On September 20, 2002 the Ngarrindjeri Nation of South Australia finally got some justice. National media reported the discovery of the 200-year-old bones of a woman and her baby daughter at Goolwa, outside Adelaide. Eighteen months earlier, the Hindmarsh Island Bridge had been opened with much fanfare, linking Goolwa to Kumarangk (traditional name for Hindmarsh Island). The bridge was built on a birthing site sacred to Ngarrindjeri women. The recently-found remains vindicate their decade-long battle to protect their secret spiritual knowledge against desecration.
The Ngarrindjeri women were on the front line of a two-centuries-old conflict between Aboriginal and capitalist systems. They were up against a coalition of powerful vested interests: developers and their Labor and Liberal Party backers, who used the legal system and the media industry to do their dirty work. To “prove” that the site was sacred, the women had to put their oral tradition on paper — only to have their secrets opened, read and photocopied by the staff of a Federal Liberal MP. The charade concluded with a Royal Commission “finding” that their beliefs were a “hoax.” All along, the media published this racist and sexist slander.
The women knew not to rely on the courts for justice, and they turned to the community. Activists in the environmental, feminist, socialist, union, Aboriginal and human rights movements took up the fight. The 5th Women & Labour Conference in Sydney heard Doreen Kartinyeri, a Ngarrindjeri custodian of the women’s secret business. The 500-strong gathering unanimously condemned the Royal Commission and supported Radical Women’s call for protests in every city. RW organised a rally outside the SA Government Travel Centre in Melbourne, at which Ngarrindjeri women and supporters from the Kumarangk Coalition spoke. With the backing of the SA trade union movement, community pickets delayed construction.
The developers got their bridge, but the war is not over. The Ngarrindjeri women, like their Mirrar and Yorta Yorta sisters, have built something ultimately more powerful than their enemies in high places: the solidarity of working people.
The local Alexandrina Council recently apologised to the Ngarrindjeri for the pain and suffering. Good start, but there must be more — such as compensation for the pain, suffering and theft, paid by those who profited; full land rights to the traditional owners; and recognition of their sovereignty as a nation. Only then will we see justice done.