Prior to the British colonisation of South Australia in 1836, the Ngarrindjeri people occupied a vast stretch of territory in the Lower Murray River region. Unlike many indigenous Australian groups, the Ngarrindjeri never experienced the trauma of forcible en masse removals from their "country". So, notwithstanding appropriation of their land, leaving most of them marginalised, and despite the loss of a good deal of Ngarrindjeri language, the conversion of many Ngarrindjeri to Christianity (albeit on their own terms) and intermarriage with non-indigenous Australians and other indigenous groups, the Ngarrindjeri have - remarkably - managed to maintain some custodial contact with their lands, the land-based spiritual belief system and the ceremonial knowledge accompanying it.
As a result of this contact history, the Ngarrindjeri, like other colonised peoples, have had to develop the ability to "live in ambiguity", as Diane Bell puts it in her magisterial work Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that Is, Was, and Will Be . This ambiguity of position has left the Ngarrindjeri open to charges of inauthenticity and syncretism apropos of their spiritual beliefs, which have become influenced by some elements of the Christian story, and their own pan-Aboriginal identity.
The ambiguities of the contemporary Ngarrindjeri would probably have remained a matter for internal discussion and private self-reflection had it not been for a very public dispute that cruelly catapulted the Ngarrindjeri into mainstream Australian history and politics. It began with a development proposal in March 1991, backed by the state Labour government of the day, that entailed the building of a bridge from the mainland to Hindmarsh Island ("Kumarangk"), a significant Ngarrindjeri area. To the practising Ngarrindjeri, the idea of permanently joining the island to the mainland was deeply disturbing, indeed sacrilegious. The existence of sacred knowledge about reproduction, restricted to women, was asserted by a group of Ngarrindjeri in an attempt to prevent the building of the bridge. Environmental groups also joined the protest.
Another group of Ngarrindjeri women, who were to become known as "dissident women", publicly denied any knowledge of a "secret women's business". The building of the bridge was stalled by federal government intervention and, in 1995, a royal commission was convened by the South Australian state government (now Conservative) with the express brief of determining whether or not "the secret women's business" was a fabrication. Despite the fact that most of the proponent women refused to appear at the Royal Commission, the commission found that the "secret women's business" had indeed been a fabrication. Its finding was based largely on the "fact" that past and present ethnographies of white male anthropologists who had studied the Ngarrindjeri did not mention women's business or make reference to the gendered nature of Ngarrindjeri spiritual belief. Of course, this raises all kinds of questions about the status of literate modes of knowledge transmission vis-à-vis oral, social and cultural modes in this post-colonial era, and points to what is considered by some to be a crisis in ethnography. In recent years, ethnography has become the subject of increasing anti-colonialist and feminist critique.
Bell is recognised as a leading feminist scholar in this field. She is widely credited with successfully demonstrating that the orientation of researchers towards their "subjects" and their readings of the lives of indigenous men and women in the past and present often involves a projection of the sexual politics prevalent in their own societies. Such an understanding clearly informs Bell's methodology and approach in Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin . For the white male anthropologists working in Australia earlier this century, including those who wrote what are acknowledged as seminal texts about the Ngarrindjeri, it was clearly unthinkable that Aboriginal women were privy to sacred knowledge, let alone sacred knowledge restricted to their gender. Ultimately, this divulges a great deal more about the gender regimes of white Australia than it reveals about the Ngarrindjeri or any other indigenous group.
In Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin , Bell sets out to give a voice to Ngarrindjeri women and men, while writing back to those earlier anthropologists. The dominant trope of the book is that of weaving -an activity central to traditional Ngarrindjeri society -and which, like other Ngarrindjeri practices, has survived in spite of its frangibility. Throughout her text, she interweaves the voices of Ngarrindjeri with her own. The product is a great deal more than a knee-jerk reaction by an eminent anthropologist in response to the findings of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission. It demonstrates par excellence that the jury ought still to be out on this case - regardless of the announcement in August 1999 that construction will now go ahead.
Bell's greatest achievement in Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin lies in her truthful rendering of the complexities and internal contradictions of the current Ngarrindjeri position, without underplaying the hard questions. My Ngarrindjeri friends, who have no choice but to continue to live in this so-called "settled" part of our nation state, report that they frequently feel under pressure, pushed into a corner and in a constantly beleaguered state. Yet, every Ngarrindjeri person I have spoken to applauds this book. Ethnographies of this sort are usually avoided for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the sense that attempting such a study is too hard. That Bell attempts and succeeds in this without sacrificing scholarship or standards, is a magnificent accomplishment.
Christine Nicholls is senior lecturer in Australian studies, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.
Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that Is, Was, and Will Be
Author - Diane Bell
ISBN - 1 875559 71 X
Publisher - Spinifex
Price - £13.95
Pages - 688