The untold story of Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island)


By Carla Gorton

The minister for Aboriginal affairs, Senator Herron, recently announced plans to introduce special legislation to exempt the Hindmarsh Island bridge from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and allow the completion of the controversial bridge.

The act provides a federal "safety net" to protect significant Aboriginal areas from threat of injury or desecration. It was intended as a last resort for Aboriginal people who have exhausted every other means available to protect sacred sites. However, it is a law which has failed Aboriginal people many times.

A statement by Sandra Saunders on behalf of the National Native Title Negotiating Team condemns Herron's decision: "It shows clearly that the Commonwealth government does not respect Aboriginal people and Aboriginal law — it is a racist attack on all Aboriginal people and our right to protect and practice our culture, maintain our spiritual beliefs and pass our heritage on to our children."

"The cost of inquiries into the Hindmarsh Island case is not the fault of the Aboriginal people concerned, but the failure of non-Aboriginal law to provide adequate protection for Aboriginal law and culture", Saunders says.

"The Ngarrindjeri have been through the ordeal of several inquiries and a royal commission to inquire into their spiritual beliefs. Their right to seek the protection of legislation which exists only for the purpose of protecting their culture has been blocked at every turn, and now they are being further stripped of that right."

In Adelaide, the Kumarangk Coalition, a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, has been active for a number of years in an effort to counter the considerable misinformation surrounding Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island).

One of the myths created by the establishment media and the royal commission (more accurately described as an inquisition) is that the "secret sacred women's business" is a recent invention.

In the context of European invasion and colonisation, it is understandable that only a few women appear to possess sacred women's knowledge. The Ngarrindjeri people of the Cooroong and Murray Lakes area were dispossessed of their land and scattered far and wide around SA. Government policy forbade speaking their language and practising their culture, and impeded the passing on of cultural knowledge.

Kumarangk Coalition member Suzanne Elliott told Green Left Weekly, "We believe the challenge for non-Aboriginal Australians is to understand the history of this country since white invasion and the effect of past and current government policies on Aboriginal communities — for instance, the effect of the assimilation policy on Aboriginal communities in regard to knowledge".

The coalition calls on all people of good will to support the Ngarrindjeri women in their struggle for justice, stating that the Ngarrindjeri have been shamelessly used to distract attention from other serious problems surrounding the proposed bridge.

The state government and now the federal government have created the illusion that Aboriginal people are the cause of the controversy. The fact is that the planning process for the proposed bridge was flawed in many respects.

The environmental impact statement took less time to prepare than any other in South Australian history and was totally inadequate. The state government dismissed the wishes of the 80% of residents who did not want the bridge built. There was no formal consultation with the Ngarrindjeri women.

Both Labor and Liberal governments involved in the controversy have treated Aboriginal heritage issues as less important than contracts with developers.

In 1990, the bridge developers, the Chapmans, revealed that they had no way of honouring an earlier deal to pay half its estimated $6 million construction cost. Then Labor Premier John Bannon secretly promised that his government would take over the full cost of building the bridge. In May 1993, a parliamentary committee demanded an investigation into the public funding of the bridge and recommended reassessment of the project.

In November 1993, Michael Armitage, then shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, wrote to the Lower Murray Aboriginal Heritage Committee: "The Liberal Party believes that the bridge ought not be built in the first instance, and we have spoken publicly about that ... In addition, the fact that there are matters of Aboriginal heritage to be taken into account merely add weight to the fact that this project ought to be curtailed ... I assure you of Liberal Party support for your cause."

Once in power, the Liberals set up the Jacob Inquiry to examine the financial and legal implications of the bridge contracts. When Justice Jacobs said that the government could not pull out without rendering it liable to pay compensation, the Brown government quickly decided to override Aboriginal and environmental concerns.

This is only some of the untold story of Kumarangk.

The Kumarangk Coalition is currently producing an information kit on the issue. A public meeting, organised with the Adelaide Reconciliation Action Group, titled "The Untold Story — Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island)" will be held on November 20 at Maughan Church, 43 Franklin St, Adelaide. Also planned is "The Long Walk", from Adelaide to Kumarangk, starting on November 25. (See pages 29-31 for further details.)