Response from Diane Bell


I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to Tim Rowse's lengthy review of Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin and I thank him for his role in making it possible. At the moment I am considerably constrained concerning matters on which I might comment as several of the key issues are currently under consideration by the Federal Court. This is a less than optimal position as there are serious matters of anthropology, history, law and policy embedded in the debates swirling around representations of the Indigenous peoples in the southeast of Australia and my work bears on a number of them.

At the outset let me be clear on two things which appear to trouble Rowse and others: my role as author and the range of voices in Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin. I undertook a consultancy, January -- June 1996 as part of the Mathews Report under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984. I spent three weeks in the area and did a preliminary evaluation of the sources before I agreed to work on the matter in 1996. Any opinion I formed was on the basis of research. Later in 1996 I negotiated a release from the conditions of that contract so that I could undertake participant-observation work with the Ngarrindjeri in the balance of 1996, 97 and 98.

Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin is not a forensic analysis of the Royal Commission. I was not involved with the Royal Commission of 1994, any more than I was involved in the work of the Human Rights Commission on the Stolen Generations (Wilson 1997). However, I was working with people whose lives were deeply affected by these two inquiries. They talked about them as personal, painful experiences and as part of their individual and collective understandings of being Ngarrindjeri in the late 90s in southeast Australia. Indeed I am hard put to think of a place where one might work in Australia without the research climate being shaped in some way by reports such as these.

On the basis of field and archival research, I generated a sketch of contemporary Ngarrindjeri society in which I identified a number of salient features. I worked with members of a number of families, from a number of different backgrounds who lived in a number of different locations. This included women and men who had been raised on the mission, had lived in camps, towns and cities, some had been institutionalised in homes. I spent time in Goolwa, Raukkan, Murray Bridge, Tailem Bend, the Coorong, Meningie, Adelaide, Point Pearce and on Hindmarsh Island. This was multi-site ethnography wherein divisions and disagreements, family feuds and struggles for access to scarce resources are to be expected. Indeed as multi-sited ethnography, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin stands as a contribution to the practices mapped by George E. Marcus (1995) in his Annual Review of Anthropology article. The portrait I offer is of a complex, dynamic, living culture.

Because the so-called 'dissident women' declined to speak with me--a decision I respected -- I relied on what had been recorded of their lives. While it would have been helpful to have been able to work with them more closely, I doubt that their cultural understandings and reflections would significantly alter my overall depiction of Ngarrindjeri culture. Along with the Ngarrindjeri with whom I worked closely, the 'dissidents' have a deep respect for their elders, cherish the stories of the old days they learned from their forebears, have a core set of beliefs regarding the power of certain birds to bring messages, respect for the dead, have crisp memories of sorcery practices and variously appreciate that age, gender, lineage, personal history are factors in terms of who knows what. Like the Ngarrindjeri with whom I worked, some of whom are closely related to the 'dissidents', there was no one view of the past. Knowledge is unevenly shared and there are quite deliberate decisions being made to disrupt the t ransmission of certain accounts of the ways of Ngarrindjeri forebears. …

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