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13 May 2008

Diane Bell

Diane Bell: I grew up in the '50s when, for girls, the options weren't really great and I left school before I'd finished high school and my options were be a secretary, be a teacher or a nurse. And I opted for a teacher. And then it took me another 10 years to actually get back into the education system to finish high school and to go to university. And by that stage, I had two small children and a marriage and a divorce behind me.

Because I was an older person at university and I had other responsibilities, I got caught up in a number of actions, particularly around child care. I was called in by the vice-chancellor, who explained to me that universities were not made for people like me. And I remember saying, "Well, Vice-Chancellor, universities will have to change."

When I'd finished my honours degree, I was looking around for a PhD topic and I knew I wanted to work on something to do with women because I knew the life that was expected of me was not the life I was living. And so I was very interested in that kind of gap of how women are perceived and what women might actually want to do and be doing themselves. And I was really fascinated by the literature on Aboriginal society, particularly the material on religion.

So when I went into the field in 1976, and I was there for two years with my children, I was interested in seeing what would it be like to locate myself as a woman, with my children, to live with the women in their camps and, if possible, to learn something of their ceremonial life. I guess, professionally, one of the things that really interested me coming out from that field experience was how do you make sense of a society where women have got this very rich religious life and men have got this very rich religious life and they cross over at certain points but at other points they're separate? So how does the society function? And if the literature has only told us about one part of that, about what men are doing in very great detail and very fine ethnographies, but what does it then mean if you start to say, "But women are doing all these things"? They are also traditional owners, they also have sacred sites, they have songs, they have artwork. What do you then do in terms of describing the whole society? So, intellectually, that was the challenge.

While I was finishing my PhD and writing 'Daughters of the Dreaming', this was the period when land rights, issues of law reform, issues of registration of sacred sites - all of these things were part of the agenda, political agenda. And I participated in a great deal of that activity around making sure that women's interests in sacred sites were acknowledged, that, through land claims, that their interests in land and rights in land became part of the land claim and therefore became part of the determination. And that actually took me through the '80s, doing that work.

I became professor of Australian studies at Deakin University and continued actually working in the area of Australian studies where I could bring the Aboriginal studies into a dialogue with Australian history and Australian sociology. And that was quite an important period, actually, trying to figure out how to do that.

In the late '80s, I was invited to apply for a position in the US. And I'd been in the US for a decade and one day I had a lovely phone call from Australia asking me if I would like to come and do three weeks work with the Ngarrindjeri. And of course I said, "Yes, I'd love to come and visit, but I will only come and do it if I have the ability to say no if I don't think there's a case to be made." And I was hooked after three weeks. I could see that there were intellectual problems. I could see there were professional issues. I could see there was a story to be told. I could see that the archives did support what the women were saying. I travelled around with the women and I could see that there were definitely attachments that they could talk at length about. And so that 1996 I did that first work. And I've actually been working with the Ngarrindjeri ever since.

I'm working on a book at the moment, which should be out a little later this year. The new book is called 'Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminnar Yunnan', which means 'Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking'. And as they say, we need more kungun and we need more yunnan. We need to speak more and we need to be heard more. I think there's a lot to be learned from Aboriginal women - from their strength, their dignity, their ability to survive under enormously oppressive conditions and to do it triumphantly.

I think, if I'm looking ahead, after the apology and thinking what I'd like to see in terms of Native title and land claims and protection of sites, I'd really like to see it not in a court process, which is adversarial, where people are having to prove who they are. I think Aboriginal people shouldn't having to be proving who they are. We know that they're the traditional owners of the country. The Mabo decision in 1992 told us that. And I think, in the spirit of healing and moving forward, what we need to be having is allowing people to assert who they are. And there's plenty in the stories in order to be able to see that people are telling you a story which has meaning for them. And I don't think holding it up to a microscope, looking at it under a microscope, actually gets you any further.

I think, as a nation, we're at an incredibly important point in our history. We can move forward with compassion and decency and equality - all the things that Australians value, things that I think of as real Australian values. And for myself, as somebody who's a writer and an anthropologist and a feminist, there's a number of things that I'd like to contribute to that kind of world and that thinking. But I can't imagine there ever being a time in my life when I wasn't intellectually curious about what was going on where I wasn't wanting to use the professional skills I have to address those, and I wasn't wanting to engage those problems and try to make people ask the right questions. And I think that's always the issue. Have we asked the right question? Because if we don't ask the right questions, we're never gonna get the right answers.