Kumarangk 5214: this island is full of bodies

Teri Hoskin

Kumarangk weaving, Jessica Wallace

Kumarangk weaving, Jessica Wallace

Kumarangk (Hindmarsh Island) in South Australia is a site of cultural significance for Ngarrindjeri people. It is integral to their understanding of themselves and their dreaming. The 26 minute documentary Kumarangk 5214 had its world premiere at Hot Docs in Adelaide to a packed house. In traditional documentary style the story seems bigger than the film (and it is), as though the filmmaker (Jessica Wallace) is not there at all. Jessica and producer Rebecca Summerton worked closely with Ngarrindjeri women, in particular Sandra Saunders and Dr Doreen Katinyeri. This consultative, fluid mapping is the heart of the film, ensuring it remains sensitive to disparate voices. Kumarangk 5214 is very moving—the sadness so big, its truth so obvious. The film makes clear the tragic effects for Indigenous people of the vexed relationship between religion, politics, media and real estate development. Law and Lore.

Events before and since the building of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge constitute an ongoing cultural production that started about 170 years ago. It’s a complex (big) business that has hurt a lot of people and highlights the inadequacies of “impartial” law in cases of gender specific knowledge. Impartiality always serves something. Transparency here is a ruse. It also exposes the anomalies of current land rights legislation for urban Aboriginal communities: “It was the Urban Aboriginal who argued vociferously for land rights for all Aboriginals. And many of whom will never have that right and privilege to be a traditional owner or to be an Elder” (Harold Thomas, designer of the Aboriginal Flag, NAIDOC week speech commemorating 30 year anniversary of the flag, Adelaide, July 7).

The Hindmarsh Island Marina website greets the visitor with an image of still blue waters and a few boats. “From just $21,000 you can live the lifestyle of the rich and famous.” (accessed July 10). Here is the voice of ‘dispossessed’ middle Australia—One Nation territory. “Give us back our possessions, give us back control of our destiny and allow us to get on with the development” (Wendy Chapman, “Chapman and Others v Tickner and Others”, Federal Court Reports, 1995). In this belief structure, those who struggle for Indigenous land rights are elitist minority groups hell bent on getting in the way of ‘progress.’

Though the film is concerned with neither explanation nor expiation, there is a story of events made available, via a few spinning newspaper headlines and screen text. These familiar signs are places to linger—to listen to the women who fought so hard to protect the lands, skies and waters from further destruction.

One of the key elements in the life of the production was a weekend film-shoot. Some of the women gathered at Ngarrindjeri Pulge (house), Kumarangk. They came from their homes at Point Pearce, Croydon, Brompton, Largs Bay, Meningie, Goolwa, Murray Bridge, Victor Harbour. Jessica asked my daughter and myself to cook, keep the urn full and hot and the biscuit barrel topped up.

The women are welcoming and generous, but still, sometimes it’s uncomfortable—we are the outsiders at a place that is not ours among stories that, while not our business, we need to know exist. The women sit and weave, catch-up, yarn, drink cups of tea and Diet Pepsi and eat, argue, laugh, grieve. There are a lot of specific dietary requirements—some feel connections between the denuded body of the land and the bodies of its people—blood sugar levels are high.

Ngarrindjeri women’s weaving is different to the shuttle motion, the to and fro of warp and weft. The movement is more like a piercing, then making firm. Weaving is closely aligned with the telling of stories and the continuance of close family ties. Bundles of fresh water reeds are knotted by an action that loops over and under, through and with the preceding spiral. This method is manipulated to make a multitude of pliable folded forms that can, are, and have been used for holding, carrying, sheltering, and also for relaying stories (eg Ellen Trevorrow’s Seven Sister Dreaming weaving sculptures). The rushes have qualities peculiar to the place they grow in—on Kumarangk, sparsely now.

Some of the women have been given stories to look after, safeguard—an oral history passed from mother to daughter, aunty to niece—only women’s stories amongst women. One of these women is Dr Doreen Katinyeri, genealogist and author, who has made it her life’s work to gather and protect. She has so many names and family connections in her body, in her head. There is not a story here, there are many. Her task as custodian is to hold them safe.

Much has been made of the term ‘secret women’s business’ and alongside it, the charge of fabrication. “Wasn’t women’s business, secret business, it was more than that, it was our lifestyle, Kumarangk is concerned with birth.” (Maggie Jacobs, Ngarrindjeri Elder)

What constitutes ‘secret’ and for whom? Who holds the secrets and who has access? What remains unsayable? What happens to dispossessed oral cultures when knowledge as truth is based on a premise of archiving and recording? Some things shouldn’t be said, some secrets must be held, and the existence of others must be told. There is an intimate alliance between the colonial history of this place and South Australia now—the past is never only before.

The bridge is built, the court cases continue.

Broken faith in ‘impartial’ Law and Justice is palpable at the point in Kumarangk where Sandra Saunders (director, Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in SA, 1990-97) speaks: “I really believed that the law would protect the women’s interests…I just didn’t believe that society would do that to other people.”

The women are strong, or even “pretty deadly.” They have the strength that family connections and humour gives. At the court’s order, police recently searched Sandra’s house for a floppy disk: “…they did not find a floppy…found her remote control which was very funny as she’d been looking for it for months. All the whoopdido laughing caused the Channel 7 cameras to run in with excitement” (Wallace, email, July 11).

Jessica Wallace has also produced and directed other short films. She is currently a recipient under the 2001 SA Film Corporation Hothouse Scheme for rent-free office space and facilities plus a small living allowance. Here she plans to develop scripts, to “write. Investigate, joy, joy.”

With thanks to Jessica Wallace. The article title is a quote from Maggie Jacobs; all other quotes from Kumarangk 5124, writer/director Jessica Wallace, SAFC and SBS Independent, screening in the next series of Australia by Numbers, SBS, late 2001.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 18

© Teri Hoskin; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001