Woman Kartinyeri, Doreen (1935 - 2007)

Point McLeay Aboriginal Reserve, South Australia, Australia
Aboriginal activist, Feminist and Historian

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Doreen Kartinyeri was a Ngarrindjeri elder and historian, best known for her role in the controversial Hindmarsh Island bridge affair in the 1990s.

Kartinyeri was born in 1935 to Oscar and Thelma Kartinyeri at the Point McLeay Aboriginal reserve at the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia. After the death of her mother in 1945, she was sent to the Fullarton Girls Home in Adelaide. Here she was trained as a domestic servant and was sent out to work at the age of thirteen. After her marriage she moved to the Point Pearce Aboriginal mission on Yorke Peninsula, where she had nine children and fostered twenty-three. It was here, she claims, she first heard the stories associated with Hindmarsh Island or Kumarangk (in Ngarrindjeri).

While living at Point Pearce, Doreen Kartinyeri collected the histories and genealogies of the Indigenous families of Point Pearce and Point McLeay, much of which had been lost during the processes of colonisation. She published a number of books on the area, which led to her being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Adelaide and to a job setting up the Aboriginal Family History Unit at the South Australian museum in Adelaide.

In 1993, when the state government proposed a bridge be built between Hindmarsh Island at the mouth of the Murray River and Goolwa, a small town on the mainland, Kartinyeri became the driving force of a group of Aboriginal women opposed to the plan. They claimed the island had spiritual significance for local Indigenous women for reasons that could not be disclosed as they were specifically women's business. Early in 1994 the group was successful in applying to the federal government for a heritage order to prohibit the bridge being built.

At the time, many members of government and the public were sceptical about the claims and opposed the ban. There was more controversy a year later, when some other senior Ngarrindjeri women asserted they had no knowledge of any 'secret women's business' and that the claims were untrue. A Royal Commission on the matter found in December 1995 that the secret women's business had been fabricated. The Howard coalition government, which took control of federal parliament in March 1996 authorised construction of the bridge which was completed in 2000.

Discussion over the validity of the claims has continued, with arguments both supporting and denying the possibility that the claims of significance were invented. In 2010, the South Australian government formally acknowledged that 'women members of the Ngarrindjeri traditional owners were genuine in the mid-1990s when they said construction of the bridge would violate their most sacred beliefs' (Nason). Kartimyeri's credibility was thrown into doubt during the affair, but she continued to defend the truth of her claims and predicted the Murray would stop flowing because of the bridge. She took a large brunt of the negative responses to the affair.

If I had known what was to happen ... I would absolutely have done the same thing no matter what ... But one thing that bothered me was that I could feel my hatred for white people coming back. ... My supporters and I were getting racist hate mail and the media turned on us. They took to calling me 'Mrs' Kartinyeri, even though it wouldn't take much to find out that Kartinyeri is my birth name. At the same time I was an 'activist' and making all the women's knowledge up. What for? Some had it that the men had put words in my mouth. It just wasn't possible for the white public to accept that I was a custodian of traditional women's knowledge. (Kartinyeri and Anderson, 87)

Doreen Kartinyeri died of stomach cancer in 2007. She was a 'full, vibrant and complex human being' (Simons, 2007) whose role in leading Aboriginal women in protest brought attention to their power and beliefs. Her genealogical research remains a vital source for Aboriginal history.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Doreen Maude Kartinyeri interviewed by Sue Anderson in the Bringing them home oral history project, 11 April 2000, ORAL TRC 5000/104; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Kartinyeri, Doreen, Ngarrindjeri Nation: Genealogies of Ngarrindjeri Families, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 2006. Details
  • Kartinyeri, Doreen and Anderson, Sue, Doreen Kartinyeri: My Ngarrindjeri Calling, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2008. Details
  • Nile, Richard and Ryan, Lyndall, Secret Women's Business: The Hindmarsh Island Affair, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 1996. Details
  • Simons, Margaret, The Meeting of the Waters: The Hindmarsh island Affair, Hodder Headline, Sydney, New South Wales, 2003. Details

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Doreen Maude Kartinyeri interviewed by Sue Anderson in the Bringing them home oral history project
11 April 2000
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection