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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.

Rowse's conclusion that without speaking to 'Dulcie Wilson's group' (itself a problematic formulation), I have written a 'truncated ethnography' is fatuous. As I have pointed out I included a wide range of voices and views in the book and consulted the sources accessible to me at the time. That more come to light continues to delight me and the ones I've seen thus far flesh out periods and places in greater detail. I wonder if Rowse would categorise what Fred Myers (1986: 299) terms 'the first full scale ethnography of the Pintupi' as 'truncated' in that he worked with six men and one woman (p.298) and thus had limited access to the knowledge of all the other women and uninitiated youths? Would Rowse consider the memory culture of the Lower Murray recorded by Ronald and Catherine Berndt 'truncated' in that two primary informants inform their 624 pages concerning the Ngarrindjeri?

Rowse could think of 'Dulcie Wilson's group' as a shifting alliance of individuals who in other contexts are members of other groups. In her own terms they are a 'diverse group of individuals' (Wilson 1998: 10). They are variously residents of Millicent, Murray Bridge, Raukkan, Adelaide and so on. They are Christians, working mothers, housewives, teachers, respected consultants, weavers, grand-mothers, daughters, story-tellers and much more. Their views on the possibility of the existence of gendered knowledge run from knowledge of sacred places to rejection of such a proposition (Stevens 1995: 258-76). Debates regarding the nature of representivity are not new in anthropology (see Weaver 1985). The need for one 'right' version arises at the intersection of ethnographic portrayals of cultures and legal conventions. In Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin my focus is on the ways in which meaning is found in certain signs, stories, feelings and relationships and the ways in which these do or do not resonate with the sourc es. It is not a check list of cultural traits.

Rowse muses how access to Dulcie Wilson's book might have further strengthened my work. It was of course published after my book but much of it had already appeared in other places and I drew extensively on these accounts. Hers is a heart-felt tale of living between two cultures, at home in neither, a woman both deeply affected by racism and determined to succeed on her merits and hard work. However, to address Rowse, apart from some extra details of life at Raukkan, there are no surprises in the text. Further Wilson's generalising about the behaviours of groups of persons and individuals lacks the sort of details which might advance an ethnographic account of the Ngarrindjeri. From having heard stories of Raukkan from a number of other sources I can often identify the people, places and events. For instance her reference to the group which gathered across from the Church (Wilson 1998: 56) is to a place known to many others as 'Bummers' Corner' where men sat to play cards but also to discuss men's business ( Bell 1998: 275-6).

Dulcie Wilson's is one voice of many in Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin and her book adds to the literature on the area. But I think it can also be profitably seen as a contribution to the growing literature, in particular memoirs and auto-biographies, authored by Aboriginal peoples. Further, it could be read within the critiques of post-colonial literatures and located within a comparative framework. In those contexts Dulcie Wilson's book has a different reach and texture. To quote Rowse, 'it is not entirely [his] fault' that he reviewed these two books together. However, if one of his goals was to focus on the credibility of the Ngarrindjeri claims to gendered knowledge and sites, I would have suggested some mention of Greg Mead's A Royal Omission (1995) and the report of Justice Elizabeth Evatt (1996) on the Heritage Act, might add balance to Chris Kenny's (1996) It Would Be Nice If[ldots] and Commissioner Iris Steven's (1994) report. Along side Robert Tonkinson's views on the nature of belief I would have menti oned Marion Maddox's (1999; 1997) subtle and sophisticated analysis of religion, the state and minority rights. The reader deserves to know that, male dominated though they be, there are numerous references to women's separation and women's rituals in the nineteenth and twentieth century sources. And, in my opinion, there are more interesting questions to be asked about belief systems than Rowse has chosen to address.

Reading Rowse's review and looking at the stack of books I have for review, I wondered, and not for the first time, why review? Perhaps from a review the reader could expect to be told something of content, argument, style of the book; something of the background of the author and the place of the particular book in her oeuvre and by reference to comparable literature. Of course one hopes a reviewer will have some expertise in the field(s) addressed in the book and that their critique will draw on that body of knowledge. Tim Rowse has written on a number of aspects of Aboriginal society but, as far as I know, he has no fieldwork experience in the southeast. He is quite explicit that he is unfamiliar with the sources. He has never worked with Indigenous women, nor to the best of my knowledge is he familiar with the current literature on feminist ethnography.

No matter. Rowse does have a Ph.D. in anthropology. He should be able to read the work of other anthropologists. His doctoral research was undertaken in central Australia where it appears he worked with men, was supervised and examined by men. If White Power White Flour (1998) based on this thesis is an indication of his ethnographic style, he does not favour direct voice. The view of Indigenous peoples comes to us predominantly through the written record. This may explain why he does not alert the reader to the experimental nature of my text, the interplay of direct and diverse voices and the ways in which these texts were negotiated, the dialogical research method, or the copyright provision which leaves rights in the stories with the tellers. His understanding of the ways in which anthropologists study the 'rules' of a society leaves me speechless.

As a trained historian, Tim Rowse might be expected to engage in a critical assessment and contextualisation of the sources, both those he cites and the ones on which I rely. Who are Chris Kenny, Ben Hills, Ron Brunton, Robert Tonkinson, Jimmy Weiner and why should we heed their opinions? Do they have a history with the Royal Commission? Given Rowse's interest in policy, I would have expected a more nuanced reading of Indigenous politics than a them-us, winners-losers model. I would have expected him to know more of the various political alliances between developers and Indigenous peoples which predate Hindmarsh Island, Mabo and even Woodward.

Given that my book is in constant dialogue with the historical sources, I would have expected a more serious analysis. Let me just give one example where his assumption that he can discuss 'cultural reproduction' from his historically pristine position creates confusion and misrepresentation. In chapter 4 I discuss the nature of ngatji at some length. Rowse probes what he says is 'my understanding' of the complex term. The chapter opens with a conversation at the kitchen table of Veronica Brodie, where her brother Doug had joined us and was explaining to me about ngatji, of which he says: 'Ngatji, mainly he's your friend, he'll guard you.' (Bell 1998:199). Here I am harking back to the quite extra-ordinary grammar and vocabulary of H.A.E. Meyer in the 1840s where ngayte is translated as 'friend, country-man, protector' (1843: 86). It is a translation that has continued currency today. It is not one I generated or that the Ngarrindjeri have learned recently.

My understanding of persistence of ngatji affiliation as part of Ngarrindjeri identity is presented in the context of family stories which underscore its centrality and illustrate ways in which kinship, land and religion are intertwined. Mrs. Maggie Jacobs, sister-in-law of the late Mrs. Leila Rankine, tells the story of the way in which the pelican led the way to the site where Leila's ashes were scattered. The men talk about the way their miwi told them they were at the right place. Veronica Brodie and the late Leila Rankine, (1932-92) an author, teacher and Ngarrindjeri sage, are the daughters of Dan Wilson (1890-1959), whose clan and ngatji details were recorded by the Berndts (1993: 309); the grand-daughters of Old Dan Wilson (1860-1921) who was a young man in Taplin's time, Radcliffe-Brown's (1918: 239) 'best informant', and who gave evidence in Royal Commission of 1913. The pelican, nori, is their ngatji and the family has left significant traces in the written record regarding its importance. And, de spite the omission in her book of which Rowse makes much, Dulcie Wilson knows her ngatji and I would suspect, along with her peers, considers it to be 'her friend'. I am not inclined to add that extra sentence Rowse desires to my statement that 'There are many ways of being Ngarrindjeri'. Rowse's dichotomy cannot be sustained.

Was it credible that stories regarding the centrality of a site complex at the Murray Mouth/Goolwa/Hindmarsh Island could have gone unrecorded by the various visitors, researchers and travellers in the area? Ngarrindjeri lives after all are the focus of the Rev George Taplin's 1859-79 journal, decades of Norman B. Tindale's extensive recording for the South Australian Museum, Ronald and Catherine Berndt's various visits between 1939-43, a Ph.D. by Philip Clarke (1994) and the jottings of explorers, naturalists, learned gentleman and more recently archeologists and various consultants. For context in answering such a question I ask that you read what I have to say of these sources, their considerable strengths and their inevitable weaknesses; note the continuities and discontinuities.

Rowse sets up his arguments as a series of dichotomies. There are winners and losers; oral cultures and written cultures; identity is this or it is that. He positions me in one camp and then finds I have erred by being so single-minded. This is an old debating ruse. With respect to what I have to say about oral cultures, the tyranny of the printed word and the ways in which Ngarrindjeri honour knowledge that comes from the elders while hoarding old documents, the use of an either/or model is less than helpful.

Rowse writes: 'In making these suggestions my intentions are cognitive and analytical, not moral or ethical.' But Rowse has already said that he doesn't have the information to make any informed cognitive or analytical decision about them. His decision is not cognitive, analytical, moral or ethical. What then informs his position? I do not have the space to take Rowse to task line by line. It is tedious, mostly beside the point. I would rather tell the reader about the finds in the archives, the stories of Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), the Meeting of the Waters, Ngurunderi, Jekejere, sorcery, ngatji, miwi, the many accounts of women's rituals, the many ways of being Ngarrindjeri. That is why I wrote the book. What I would ask is that you read the book for yourself. It bears little resemblance to the book reviewed by Rowse.


BELL, DIANE, 1998. Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A world that is, was, and will be. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

BERNDT, RONALD M. and CATHERINE H. BERNDT with JOHN STANTON, 1993. A World That Was. Melbourne: MUP.

CLARKE, PHILIP, 1994. Contact, conflict and regeneration: Aboriginal cultural geography of the Lower Murray, South Australia, Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of Adelaide, South Australia.

EVATT, ELIZABETH, 1996. Review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984. Canberra: AGP.

KENNY, CHRIS, 1996. It would be nice if there were some women's business. Potts Point: Duffy and Snellgrove.

MADDOX, MARION, 1999. Groups against the liberal background. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of NSW, Sydney.

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RADCLIFFE-BROWN, A.R. 1918. 'Notes on the social organization of Australian tribes.' Journal of The Royal Anthropological Institute, 48, 222-252.

ROWSE, TIM, 1998. White Flour; White Power. UK: Cambridge University Press.

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WEAVER, SALLY, 1985. 'Political representivity and Indigenous minorities in Canada and Australia.' indigenous Peoples and the Nation State, edited Noel Dyke. Newfoundland: ISER

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Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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