Promiscuous Sacred Sites: Reflections on Secrecy and Scepticism in the Hindmarsh Island Affair

by Ken Gelder and Jane M. Jacobs

© all rights reserved

For some time, Aboriginal claims over sacred sites have been dealt with institutionally: through governmental procedures, the discipline of anthropology and the legal system, mostly. Of course, in order to verify a claim in these spheres sacredness has to be talked about, but this requirement often seems entirely at odds with the structures of exclusivity which attend the Aboriginal sacred and which work to make it a special thing, a secret thing. So what happens when sites which are associated with secrecy enter into the public sphere of advocacy, policy and the law, as they must do when Aborigines seek to have such sites protected?

Contemporary legal, anthropological and policy provisions have in fact attempted to accommodate the protocols of secrecy associated with Aboriginal sacred sites. Land claim hearings regularly have what are called “closed” sessions in which secret sacred evidence can be presented. Civil courts have ruled in favour of stopping information Aborigines consider to be secret from being published. Management strategies for land over which Aboriginal interests are recognised routinely include measures to ensure the exclusivity of sites which have secret sacred content. Secretness may seem like a taken-for-granted category in these examples, which recognise it and try to treat it with respect.

But it is equally true that Aboriginal claims to land which are framed by secrecy can produce specific worries about truth and validity – a scepticism, in other words – which troubles the provisions which postcolonial Australia has installed in order to recognise Aboriginal sacredness. For those touched by scepticism, such claims are never only for the sacred but always also against development (“progress”), as if these two things are necessarily incommensurable with each other. For the sceptics, secrecy obscures (rather than secures) the validity of the sacred and suggests a possible future in which there might be endless unverifiable Aboriginal claims for it. So the protocols of secrecy which can be associated with Aboriginal sites are on the one hand recognised and accommodated, but on the other hand they can allow uncertainty and anxiety to flourish.

In the case of the Ngarrindjeri sites on Hindmarsh Island, South Australia, claims had been made by Aboriginal women to preserve their secret sacred women’s business in the face of developments which placed those sites at risk: as if sacredness and deveoplment were opposed to each other once again. The realm of secret sacred women’s business, of course, has in a certain sense already been touched by scepticism. It was not until the 1970s, under the influence of what has come to be called “feminist anthropology”, that this aspect of Aboriginal life was more widely documented. Until then, women’s business was assumed to play an ancillary role to the more important ritual life of men.

For some, this entanglement of Aboriginal women’s business and an avowedly reformist feminist anthropology has worked only to generate further doubts. Indeed, at times the public arbitrations associated with such claims pay as much attention to the validity of a “special interest” branch of anthropology as they do to the claims themselves. Certainly for South Australian journalist Chris Kenny, the claims by Ngarrindjeri women that Hindmarsh Island was a secret sacred site could not be distinguished from his view that the anthropologist who assisted them, Deane Fergie, had “staked her career on confidential female traditions and gender exclusivity”. 1

Kenny was one of a number of male contributors to a local magazine, the Adelaide Review, who relished the opportunity the Hindmarsh Island affair gave them to pillory Aboriginal women who claim sacredness and feminist anthropologists in the same breath. Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Adelaide, Austin Gough, saw feminist anthropology as an “industry capable of generating dense clouds of mysticism and tendentious rhetoric” 2 – a remark which rests far too easily with the stereotypical casting of women/Aborigines as irrational and secretive, yet cunning and interfering: obscuring rather than verifying. Gough tells us that the Hindmarsh Island affair has revealed “what universities have known for some time: that it is very hard to cope with feminist anthropology”. 3

What can we say about this bizarre expression of anxiety here? It is breathtaking in its confident invocation of “what universities have known”, and hopelessly archaic in imagining that feminism has been nothing but a bother to these modern institutions. But at the same time, this idiosyncratic remark does resonate with one feature of a larger concern: that the nation finds it “very hard to cope” with Aborigines.

In 1994, Ngarrindjeri women in South Australia claimed that a secret women’s site would be damaged by the construction of a bridge across the River Murray to link the mainland with Hindmarsh Island. On the advice of a report prepared by Professor Cheryl Saunders, the then Federal Labor Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, Robert Tickner. exercised his powers under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act (1984) and halted the construction of the bridge for a period of 25 years. Then in mid-1995 a group of Ngarrindjeri women publicly disputed the existence on Hindmarsh Island of secret sacred women’s business. Soon afterwards a Ngarrindjeri man, Doug Milera, who had originally supported the claim, publicly admitted that it was, to use a word that had begun to circulate through the case, a “fabrication”.

In response to these various challenges and revelations, the state government of South Australia appointed a Royal Commissioner to inquire into the Hindmarsh Bridge affair. The terms of reference were like no other legal inquiry thus far into Aboriginal claims over sacred land. The Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission (1995) was directed to investigate whether the claims by Ngarrindjeri women actually were a “fabrication” and, if so, what was its “extent” and “purpose”. It was an inquiry which, for sympathisers and sceptics alike, soon came to be emblematic of the nation’s contemporary condition. The right-wing sociologist John Carroll, from La Trobe University, took Hindmarsh Island as nothing less than symptomatic of a change in the minds of Australian voters that saw the end of the Keating Labor government in March 1996 and the election of the Howard coalition: “Central to the March 2 revolt was a sense of betrayal by the elites….What was seen as indulging a series of minority interests, selected according to politically correct criteria – highlighted in the Hindmarsh Island fiasco – brought outrage because of what it indicated, the abandoning of middle Australia”. 4

Hindmarsh Island could hardly be more central to the nation’s fortunes here. The strangeness of this perspective lies in the way it takes the “majority” as restrained, even disabled, in relation to minority indulgences (associated with “elites”). Indeed, Carroll’s remarks speak precisely to the dispossession “middle Australia” feels it has been dealt out by a nation which has seemed to give itself over so completely to “indulged” minority groups such as Aborigines!

This absolutely uncanny position found its embodiment in the Hindmarsh Island dispute through the fortunes of the developers themselves, Wendy and Tom Chapman, who had been virtually bankrupted by the delays to the proposed bridge. When Federal Court Judge Maurice O’Loughlin found in favour of the Chapmans and overturned the Federal government’s ban on the bridge, Wendy Chapman is quoted as demanding: “Give us back our possessions, give us back control of our destiny and allow us to get on with the development”. 5 So this couple become emblematic of a new social category – “dispossessed middle Australians” – which, through its very scepticism, comes to occupy an “Aboriginal” position!

At the centre of the Hindmarsh Island inquiry was the secret sacred women’s business. Ngarrindjeri women revealed aspects of the secret business to Robert Tickner’s investigator and then to the “feminist anthropologist”appointed by the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement to assist the women in preparing their case, Deane Fergie. But they also placed stipulations on the access the Minister and other government representatives could have to their secret information. The initial report to the Minister had two sealed envelopes appended which were marked “To be read by women only”. Those sealed envelopes became suddenly notorious when, under circumstances which could themselves only be described as obscure, they unexpectedly came into the hands of Liberal shadow minister for the environment, Ian McLachlan, whose staffers who opened the package and photocopied the contents, including the sealed envelopes addressed only to women. Such a flagrant breach of confidentiality produced a scandal in which Ngarrindjeri women publicly grieved and successfully called for McLachlan’s resignation.

We see here how the Aboriginal sacred can occasionally reach into the political centre of the nation with devastating effects. Indeed, what is so fascinating about this scandal is that the envelopes themselves came to embody the sacredness attributed to Hindmarsh Island. By opening the envelopes, this Liberal politician was seen to have violated the exclusivity of the women’s business of Hindmarsh Island, even though he was nowhere near the site itself. We can pause here to wonder once more about the ability of a sacred site to travel under modern circumstances: as if there is no telling how and where one’s sacred secrets may be received or what form those sacred secrets might take.

The issue of secrecy also became central to the way in which the Commission conducted its own business of investigating “fabrication”. In this context secrecy took on different and much more directed forms. Ngarrindjeri women who opposed the bridge began to give it a sometimes quite literal embodiment, by boycotting the Commission hearings and by tying gags over their mouths in their street protests. But secrecy was never silent here. Its “muteness” was always articulated and activated (the contents of a sealed envelope, a boycott, a gagged mouth), flowing through one public domain or another – if not the law courts, then a minister’s office and its photocopying machine or a select street location or a media industry which is always so willing to listen and report.

Indeed, the apparently promiscuous nature of secrecy in this affair – that it could flow into so many other places – was a matter of grave concern for the Royal Commission, which had already been worrying over the question of what it could or could not require to be “divulged” about the women’s sacred secret business. The Commission had to operate in line with Section 35 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (S.A.), which outlawed the unauthorised divulgence of information relating to Aboriginal tradition. So the court was obliged to produce itself as a closed, restricted space, carefully abiding by the protocols attached to Aboriginal secrecy: not calling for the sealed envelopes to be submitted, not issuing subpoenas to the boycotting women, and so on. Yet at the same time it was acutely aware of information about the women’s business being disclosed elsewhere, in other adjacent public forums.

As one lawyer, Michael Abbott, QC, complained to the Commissioner, the Aboriginal women “should not be allowed to disclose to (television personality) Ray Martin but not to you…They cannot have it both ways”. 6 So we have come to an uncanny situation as far as secrecy is concerned. How can it be “mute” in the courts if it is so continually compromised – so “promiscuous” – elsewhere? Should the courts – in order to preserve the “muteness” of Aboriginal secrets – seal themselves off from this “elsewhere” or entangle themselves in it? Is secrecy instrumental in the restriction of sacredness (within the law courts, for example), or does it actually assist in its amplification through entanglements that it inevitably gives rise to?

Consider the Royal Commission’s observation about the role of anthropologist Deane Fergie, who herself felt bound to the confidentiality of secrecy in the frame of the court: “she claimed”, the Commissioner writes, “that because of that undertaking she had no right to divulge information, even if it was already publicly known”. 7 How uncanny is this strange remark? It tells us that something (like the sealed envelopes) can continue to be unfamiliar, even when some of us might be already familiar with it! And this can only happen when secrecy and publicity ceaselessly solicit one another, as they do in the making of Aboriginal sacredness under modern conditions.

What about the role of scepticism in the Hindmarsh Island affair? Amongst other things, this affair demonstrated that scepticism is not the sole privilege of non-Aboriginal people. The most unsettling feature of this case was that a group of other Ngarrindjeri women (and men) came out in opposition to the claims for Aboriginal sacredness. This community was fractured rather than cohered. Ngarrindjeri women themselves split into two opposing groups: those who supported the claims for sacredness, the “proponents”, and those who did not believe those claims, the so-called “dissidents”.

In a book which was written in support of (and in tribute to) the dissident women, Women’s Business (1996), TV journalist Chris Kenny outlines the divisions between the women in some detail. Kenny’s project involves securing the fact that Aboriginal claims for sacredness were “fabricated” by the “proponents”. The scepticism of the “dissident” women comes to provide the compelling evidence for his own latent logic of disbelief – as if Aborigines and non-Aborigines can now, at last, have scepticism in common! In the process of providing evidence for fabrication, however, another narrative emerges.

Kenny presents an account of a crucial meeting held between the women in April 1995 to discuss the secret sacred claims. This account turns on an exchange between one of the proponent women, Doreen Kartinyeri, and one of the dissident women, Dorothy Wilson – shortly after the latter had met with Liberal MHR Ian McLachlan. As part of this exchange, Dorothy Wilson complained that the content of the secret envelopes was familiar to others, but not to her: “How come we’ve got white women who know what is in the secret envelopes…but none of us black women?” 8 This and other similar statements by Wilson focus not on the issue of “fabrication”, but the issue of exclusion: exclusion from the knowledges that sacred secrets might bring. In this respect, there is a sense that other women are privileged here, but the dissident women are not; some women are seen here to be in possession of sacred secrets, whereas others are seen to be dispossessed of secrecy.

It might be said that the dissedent women were not dispossessed for long. When the Royal Commission found in favour of “fabrication” just before Christmas in 1995, the dissident women became emblematic of a kind of “commonsensical” mainstream Australian position on sacredness. The media was quick to relish the Commissioner’s findings (“Lies, Lies, Lies”, read one headline), feting the dissident women as embattled heroes who had, in Kenny’s words, “done…their country a great service”. 9 So these so-called “dissident” women came to stand for the nation itself, serving the interests of “all of us”. Another dissident woman, Dulcie Wilson – in one of a number of public statements this group had made about the Hindmarsh Island affair – articulated this desire to align herself with the rest of the nation: “I personally believe that the greatest injustice to Aborigines in this country was the labelling of them as different”. 10

This affiliation between a minority group and the national interest makes these women appear both idiosyncratic and emblematic. They can be claimed by the nation (by the media, by politicians, and so on) because they seem to have acted out a mutual scepticism towards the sacred. These women come to provide the Aboriginal voice mainstream Australia had been waiting to hear; and yet they also embody mainstream Australia’s sense of its own uncanny dispossession.

Reflecting the kind of split in allegiance that Hindmarsh Island had produced, Chris Kenny’s book in defence of the “dissident” women was countered by another book by lawyer Greg Mead, which offered a completely opposite view of events: A Royal Omission (1995). While Kenny unleashes scepticism over the possibility of sacred secrets, Mead respects Aboriginal people’s right to secrecy and to their distinctive beliefs. His own scepticism turns instead upon the “dissident” women’s claims that there had indeed been a “fabrication”, a position that Kenny simply does not, and cannot, entertain.

One reason why these two books are incommensurable with each other is that they divide scepticism and belief up along party political lines. Mead’s own scepticism, for example, forms around the affiliations established between the “dissident” Aboriginal women, Liberal Party representatives and other right-wing sympathisers. Chris Kenny, on the other hand, has the opposite axe to grind. He argues that the proponent women were activated through alliances with trade unions, radical feminist anthropologists, environmentalists and Labor politicians. In particular, he targets Robert Tickner, as a man who believed in Aboriginal secrets far too readily.

These two books thus articulate a structure of affiliation which has been all-too-apparent in Aboriginal claims about sacred secrets: that the Right is sceptical (“rational”, “commonsensical”, masculine), while the Left is gullible (“indulgent”, feminine, too accommodating). Indeed, this may be about the only kind of difference remaining in a political field where the two parties have increasingly come to resemble each other: whether a politician supports an Aboriginal claim for sacredness with belief, or nullifies it with scepticism.

But does scepticism really nullify the Aboriginal sacred? Perhaps we should turn to Chris Kenny’s account of how one of the “dissident” women comes finally to reflect upon the way the Hindmarsh Island affair had changed her life. Dorothy Wilson, while noting that the “island never meant anything to us before”, goes on to conclude: “That place will always draw me now – I’ll go there – it’s become such a big part of my life”. 11 Kenny himself notes that “the island has assumed an importance in her life that she never thought possible”.12 So Kenny’s scepticism, with all its powerful affiliations, seems to talk up the significance of Hindmarsh Island even as it tries to talk it down. We can wonder here about how scepticism works uncannily to endow a place that “never meant anything…before” with such immense reach and powers of affect that even non-believers cannot help but give themselves over to it.


Jane M. Jacobs’s latest book is Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City, published by Routledge in September1996. Jane is a lecturer in Cultural Geography at the University of Melbourne.

Ken Gelder’s latest book is The Subcultures Reader, co-edited with Sarah Thornton, and published by Routledge in January 1997. Ken is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Melbourne.

Uncanny Australia: Sacredness, Modernity and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, by Ken Gelder & Jane M. Jacobs will be published by Melbourne University Press in 1998.


1. Chris Kenny, It Would Be Nice If There Was Some Women’s Business: The Story Behind the Hindmarsh Island Affair (Duffy and Snellgrove, Potts Point, 1996), p 103.

2. Austin Gough, “Hindmarsh Island and the Politics of the Future”, Adelaide Review, June 1995, n.p.

3. ibid., n.p.

4. John Carroll, “Howard’s forgotten people”, The Australian’s Review of Books, December 1996-January 1997, p 32.

5. “Chapman and Others v Tickner and Others”, Federal Court Reports, 1995, p 133.

6. “Secrets to stay sealed”, The Advertiser, 2 November 1995, p 2.

7. Iris E. Stevens, Report of the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission, State Print, Adelaide, 1995, p 3.

8. Kenny, p 147.

9. ibid., p 9.

10. Dulcie Wilson, “Telling the Truth”, IPA Review, 49, 1 (1996), p 39.

11. Kenny, p 242.

12. ibid., p 242.

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