This is the blurb from Magabala Books that made me want to read the book:
Ngarta and Jukuna lived in the Great Sandy Desert. They traversed country according to the seasons, just as the Walmajarri people had done for thousands of years. But it was a time of change. Desert people who had lived with little knowledge of European settlement were now moving onto cattle stations. Those left behind were vulnerable and faced unimaginable challenges.
In 1961, when Jukuna leaves with her new husband, young Ngarta remains with a group of women and children. Tragedy strikes and Ngarta is forced to travel alone. Her survival depends on cunning and courage as she is pursued by two murderers in a vast unforgiving landscape.
Jukuna’s rich account may be the first autobiography written in an Aboriginal language. Presented in English and Walmajarri, her determination to see her language written has made her one of our most valued authors.
I have read a few books by desert people, but I haven’t read one like this. It is hard to convey the sense of wonder with which I read it. Two Sisters is an authentic account of an ancient way of life as it was lived by sisters Ngarta and Jukuna in the Great Sandy Desert, and then it covers the period when this way of life was disrupted by the coming of Europeans into the north. It is written by people who had never seen a white person or any of the accoutrements of station life, so much so that when they encounter a water tank, their first action is to placate the water spirit that they believe inhabits all the water holes that sustain them. But theirs is not a life of deficits: they led a rich, fulfilling life, learning skills of more than mere survival since childhood, and supported by a kinship system which ensured that there was always family to take care of them. It was only when this life was disrupted that there were not enough men around to enforce the law and keep everyone safe, but even then the habits of resilience and independence stand the sisters in good stead.
When I read about the teenage Ngarta taking off alone across the desert, I was stunned.
Ngarta lived in terror of the two men. 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.
The next afternoon, when the brothers were out of sight, Ngarta ran away.
‘So I went away on my own, in the afternoon. I went west. I took only a kana [digging stick] for hunting and a firestick. I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri. ‘ Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints. (p.39)
For a year, she lived on her own in the desert:
Ngarta visited other waterholes she knew, spending time at each one, living by hunting and collecting fruits from the trees and plants and seeds from the grasses. All the time she was heading in a northerly direction. In due course she made her way to the big jumu, [a soak, a temporary source of underground water] Kajamuka.
Ngarta had never left her desert country, but she thought she knew how to get to Christmas Creek Station. Her various relatives who had travelled back and forth between the desert and the station had described the journey to her. She had heard people talking about the direction of the waterholes they stopped at on the way, and she had a good idea of how to find them. Besides that, it was wet weather time again, and there should be enough rain falling to keep her out of trouble should she miss one of them. (p.40)
This journey has the same epic quality as Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington.
Equally impressive is Jukuna’s determination to ensure that the Walmajarri language isn’t lost.
Over the years I have done a lot of work related to my language, Walmajarri. I learned to read Walmajarri and I have learned to write it too. With other people I translated some parts of God’s word from English into Walmajarri. We carefully checked that work, then I read some of the translation onto cassettes. Those cassettes were sold to others so that they could hear God’s word.
Another thing I did was teach some white people to speak a little Walmajarri. Later on I went to the adult education centre in Fitzroy Crossing, called Karrayili. There I began to learn English – writing and reading it, recognising the letters and words. [….] Now I teach children Walmajarri, and I really enjoy doing it. I teach them how to find bush foods and animals, and I teach them the names of the animals that live in the river country and that big goanna that belongs to the plains country. I also tech the children the names of other, smaller animals. (p.79)
The book comprises just 125 pages which consist of
- Ngarta’s story – a desert tragedy
- Jukuna’s story – my life in the desert
- Wangki Ngajukura Jiljingajangka (Jukuna’s story in Walmajarri)
- Short explanatory pieces by Pat Lowe
- The Walmajarri diaspora
- The world of the two sisters
- Working with Ngarta
- A short explanatory piece by Eirlys Richards
- Working with Jukuna, and
- A Wanmajarri pronunciation guide and a glossary
There are also full colour photos of beautiful art works by Ngarta and Jukuna, and photos of the sisters on country in the Great Sandy Desert, a vivid reminder of the world that the sisters lived in.
Its format makes it an ideal book to use with secondary school students wanting to learn more about indigenous lifestyles prior to European settlement.
Authors: Ngarta (Ngarta Jinny Bent); Jukuna (Jukuna Mona Chuguna); Pat Lowe and Eirlys Richards
Title: Two Sisters, a true story
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books
Available from Fishpond (Two Sisters: A True Story) and direct from Magabala Books.