910, the last residents were relocated to Point McLeay.(5)

Aboriginal participation in anti-bridge activities began in late 1993, when the Adelaide-based Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM), as well as local Ngarrindjeri bodies, notably the Lower Murray Aboriginal Heritage Committee (LMAHC; now the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee), became actively involved with the anti-bridge movement.

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