Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2014

Yami, the autobiography of Yami Lester (1993), by Yami Lester


Indigenous readers please be aware that this page contains the names of deceased persons.

I really enjoyed this book! Yami Lester  (b. c1949) is a Yankunytjatjara man from northern South Australia.  According to Wikipedia, his most significant contribution to indigenous rights was helping gain recognition for the atomic tests at Maralinga and an acknowledgement for the Aboriginal people who had been affected.  An important achievement that led to the McLelland Royal Commission in 1985 – but this most modest of men grants it a mere ten pages or so in his autobiography.   The rest of his book is a vivid picture of his extraordinary life which reminded me of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life.

As a boy Yami lived a bush life in camps in the area around Coober Pedy.  His family travelled around from station to station getting itinerant work, living on bush tucker when the rations ran out.  At Mt Willoughby Station, the kids were warned off the rubbish dump by the Aboriginal women:

‘Awai! Your father’s going to hunt you away from there’.  That was my white father, Dick Lander, the manager of Mt Willoughby Station. ‘You gotta come this way,’ the women said, ‘and we’ll give you some food.’  So we left the rubbish dump, but we didn’t go to the house, we walked to the creek close by and waited until they brought out some food that my father gave to them: eggs and cake and different food.

That was as close as I got to my white father.  I would like to have known him.  But we couldn’t have talked because I didn’t have any English.  I just had my own language Yankunytjatjara.  It would have been something, that, to have talked with him.  Anyway, we did share something: he didn’t want me to go to the rubbish dump! (p. 3)

That short excerpt is an indication of the character of this most entertaining storyteller: not an ounce of self-pity and always ready to look for the best in any situation.  He was soon to need both those traits to overcome the challenge that defined his life.

But first, Yami tells the story of his life as a stockman.  The whole family worked on the cattle and sheep stations – his stepfather got work as a shepherd, a labourer, dingo hunter or a stockman, while his mother worked up at the house.  The kids took on various chores as they grew older, and Yami’s skills on a horse made him a natural for life as a stockman.   This part of the book is a portrait of Australia outback life long gone, when mechanisation was a long way off.  The mustering all done now with motorbikes and helicopters was done by men and muscle, but the Aboriginal workers were yet to be paid as their white counterparts were and the Wave Hill Walk Off was decades away.  A compelling insight into the way station life complemented indigenous community life but did not replace it, this part of the book is fascinating.  We learn about bush food and medicines, ngangkari bush healers,  and wapar – the spirit life of the area associated with their dreaming.  My only reservation about these chapters is that the helpful glossary of Yankunytjatjara words is at the end of each chapter so one has to hunt through the pages to find it.  And the words are not in alphabetical order.  It’s only a small irritation, however, and I soon found that I didn’t need to look up words anyway because they were used in contexts that made it easy to deduce what they meant.

Yami’s fulfilling life came to an end when the fallout from the British nuclear tests at Maralinga drifted across his home.  It fell as a ‘black mist’ and caused many health problems, including damage to Yami’s eyes.  Before long he was blind, and his independence was gone.  But rather than dwell on this misfortune, and the dreary days in a sheltered workshop as a broomologist (making brooms) Yami moves on to his good fortune in learning Braille and English and the opportunities that came his way because of his bilingualism.

The 1960s and 70s were a period of immense change in Aboriginal affairs, but the land rights movement depended on skilled interpreters to facilitate communication between the indigenous landowners and the various government bodies that were involved. Yami, a bush boy who had never ridden in a car found himself travelling all over central Australia, grasping complex legal concepts and translating them for the Yankunytjatjara  and Pitjantjatjara people.  He learned strategy and negotiation skills, and was instrumental in forging landmark agreements that are a compelling part of Australia’s Black History. Despite these achievements he points out that he was always learning because there was so much that he and his people did not know about how things worked.  Even when they achieved land rights, they were under pressure to sign agreements with the mining industry before they were ready for it.

These issues led to Yami’s great interest in education.  While his unassuming manner does not lend itself to assertiveness, he is quite convinced that indigenous people must learn English.  If they are dependent on others to translate for them, they are always at a disadvantage, he says, and he thinks that bilingual education has been unsuccessful.  This is an area of some controversy in indigenous communities, where successive governments set up and dismantle each other’s education programs, but Yami gives examples where fluency in English has not displaced the mother-tongue.  He wants indigenous kids to grow up having choices – and he thinks English is the key to that.

Black-and-white photos show Yami rubbing shoulders with politicians of all stripes, and he went on to be awarded the Order of Australia for his work with Aboriginal people, and to meet Nelson Mandela.  But for him, the most important person in his life is his wonderful wife Lucy, and their children and grandchildren.  This man’s life story is inspirational.

I read this book for Indigenous Literature Week 2014, but I recommend it as a great story to read any time.

Update 23/7/17 It is with respect for a great leader that I must report the death of Yami Lester at Alice Springs.  He was aged 75.  You can read the tribute at The Guardian here.

Author: Yami Lester
Title: Yami, the autobiography of Yami Lester
Publisher: Jukurrpa Books, IAD Press, 1993, reprinted 1995
ISBN:  9781864650529
Source: Review copy courtesy of Dennis Jones & Associates Book distributors


Fishpond: Yami: The Autobiography of Yami Lester


  1. […] Yami, the autobiography of Yami Lester by Yami Lester, review by Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers […]


  2. Sounds like an interesting story Lisa I hope to get bone people read in next day or two


  3. That’s an amazing book, Stu, I would love it if you had a review of it on your blog!


  4. […] Lester, Yami, Yami, the autobiography of Yami Lester, (Jukurrpa Books, IAD Press, 1993, reprinted 1995). Reviewed at ANZ LItLovers LitBlog. […]


  5. I met Yami (Jimmy) Lester when I was a young girl, in Adelaide in the 1950’s. It was through my Sunday School teacher Marnie Leske, who was also blind. I wonder if Marnie helped Yami with learning Braille. Marnie typed our Sunday School lessons on a typewriter – with very few mistakes. At the time we were English migrants, very new to the country, and had no real idea of the history of aboriginal and white Australia. I do remember my Dad being quite scathing about the Australian Government wanting “volunteers” – mainly airforce – to go to Maralinga to be observers at the British nuclear tests to be carried out. My Dad had spent 6 years in WWII and said there was no way he was going to be used as a test dummy. We also visited Colebrook Home, Eden Hills – then run by the United Aborigines’ Mission. For our family (and especially as we were children) it was a wonderful outing on a steam train and getting off onto a very small landing with milk churns waiting to be loaded. It was probably the first time I recalled smelling the eucalyptus and the damp misty earth. However I remember my Mum was shocked and saddened by the strict regime that the children were under – and especially as one young boy came up to her and took her hand and said “Please take me home, Missus”.


    • Hello Dee, and thank you so much for sharing this experience:)
      Just this week I heard them talking about the Maralinga experiments on Radio National, and they made the point that Australians mostly didn’t know about it and when they did they were quite sanguine about it. It just shows you how attitudes have changed during our lifetimes, not just to nuclear weapons but also to Aboriginal issues: those missions have gone but the damage to families remains, just the same a nuclear fallout remains long afterwards too.
      PS I’ve just had a look at your portrait gallery… what a wonderful artist you are! It is very difficult to do a good portrait of small children… my sister had a portrait done of her firstborn by Clifton Pugh, and honestly, it was so ordinary, it was a real disappointment. I love that portrait of the dog too.


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