We were not here first

Journal: 012

Nifty Road Sept '13 (1)

We were not here first. It seems self-evident now and was in fact acknowledged by writers from Watkin Tench onwards. Unfortunately though, our behaviour and in particular our legal system, was based on the conflicting ideas that there was no one here in 1788; or that there was but their perceived failure to build houses, engage in intensive agriculture meant that their presence didn’t count; or that there wasn’t a war but they lost anyway and Australia was ours by right of conquest.

That was all swept away, theoretically at least, by a combination of the (Commonwealth) Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Mabo Case (1982-90) in which the High Court ruled (1) that states – in this case Queensland – could not pass laws which conflicted with the Racial Discrimination Act; and (2) that wherever the rules and customs of the indigenous inhabitants – in this case the Mer people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait north of Queensland – have continued without explicit extinguishment by state law, then the land remains theirs.

The Native Title Act of 1993 which was meant to give effect to the Mabo decision in fact interpreted it as narrowly as possible, in order of course to give the greatest possible advantage to grazing and mining interests, with near impossible definitions of continuing occupation for example, when so many indigenous people were forced onto reservations or had drifted in to provincial centres. My own opinion is that all crown land, including leasehold – which is to say, most of outback Australia – should be acknowledged as belonging to the original inhabitants and that we should only then negotiate a treaty for its ongoing use by all Australians. That is, that the Aboriginal Land Councils instead of being supplicants should be able to negotiate from a position of relative strength.

As part of my own, belated education about what it means to live in a shared country I have been increasingly careful to identify whose land it is that I am talking about/driving on in my reviews and journals. But in my last post ‘The Heaviest, Longest Run in the World‘, in concentrating on the driving experience (and the word count!) I said nothing about whose land it was and I want to rectify that here.

In general, because this is where I live, I am best informed about the indigenous nations of Western Australia – though I still have a long way to go! – but as I go on I will do my best to learn and write about everyone whose land I cross.

As I’ve written previously, Perth, the south-west and the wheatbelt (except around Geraldton) are Noongar country. Going north from Perth on the Great Northern Highway we cross the Moore River at New Norcia. The infamous Mogumber Moore River Settlement is just a few kilometres west. I have written about it a few times, in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence of course, but also in relation to Kim Scott and Jack Davis. Molly, Daisy and Gracie, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls headed north from Mogumber before striking east and would have crossed the Highway (if it existed back in 1931) a bit south of Wubin. You don’t see many Aboriginals in these little wheatbelt towns and I imagine they have mostly drifted in to Perth or to provincial centres like Northam and Moora.

Since reading Scott I have also become conscious of the different language groups within the Noongars. The AIATSIS map says the language spoken in the area up to Wubin is Balardung.

Separating Wubin and the Murchison goldfield towns of Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra is 300 km of scrub and desert. About 100 km up, the Irwin River rises near Mt Gibson and flows down to the coast at Dongara south of Geraldton. I wouldn’t be surprised if this marks the border between Noongar and Yamaji country. The various language groups within the Yamaji nation occupy the land from south of Geraldton to north of Carnarvon, on the coast, and inland to the headwaters of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers (as best as I can ascertain, which applies to everything I write here).

I wrote about the Yamaji for the first time in my review of Papertalk Green and Kinsella’s False Claims of Colonial Thieves. The Yamaji are bordered to the east by Western Desert people. Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra aren’t big towns and they all have active gold mines, but they also have substantial Aboriginal populations, which are probably these days a mixture of Martu from the north, Yamaji, and Ngaatjatjarra from out towards the NT and SA border. There used to be reports of ‘trouble’ in the towns but I haven’t heard any in the last decade. Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, a Ngaatjatjarra woman, writes of her family’s move, in the 1960s, in from Docker River on the NT border to Wiluna, east of Meekatharra, from where she was sent to school at the mission at Karalundi, on the highway 50 km north of Meeka.

The rest of the trip, except that we detour via Port Hedland (map) to avoid the atrocious Nullagine Road from Newman to Marble Bar, is Martu country. The Martu are the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples. Daisy Bates who owned a station near Jigalong, north of present day Newman (see Ventured North by Train and Truck) learned elements of the Martu language there and was surprised to find it useful when she later settled amongst the southernmost of the Western Desert peoples 3,000 km away at Ooldea in SA. Jigalong, one of the main camps for maintaining the rabbit-proof fence, became the centre of the Martu people and was of course the home which Molly, Daisy and Gracie were heading back to. The northernmost limits of Martu country include Nifty, my destination, as well as the Woodie Woodie and Telfer mines, in the Great Sandy Desert where I imagine the border with the Walmajarri (see Two Sisters) is fairly fluid.

There are two separate language groups on the coast north of Yamji country, one south of Port Hedland, probably once centred on the Fortescue and Ashburton Rivers but now at Roeburn, and another between Port Hedland and Broome. I can’t tell you anything about them so I’d better do some homework!


Recent audiobooks

PD James (F, Eng), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
Hetty E Verolme (F, Aust), The Children’s House of Belsen (2000)
Masaji Ishikawa (M, Japan/Korea), A River in Darkness (2000) DNF
Michael Veitch (M, Vic/Aust), The Forgotten Islands (2011)
Carole Radziwill (F, USA), The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating (2013)
Julia London (F, Eng), The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount (2013)
Richard North Patterson (M, USA), Loss of Innocence (2013)
Michael Connolly (M, USA), Trunk Music (1997)
Tim Winton (M, WA/Aust), Eyrie (2013)
Stuart Woods (M, USA), Paris Match (2014)
Jay Stringer (M, Eng), Runaway Town (2013)
Gregory Randall (M, USA), Venice Black (2017)

Currently reading

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children

Housekeeping: I started using the Journal heading so that readers who were only interested in book reviews could see the journal emails and press delete. Don’t worry, you still can! But I’ve moved the journal designation down a notch so that while it is still clear in the email it is not so obtrusive.

The photos are mine, from the Nifty and Woodie Woodie roads in the Great Sandy Desert.

Pictures from my Memory, Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis



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!

On my way recently to a gold mine outside Laverton. The bitumen ends just round the corner!

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)

Related reviews: Dhuuluu-Yala (here); I the Aboriginal (here)