A Thousand Small Tragedies. "The Meeting of the Waters: The Hindmarsh Island Affair" by Margaret Simons. [review]
Two hundred years of interference are coming home to roost in an environmental disaster. And Margaret Simons's book contains some harsh implications for what this might mean to the Ngarrindjeri people, the heart of whose culture is here at the Murray Mouth, and the unique geographical formations around it. As Ngarrindjeri man George Trevorrow patiently but fruitlessly explained to the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission in 1995: 'We cannot, as Aboriginal people, separate environment and culture. They go hand-in-hand.' Simons, however, only touches directly once or twice on this matter of the actual damage to the river. Her subject is the battle over the building of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge, for which the local council had begun to agitate in the mid-1980s and which was finally completed in March 2001. Simons's summary of the story in her 'Prelude' is a model of succinctness: 'In the early 1990s there was a plan to build a bridge from Goolwa [on the mainland] to Hindmarsh Island, but Aboriginal women claimed the island was special to them for reasons that could not be revealed. They applied to the Federal Government for an order prohibiting the bridge. As part of this process some of the women's secrets were written down and sealed in two envelopes marked 'Confidential: to be read by women only.' The women were successful. The Federal Government banned the bridge. About a year later another group of Aboriginal women came forward and said the claim of what had become known as 'secret women’s business' was a hoax. A Royal Commission was called. In December 1995 it found that the secret women’s business was a fabrication ... In one way this book is written from the perspective of that moment — when the women were found to be liars, and a set of stories about the land was dismissed.' Behind this book, as behind the whole story, lies the question 'What is knowledge?' Simons brings out this question to look at it from time to time: she discusses the differences between knowledge and belief, the ownership of knowledge (a big and bitter issue among the anthropologists), and the conservatives' summary dismissals of 'untestable' evidence. As von Doussa’s judgment makes clear, the argument that the 'women’s business' was fabricated partly rests on a simple flaw in logic: the 'dissident women' and the anthropologists who supported them all argued that, if they didn’t know about it, then it couldn't possibly be true.