Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 127 pages; 2016. Translated from Walmajarri.
Today is Australia Day, an occasion I haven’t celebrated for 21 years because I’ve lived abroad, but now I’m back home I don’t much feel like picking up the baton, mainly because I think the day disrespects and is hurtful to the First Nations people of this country. I decided to make a point of reading some indigenous writing instead. And what a treat this book proved to be.
Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna is a brilliantly evocative autobiography of two aboriginal sisters. It’s also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.
Originally published by Fremantle Press in 2004, it has since been reissued by Magabala Books and comprises several different parts. The sister’s memoirs are told separately — Ngarta’s is titled a Desert Tragedy, while Jukuna’s is My Life in the Desert — and there are short chapters, by Pat Lowe (who edited the stories) and Eirlys Richards (who translated them from the Walmajarri language), explaining how the book came into being and putting the sister’s lives into context. It includes a helpful glossary and pronunciation guide, and colour plates of the artwork the sisters produced as well as a selection of their photographs. Jukuna’s story is also published in the original Walmajarri language in which she wrote it.
Both Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the Great Sandy Desert (located in the north-west of Western Australia and spanning more than 110,000 square miles — check out this Wiki page for more info) and lived a largely nomadic lifestyle, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, accompanied by their kin.
Each sister was raised by a different woman — Ngarta was raised by her grandmother; Jukuna by her birth mother — so they have slightly different takes on things, but they both depict relatively simple lives focused on family and hunting/gathering. Everything they did was imbued with a deep sense of respect for their homelands.
Their existence was so remote and their lifestyle so ancient they had never set eyes on a white person before and knew nothing of the modern world.
It was a Cherrabun Station [writes Jukuna] that I saw a kartiya [white person] for the first time. He was the station manager, Mr Scrivner. I thought, ‘So that’s what a kartiya looks like!’ I stared at his red skin, so different from black people’s skin. He was the boss and he gave us rations in return for our work.
It’s difficult to fathom that even basic things we take for granted — rainwater in a tank, for instance — alarmed and frightened them, for they had never seen such things before. In one scene, Ngarta and her family dip their hands in a barrel of tar they discover on a cattle station, thinking it is some delicious foodstuff, only to find it burnt their fingers, mouths and throats!
A life lived in terror
Ngarta’s story is particularly fascinating because she (and her family) were on the run from a pair of aboriginal brothers who killed indiscriminately.
She had seen them spear her mother and kill her grandmother and then her brother for no reason at all. She kept wondering who would be next. When she had the chance, she took her mother to one side. ‘I said to my mother:’ “You and me’ll have to go, run away in the night. They might kill us.” But my mother wouldn’t listen.’ Perhaps Ngarta’s mother was too frightened to run away in case the men followed them. She must have wondered where else she and her daughter could go, when their only remaining relatives were here in this last little band. Ngarta made up her mind to go on her own.
She flees into the desert taking just a firestick and a digging stick with her, careful to only step on spinifex grass so that she does not leave footprints behind in the sand. Using her wits and her hunting and gathering skills, she manages to survive in the sandhills by herself for a year before deciding to return to her family.
While she had been away the brothers had become firmly ensconced in her family group, and she was with them when they killed cattle belonging to a local station manager; the men were sent to prison for the crime.
The culture and customs of desert dwellers
As well as outlining their day-to-day lives, the book also throws light on indigenous culture and customs, such as marriage, family structure, celebrations and ceremonies, how they grieve, the ways in which family members communicated with one another when they were separated by distance, and the language they spoke.
I learned so much reading this slim volume, not just about the amazing resilience and survival skills of these women, but the ways in which they were prepared to share their experiences with the wider world. Both women went on to do amazing things with their lives to ensure their culture was preserved — Ngarta became an artist in middle age and Jukuna taught Walmajarri to school students.
Please note, you can order a copy of this book direct from Magabala Books, which is based in Broome, Western Australia, and is Australia’s leading indigenous publishing house.
This is my 2nd book for #AWW2020 and my 4th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I was given this copy by Lisa Hill, who kindly arranged for it to be hand-delivered by fellow WA-based blogger Bill last year. Thank you to both of them for getting this book in my hands — it was such a privilege to read it.
I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page.