I’m falling behind with my Indigenous Lit! Behind Lisa at ANZLL in particular whom I must thank for pointing me towards the two short books I am reviewing today (posted separately so they’re easier to find). The other is A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara.
Two Sisters is the stories of two women of the Walmajarri people born and brought up in the 1950s and 60s in northern Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. The four authors are the two sisters of the title, Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Eirlys Richards who did the translation from Walmajarri to English and Pat Lowe who ‘edited the English to bring it to its present form’. Ngarta’s story was compiled and filled out by Pat Lowe over many discussions and interviews. Jukuna’s story was written, by her, in Walmajarri.
As well as the two stories, which of course are linked by the two women’s relationship (and which have interesting differences), there are two sections of colour plates of the women’s painting and of photos of the women back in country, Jukuna’s story in Walmajarri, and appendices on the Walmajarri diaspora, by Lowe and Richards on the writing of the book, and on the Walmajarri language.
Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the southern, most remote, part of Walmajarri country (maps here) and so were among the last of their people to migrate north to the stations around Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. Interestingly, Doris Pilkington in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (my review) writes of the neighbouring Martu people gravitating south to the fence workers’ camp at Jigalong a generation or so earlier.
The Great Sandy Desert is an area of red, rolling sandhills, bound with light scrub, about 400 km square and with the Tanami, Gibson and Little Sandy Deserts to the east and south. As you can imagine, waterholes were an important part of the Walmajarri people’s lives.
The main waterhole for Ngarta’s family was Tapu. The people might spend most of the year travelling through their country, camping by one or other of the many waterholes, but Tapu was the place they came back to.
It was not unusual for people to break away from the main group for a time. They might follow tracks for a long distance out of their way, or take a detour to gather a particular food and then head for whichever waterhole happened to be closest at day’s end. They kept in touch with the others and let them know where they were by lighting big grass fires.
The sisters’ lives took different courses quite early on:
From the time Ngarta was a baby, her grandmother took care of her. Jukuna, only a few years older, stayed with their mother. Even when Ngarta got older she often went hunting and gathering with the old woman.
But the old ways were coming to an end. More and more families moved north to join relatives living on Kimberley cattle stations, “… until, at length, only a few people from [Ngarta’s] immediate family were still living in that whole region of desert. Almost all the men and youths had gone by now.” Eventually Jukuna too was claimed by a young man, Pijaji, and taken away to the north, leaving “just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother… They lived mainly on goannas and snakes and the many different fruits and seeds of the desert. Occasionally they killed a dingo, a fox or a cat.”
After a couple of years without any contact with the outside world, they are set upon by two men, outlaws from another community, who without warning, spear Ngarta’s mother and subsequently kill her grandmother and sister. Ngarta escapes, living on her own for a year, before she is retaken and probably, although she does not say so, used as a wife by one of the murderers. Ironically, when these two men do come into contact with the white world they are convicted, and briefly imprisoned for killing cattle for food, but no evidence is able to be brought of their other more serious crimes.
Jukuna then tells her story, clearly and concisely, of her time in the desert, moving north with her new husband to meet up with relatives living on Cherrabun Station, seeing a white man for the first time, and her conversion to Christianity.
Read this book! More even than Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ Pictures from my Memory (my review) this is a vibrant account by two members of possibly the last traditional indigenous community in the country.
Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Eirlys Richards, Pat Lowe, Two Sisters, Magabala Books, Broome, 2016
Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)