The Alice Springs Dam Case

In the Alice Springs Dam case I found that there was undisputed and long authenticated evidence of the beliefs in question. The sites in question derived their significance from two Dreaming tracks that converged in the area. One was the path of Two Women whose mythical journey started far to the southwest in Pitjantjatjara country, the other the path of a group of Uncircumcised Boys who travelled from the area of Port Augusta to the north coast of Australia. Women from distant lands and tribal groups who shared the Two Sisters story had on several occasions travelled to Alice Springs to support the claim of the Arrernte women, who put their views forcibly to me in a large meeting from which all other men were excluded. They confided to me, for transmission to the Minister, ‘secret women’s business’ that would normally never be disclosed to men.

With the co-operation of the Northern Territory Solicitor-General, who represented the Territory Government, and acted throughout with the utmost professionalism and good sense, arrangements were worked out for handling the ‘secret women’s business’. It was agreed that it could be revealed to the Minister and myself, as the women had volunteered, and supplied to the Northern Territory Government on the basis that the details would be confidential to a female anthropologist employed by the Government. Fortunately in the Territory the parties were accustomed to devising ways of dealing with confidential material in land claims, and one of the problems on which the Hindmarsh Bridge application later foundered was thus avoided.

Investigating the claim was a novel and moving experience for me. I recorded some of the problems I wrestled with in the following section of the report, which was frequently quoted from during the subsequent Hindmarsh Bridge disputation:

7.1.9 To reveal these beliefs to anyone not entitled to know them under Aboriginal tradition (including other Aboriginals and even people of the opposite sex in the same community) is itself a kind of desecration, and it has been done reluctantly and painfully on the basis that it is necessary to prevent the destruction of important sites. I feel a personal obligation to respect the confidentiality of the information given to me. Moreover, I would not wish my report to be the vehicle for the public trivialisation and ridicule of Aboriginal beliefs in the media by uncomprehending people, a situation which was such a shocking feature of the debate over Coronation Hill.

7.1.10 It is difficult for those of us who have grown up in Western European culture to appreciate the nature of the attachment to and concerns about such areas on the part of Aboriginals. Our perceptions of values which we categorise as spiritual, religious, sacred, traditional, and political are shaped by our own culture and do not necessarily fit with categories or with concerns in Aboriginal culture. This is exemplified by the absence from the English language of any word corresponding to what we unhappily translate as ‘the Dreaming’. The anthropologist's report in this case stresses, for example, that our division between sacred and secular realms does not correspond to traditional Aboriginal ideas. The Western notion of knowledge as objective and scientifically based does not square with the Aboriginal notion of knowledge, which in the fields with which we are concerned, derives from authoritative statement by a person who, in terms of traditional authority, was qualified to define the knowledge.

7.1.11 Western civilisations have long been accustomed to the notion of traditions as being recorded and authenticated in written texts, and more recently to their being interpreted and their correctness tested in a rationalist manner in the light of the results of historical and scientific inquiry. It is not easy for those who have grown up and been formally and informally educated in this culture to understand and empathise with traditions communicated by oral narrative, song, art and dance, and having an authority quite independent of historical, scientific and rationalist scrutiny.

7.1.12 One way in which Aboriginals stress the importance of sites in the area is by voicing the belief that destruction of the sites would lead to devastating social consequences and particularly consequences to all women, including non-Aboriginal women, and to relations between the sexes. While I refer to this as an indication of the degree of importance attached by Aboriginals to the sites, I warn against the tendency of Europeans to trivialise Aboriginal beliefs by treating such fear of consequences as their essence.

7.1.13 I can assure the curious that the confidentiality is not because the information would be found titillating, shocking or even particularly interesting by Western standards. It simply lacks significance in Western culture, and I could not claim to appreciate its significance to Aboriginals. The issue should not be whether, judged by the norms and values of our secular culture or our religions, the sites are important, but whether they are important to Aboriginals in terms of the norms and values of their traditional culture and beliefs. In other words the issue is not whether we can understand and share the Aboriginal beliefs, but whether, knowing they are genuinely held, we can therefore respect them.

It became clear to me that there were strongly and widely held beliefs that would be severely affronted by interference with the sites, that a significant number of women would suffer great anxiety because they believed that apocalyptic consequences would follow, and that many Aboriginals saw the matter as a test case of white Australia’s respect. But should this prevail against the building of a dam that would not only protect the town from flood damage, but save lives of people who might otherwise be drowned in floods, as a number of Aboriginals had been in the past?

I found the issue easier to resolve than I had feared. It is not possible to go into the matter fully here, but a detailed examination of the dam proposal showed that by normal engineering standards the dam was uneconomic, returning over its life less than 33 cents in material terms for every dollar spent, and that there were other ways of reducing flood damage to the town. The case for the dam therefore rested heavily on its potential for saving lives. However investigation showed that there had been seven drownings in 20 years, and most of these, probably all, could have been prevented by relatively simple steps that could be implemented in the future. I asked rhetorically whether anyone who had $20 million to spend on saving Aboriginal lives would use it on building this dam.

On receipt of my report the Federal Minister prohibited the building of the dam.