This is a memoir, fascinating and informative, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in Indigenous life in Australia:
My name is Elizabeth Warngupayi Marrkilyi Ellis and I have lived a semi-traditional life. I was born in 1962 in the bush at Warakurna, Ngaatjatjarra country, in the Rawlinson Ranges just west of the WA-NT border in the Western Desert…
My parents lived a traditional life. Western Desert people were among some of the last Aboriginal people to have had contact with whitefellas. Dad saw a whitefella for the first time when they were building the weather station [in 1957].
The map above my desk, on which I record my longer trips, shows Warakurna roadhouse alongside the Giles weather station, with Docker R. [her mother’s country] in the NT 75 km east, along the track to Uluru, and Warburton 215 km to the south west, with another 560 km to Laverton and the beginnings of white settlement. After Laverton, on bitumen at last, it’s 100 km to Leonora then 240 km south to Kalgoorlie or 300 km north to Wiluna. And we’re still 600 km from the coast!
The book includes some excellent photographs, including a couple, of her father and of her mother and baby Lizzie, taken by the CSIRO people at Giles, and ends with appendices covering the author’s family tree, a glossary of Ngaatjatjarra words, and an overview of her people. The Introduction, by French linguist Laurent Dousset, leaves open the implication that this is an “as told to”, but that’s not the case. Ellis by her own efforts became an educated and literate woman and the writing reflects the easy story-telling style of her Indigenous heritage.
Being literate in English and having lived many years of my life in the white man’s world, people from all walks of life have shown a lot of interest in my family, my society’s way of living and our worldview. All those comments and questions about my life experiences as an Aboriginal person have led to me writing this book. I’m tired of repeating myself; but it’s more than that. I also wrote this book because Aboriginal people are the first nations people of Australia, but so much of our culture is gone.
Her family, not just her parents but her extended family of mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties, relationships Ellis describes clearly, giving reasons and examples, move often. Firstly to Warburton, where she gains a sister, then on down the road to Laverton and Leonora, ending up at Wiluna, living in or adjacent to mission and government housing. Sometimes even when there is a hut available it is cooler and simpler to live in a simple wiltja or windbreak. At Wiluna Lizzie goes to a mission school until she is about 10 when she is sent to board a couple of hundred km away at Karalundi, at that time a mission school just off the road north of Meekatharra. I got held up at Karalundi a couple of years ago. The road – the Great Northern Highway – was blocked due to a rollover and maybe 100 cars and trucks were pulled over waiting to get through. People from the Karalundi community drove up and down the lined up vehicles making sure everyone had water.
In the missions and at school Lizzie meets people from all around, from a number of dialect groups. I wrote in an earlier post that I thought that the Martu claim, centred on Jigalong (about 500 km north of Meekatharra) ranged from Lake Gregory/Telfer in the north, to south and east of Kalgoorlie. I may have been mistaken in this, at least in its extent southwards. The Martu, like Ellis’s Ngaatjatjarra, the Pitjantjatjara of northern SA and a number of other groups are all members of the Western Desert cultural bloc, encompassing inland WA, NT south and west of Uluru, and western SA down to Ooldea and Yatala on the Bight. Their languages share a common root and Lizzie had no trouble understanding Martu and Pitjantjatjara kids at school, although there was some teasing, as there was at my own schools (in Vic) when the odd boy from NSW insisted on calling his kit bag (Gladstone bag) a ‘port’.
After a year or so at Karalundi, Lizzie returns to Wiluna and attends the government school there, ‘white and black kids together’. At Wiluna:
My parents taught my siblings and me a lot of traditional knowledge. They were our main teachers and were very firm with us, just like their parents were with them… they taught us how to live following strict cultural rules and everything we needed to know about our land and our important stories that are linked to the land. They also told us many times how to live our adult lives the right way.
When her parents decide to return to their own country, they have to hide the kids in the back of the mail truck to evade the police who were charged with making sure all Aboriginal kids attended school. They go to Docker R. where the kids attend a little school in ‘silver bullets’, caravans, but where most of their lives are spent in traditional activities, food gathering, ceremonies, and avoiding ‘husbands’ – Lizzie now being of an age where a man might seize her and claim her as his wife. After 2 or 3 years the teacher at Docker R. arranges for Lizzie to attend Yirara College, a boarding college for high school in Alice Springs. Around the same time an outstation is established at Warakurna, Lizzie’s birthplace and her father’s home country, with a community council, a silver bullet office and its own white “advisor”, and Lizzie’s parents move back there permanently, though they continue to move around so that whenever Lizzie returns from Alice Springs she must wait at Docker R. until someone lets her know where they are (and offers her a lift).
Lizzie does well at Yirara, then trains as a nurse’s aide at Alice Springs Hospital. While there she meets and marries Michael Ellis, a white teacher, and they go on to have two daughters. Ellis writes
In our culture, when a man marries, he usually has to give things to his wife’s parents long before the marriage. If a man has an eye on a lady he would follow that family around and help with hunting and supply the family with meat.
When Lizzie advises her parents she is getting married, they send her younger brother as envoy and he accepts as bride-price Michael’s car. “This was the first of many cultural lessons he had to learn and live with throughout our twenty years of marriage …” In 1980s Alice Springs they socialise “with many couples who were like us: a white man with a black woman.” When Michael has a one or two teacher school, Lizzie works as a teacher’s aide and also, often, as an interpreter and this, gradually, becomes her profession, taking her around Australia and around the world.
When I came across this book, at Crow Books in Vic Park of course, I was part way through preparing a review of Burn by David Ireland, the story of an Aboriginal returned soldier who calls himself Gunner. On the cover there is a photo of Sergeant Reg Saunders, and the implication is that this is a fictionalised account of Saunders’ story. If that is so then it’s a disgrace. I gave up at p.44 when Gunner is reminiscing about being fourth in line at the gang banging of his foster daughter. There may be books where a white author successfully inhabits an Aboriginal PoV. Burn is not one of them.
Do not buy, do not read Burn! Buy Ellis’ memoir instead, it’s a lovely story, with lots of fascinating detail about living in the Western Desert, and about issues facing Aboriginal people today.
Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, Pictures from my Memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2016. Book launch, ANU, 17 May 2016 (here)
Although she doesn’t say so in this memoir it seems Lizzie Ellis is also an accomplished painter (here)