Steve Hemming (Flinders University, Australia)

In the wake of a long-running Aboriginal heritage dispute that became known across Australian as the Hindmarsh Island issue (e.g. Bell 1998), I believe it is important to re-visit the debates surrounding what has been characterized as the authenticity of Aboriginal claims or interests in burials in south eastern Australia.[2] The same discourses that have shaped these debates concerning the question of ownership of human remains have been influential in the Hindmarsh Island issue. Key questions that many would have believed to have been thoroughly explored in relation to the nature of Aboriginal cultures in ‘settled’ Australia appear to be unresolved and ‘primitivism’ remains the dominant discourse in some areas of academia but perhaps more importantly amongst the general community.[3]

In this paper I argue that burials and human remains have particular cultural significances to most Ngarrindjeri people. This is the case for indigenous Australians across the country. These beliefs necessarily shape the practices of contemporary Ngarrindjeri people. What some archaeologists may think of as ‘ancient’ and ‘old’ archaeological sites with no real connections to living Aboriginal people are places that have very particular cultural meanings for contemporary Ngarrindjeri people. Often this cultural significance is reduced to what is characterized as the arena of contemporary politics. This is a particular ‘primitivist’ construction of Aboriginal culture, as a people without politics (Sutton and Rigsby 1982). Contemporary urban or rural Aborigines are represented as a people with politics but without culture. As Rod Lucas predicted in his 1990 report entitled The Anthropology and Aboriginal History of Hindmarsh Island:

Hindmarsh Island (or any other development site) will become the focus of contemporary Ngarrindjeri concern precisely because development provides an arena for asserting identity, responsibility and authority. This does not make the concern any less genuine; it merely locates it realistically within the realm of politics (Lucas 1990:5.2.1).
I argue that there are also other distinctive cultural practices and beliefs surrounding Ngarrindjeri burials.

What can be characterized as a lack of disciplinary interest in the cultural significance of burials has contributed to the development of Aboriginal heritage legislation and its implementation, that fails to appreciate the cultural traditions associated with burials and contributes to the ongoing process of colonization of Aboriginal people and their lands.[4] This process is part of what Bain Attwood has described as a discourse of Aboriginalism existing in the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and Aboriginal studies more generally. Attwood (1992:xi) writes:

It is clear that Aboriginalism in all its forms has been complicit with the European invasion and the dispossession of Aborigines. Aboriginalism has depended on colonial power and colonialism has relied on Aboriginalism in its imaginative and corporate forms.
One of the central ‘stories’ of Aboriginalism in both anthropology and archaeology has been the location of ‘authentic’ Aboriginal culture to the so-called traditional parts of Australia. A further characteristic of this discourse is that indigenous people are seen to be frozen in time, in the case of archaeology, subordinated to prehistory (Attwood 1992:ix) and authentic only if unchanging.

Underlying the entire Hindmarsh Island issue has been the characterization of Ngarrindjeri culture, an Aboriginal culture of south eastern Australia, as inauthentic. The findings of the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commissioner Iris Stevens, that the whole of the Ngarrindjeri women’s business was a fabrication (Stevens 1995:299), have reinforced this notion. I have argued that these findings were based on a primitivist model of Ngarrindjeri culture and an ‘invented’ version of Ngarrindjeri ethnography (Hemming 1996).

It is clear that this approach to defining Aboriginal culture has been influential in shaping the government’s response to the definition of, and protection of Aboriginal burials. This combined with the primitivist constructions of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission to relegate Ngarrindjeri burials to the realm of archaeology and to locate Ngarrindjeri people in a past where authentic Aboriginal culture was seen to have once existed.

During the Hindmarsh Island debate the two relevant pieces of legislation were the South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 and the Commonwealth of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984. Within the South Australian legislation a separation is made between Aboriginal sites of significance and Aboriginal human remains. The Minister may remove human remains from where they are found if they appear to be threatened. This act would totally contravene Ngarrindjeri tradition and as Justice Matthews’ points out in her Commonwealth Report on Hindmarsh Island, the Commonwealth Act also provides for the disinterment of individual human remains:

the only protection afforded under Section 12 would necessarily involve the disinterment of the remains. Yet the disinterment of Ngarrindjeri remains is precisely the desecration which the applicants are seeking to avert. For Ngarrindjeri tradition requires that all ancestral remains should be left undisturbed in the ground where they were first buried (Mathews 1996:155).
When the Federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs was first made aware of burials as an issue on Hindmarsh Island, they were raised in association with what were described as archaeological sites. Their cultural significance to contemporary Ngarrindjeri people was not identified as their primary significance for the purposes of protection. This categorization of burials is clearly connected with the Aboriginalist discourse that constructs southern Aboriginal people as inauthentic, not possessing a living culture and subsequently separated from their lands and therefore their burial sites. Their ‘real’ Aboriginality is frozen in the past and its physical remains, found in the ground, are no longer connected to their contemporary existence.

In South Australia burials have most often been primarily categorized as archaeological sites partly because it is archaeologists who usually record and study them for the purposes of heritage protection. This results in their archaeological significance being given primacy over their contemporary Aboriginal cultural significance. There is an urgent need for anthropologists to take a major role, along with Aboriginal people, in determining the significance of burials under heritage legislation and to argue for contemporary cultural significance to be the primary consideration in relation to a heritage claim. The recent Mathews Report on Hindmarsh Island has moved significantly in this direction and with the involvement of several anthropologists in this inquiry, the contemporary significance of Ngarrindjeri burials has been given primacy. Mathews does, however, still have some difficulty conceptually locating burials in her discussion, placing them alongside of archaeological sites.

Ngarrindjeri beliefs and practices relating to burials provide connections between contemporary Ngarrindjeri people and parts of what is considered Ngarrindjeri country. The existence of burials in a ‘Ngarrindjeri’ area, such as Hindmarsh Island, provides more than an archaeological association with that place. The evidence given to the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission highlights the fact that many Ngarrindjeri people identify a broad cultural connection with Hindmarsh Island – they recognize it as part of Ngarrindjeri territory. Given this cultural association, it is clear that human remains on the Island will be considered to have at least a general kinship link with contemporary Ngarrindjeri people. This connection will be considered to be a close one by those Ngarrindjeri people who identify particular links to the Island. Several Ngarrindjeri people have also identified specific ancestors as being buried on Hindmarsh Island.[5]

Ngarrindjeri people relate to the burial sites and occupation sites on Hindmarsh Island in a way that is dictated by their traditions associated with death, burials and camp-sites associated with the ‘old people’. Burial sites provide contemporary Ngarrindjeri people with a physical and spiritual connection with their ancestors and their ‘country’. For Ngarrindjeri people the spirits of the ancestors are still present at these sites and they believe that these spirits can have an impact on contemporary people and events. If disturbed they can be very dangerous. I have recorded a number of accounts of older Ngarrindjeri people’s experiences as children holidaying on the Coorong, learning about the dangers of disturbing burial grounds. Ngarrindjeri today continue to teach their children about Ngarrindjeri beliefs and practices associated with burials. On Raukkan (Point McLeay), the cemetery is a place where the spirits need to be treated with caution. It is considered dangerous to be visiting after sunset because the spirits of the dead may follow the visitor back to the township, causing disturbances (see Clarke 1994:305). Young children were never allowed to attend funerals and in particular visit grave sites. People are still buried with their heads to the setting sun, following the path to the spirit world taken by the Dreaming ancestor Ngurunderi.[6]

In the early 1940s Ngarrindjeri people complained to Ronald and Catherine Berndt about the disturbance of burials by the archaeological activities of the SA Museum. My reason for mentioning it here is to note that in the early 1940s some of the older people, including Albert Karloan and Pinkie Mack, were outspoken about those who excavated burial mounds and camp sites, and sharply criticized Aborigines who helped Europeans in such activities, condemning them for desecrating their land. Throughout the area, many burial and /or corpse-disposal sites were remembered – especially those where mass interment took place (for example, as a result of small-pox epidemics) or where numbers of people were killed during intergroup fighting (as occurred opposite Piwingang and at Tiringgung) (Berndt et al. 1993:16).

There is a strong Ngarrindjeri belief that the bones of the dead (meraldi bones) should not be touched and should always remain where they have been buried. The spirit of the dead person will be disturbed if the remains are touched, or more drastically affected if they are removed. An earlier record of Ngarrindjeri concern about the disturbance of burials is recorded in the Adelaide Advertiser in 1903. This was during the controversy surrounding the ‘theft’ of Tommy Walker’s remains by the City Coroner. Ngarrindjeri people at Raukkan complained to the Secretary of the Aborigines’ Friends Association, Mr W.E. Dalton, about the removal of skeletons from Hindmarsh Island and sought their return.[7]

There are several well-known Ngarrindjeri burial grounds that have been used at least since European invasion and two continue to be used today.[8] Ngarrindjeri people are also aware of other, older burial grounds and, in some cases, of family connections with these areas. The burial ground near the caravan park at Meningie is one such example. The location of this site was known by the local Ngarrindjeri people and kept secret until it was threatened by the development of the caravan park (Hemming 1987). Through negotiations with the local council, this site is now fenced and protected. A second burial ground at the Needles on the Coorong is known to have connections with a particular family group. Earlier this century this Ngarrindjeri family ‘conserved’ the site when it was being threatened by wind erosion by dragging the roots of mallee trees on to the site to stabilize the area.

The Ngarrindjeri community has been consistent in its reaction to the removal of human remains. In the early 1990s the Lower Murray Heritage Committee conducted negotiations with the South Australian Museum regarding the return and re-burial of the Museum’s collection of Ngarrindjeri human remains. The discussions centred around the return of the Swanport collection. Victor Wilson, a senior Ngarrindjeri man, summed up community sentiments on the issue of human remains and burials by stating that “once old people laid to rest, leave them”.

Archaeologists in South Australia have been working within a structure formed by the restrictions of heritage legislation, the beliefs held by those who control this legislation and their own disciplinary interests. All of these factors are underpinned by a primitivist notion of Aboriginal culture which relegates Ngarrindjeri people to a position of having little ‘real’ connection with the burials of their ancestors. In the past these places and the associated human remains were reduced by science to the status of objects of study alienated from their Aboriginal cultural context. For archaeology these places and their remains were part of a different time with no connection to what was often categorized as the ‘half-caste’ remnants of the Aboriginal tribes that once inhabited these areas. Such language may no longer be used, but the structural effects of such primitivist discourse still impact on Aboriginal people, certainly from outside of academia but still also from within. Aboriginal people maintain that these places have cultural significance for them. Archaeologists and, perhaps more importantly, cultural anthropologists need to support Aboriginal people in researching and arguing this significance in cases involving site protection.


I would like to thank Tom Trevorrow, Liz Tongarie, Henry Rankine, Jean Rankine and Bruce Carter for their helpful comments on the ideas in this paper.


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Clarke, P. 1994 Contact, conflict and regeneration: Aboriginal cultural geography of the Lower Murray. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Adelaide.

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[1] Ngarrindjeri being the group term used by the indigenous people from the Murray River, Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes in South Australia.

[2] See Langford 1983; Pardoe 1991, 1992; Mulvaney 1991 and Bowdler 1992. For papers concerning closely related matters which arose in the so-called ‘La Trobe affair’, see Ulm et al. 1996.

[3] For discussions of primitivism in Aboriginal Studies see Attwood and Arnold 1992.

[4] See the South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 and the Commonwealth of Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984.

[5] Aboriginal people including Doreen Kartinyeri and Bruce Carter have told me that they have ancestors buried on Hindmarsh Island (pers. comm.).

[6] For a summary of Ngurunderi’s central position in early Ngarrindjeri funeral rites, see Hemming, Jones and Clarke 1989:31.

[7] Adelaide Advertiser, 25.9.1903

[8] For example, Raukkan cemetery and Murrunggung (Brinkley) cemetery are still used, while Pungkung cemetery and the Kingston Aboriginal burial ground are well-known but no longer used.