Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2018

Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country (2016), edited by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins

Cultural warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are advised that this review contains names of deceased people.

Back in February I stumbled on this copy of Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country at my library where it was on display, and decided to hoard my review until Indigenous Literature Week where I think/hope it might get more readers than usual.  It’s a fascinating book because it is entirely bilingual in an Aboriginal language, something I have not come across before (although I have read bilingual elements and partial accounts in some indigenous life stories).

Yijarni, however – apart from the introduction by the editors, a one page context-setting English introduction to each chapter and some historical addenda linking archival records with the stories –  consists of accounts from its contributors (listed in the publication details below) in their own Gurindji language, with the translation (by a team of translators listed below) beside it on the page.  (It’s a big book of 246 pages, about 25cm square, and the layout is in columns).  The book includes helpful maps, and many vivid archival and contemporary photographs both B&W and in colour.   There are art works created in response to the stories by Indigenous artists (listed below), and Indigenous people too many to name contributed historical sites guidance as well.  This huge team of contributors come to life in photo portraits on pages viii-ix (which is another reason why there is a cultural warning in the introductory pages).

The Introduction explains that the Gurindji people of the Victoria River District in the Northern Territory are mostly known because of the Gurindji Walk-Off in 1966, which led to the landmark pastoral industry equal wages case and the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.  But this book is about Black History prior to the 1960s, which for the Gurindji people is divided into Puwarraja, the Dreamtime, and Yijarni, true stories, and these true stories are not filtered by other voices such as historians, activists, police journals, life stories of cattlemen or other locals.  Nor are the stories first-hand accounts rendered in broken English restricting their scope.  Recorded in the Gurindji language and translated, they are authentic oral accounts recounting shared knowledge, as known or as told to the storyteller, each with an elder as ‘witness’ to monitor and confirm the details.  These histories are augmented with archival material from police records, newspapers, biographies of early settlers and other published oral histories of the Victoria River District.

The chapter headings show the scope of the book:

  1. Introduction
  2. Before the Arrival of Europeans
  3. The Killing Times
  4. Malyalyimalyalyi/Lipanangku: The First Wave Hill Station
  5. Jinparrak: The Seond Site for Wave Hill Station
  6. The Wave Hill Settlement
  7. Early Policemen and Trackers

The chapter ‘Before the Arrival of the Europeans’ is fascinating.  There is a story about Waringarri (War Parties), another about mermaids, and another about Pulngayit Jangkarni (The Great Flood) an event which is reflected by the archaeological record of sea levels rising and major river flooding.  (You can see an animated version called The Little Turtle of this story here).

The long chapter called ‘The Killing Times’ is aptly named.  There is a chilling map of the massacre sites in the Tanami Desert and it takes a bit of fortitude to read through these authentic accounts.  This is Ronnie Wavehill telling the story passed on to him by his grandfathers, great uncles, great aunts, great-great-grandparents and his father:

They shot everybody, perhaps on a sunny day like today.  Then they went back to the river.  But in the afternoon, two of the kartiya returned.
‘You two young blokes go back!’ Why did they go back there?  What for?  They went up river to the same place near the yard, that very clearing where the dead bodies remained: children, grown men and women who had been shot dead en masse.  They had been killed off like dogs from their own country.  White people, with their violence and aggression had come down from Darwin and massacred people.  They just left them there, dead on the ground.
The two men heaped up wood until there was a large pyre.  Then they dragged them one by one – an old man… another woman … another man, dragging them across.  They threw them all on the fire.  They didn’t bury them the decent way.  They just threw them on the fire and burnt them like dogs.  (p.37)

The first-person stories of the Stolen Generation are even more poignant. Maurie Ryan, taken when he was three and who joined the army when he was 18, has this to say about Vietnam:

Now, I was asked to go to Vietnam but I had no intention of shooting anybody.  If I had any intention of shooting anybody it would have been the stockmen that worked at Wave Hill Station. Because they used to shoot – after getting drunk on OP rum – into the camp.  One of my mothers has a bullet hole in the side of her stomach, old Kitty (Mintawurri).  They were a law unto themselves, and they could do what they want, rape the women, physically harm the men.  When I came back, I actually wanted to shoot them, but that would have put me in prison. (p.131)

The irony is not lost on the reader that only Maurie would have been subject to White Justice, not any of the provocateurs.  The police (and sometimes the Aboriginal trackers who worked with them), as we see in Chapter 7, do not come out of this history well.  And this is not ancient history or frontier colonial times: the Vietnam War is within living memory of many of us.

But not all of the stories are from Australia’s brutal history: there’s an account of the first aeroplanes seen at Wave Hill Station in 1929, a search for an ill-fated missing plane called The Kookaburra also in 1929 and a story about a couple of Afghans running a shop in the district and an argument about killing cattle the halal way.  Other stories are vivid accounts of a semi-traditional way of life – hunting, teaching children how to find water, performing ceremonies and relying on bush resources during holidays times.  There are also recollections of events preceding the walk-off, including stories of poor conditions and discriminatory practices such as expecting the Guridji to tend the station vegetable garden but forbidding them to eat from it so that only the kartiya had fresh food.

Books like this are a valuable contribution to the growing body of knowledge about Australia’s Black History.  Highly recommended for secondary school libraries!

Title: Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country
Historical accounts by Dandy Danbayarri, Ronnie Wavehill, Violet Wadrill, Banjo Ryan, Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal, Peanut Pontiari, Maurie Ryan, Vincent Lingiari*, Jimmy Manngayarri*, Blanche Bulngari* and Pincher Nyurrmiari* (*deceased)
Art works by Violet Wadrill Nanaku, Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr Nangala, Jimmy Wavehill Ngawanyja Japalyi, Connie Ngarmeiye Nangala, Pauline Ryan Namija, Michael George ‘Nutwood’ Tulngayarri Japalyi, Ena Oscar Majapula Nanaku, Serena Donald Narrpingali Nimarra, Leah Leaman Japangardi and Dylan Miller Japangardi.
Transcription and Translation by Erika Charola, Felicity Meakins, Norm McNair, Helen McNair, Ena Oscar Majapula Nanaku and Sarah Oscar Yanyjingali Nanaku.
Edited by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925302028
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country and from AIATSIS.



  1. What an excellent book! It makes clear that Australians have to internalize that our (white) history of dealing with the indigenous peoples is not the easy going bullshit we are fed but one of ongoing dispossession, rape and mass murder. We must deal with, ie. end, the immunity of white police from conviction for black deaths, and we must end racist imprisonment. 100% of the children in jail in the NT are indigenous.


    • I love the way that it is written:)


  2. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  3. This sounds like a really interesting book. This method of recording oral histories sounds like it could make a valuable contribution to our understanding of Australian history. At the moment the histories are generally sourced from the historical records of settlers. There is not enough Australian history that draws on Aboriginal sources.

    Thanks for reviewing this book and alerting me to this review.


    • Hello Yvonne, thanks for dropping by:)
      I think this is an important development, and the crucial factor is the bilingual approach, enabling the sources to speak as adults with a sophisticated understanding of events rather than in simplified conceptual terms which is often what we are reduced to when speaking in a language that’s not our own. (I know this from my feeble attempts at communicating in French. I speak like a child, not like an adult).
      It would be great if you could get hold of a copy and review it with an historian’s eye:)


      • I agree – the use of language is key. Sadly I am too busy to do much reviewing at the moment.


        • Still working on your book?


          • I have had to take a break from that. We have started a new business which is going well – but time-consuming!


            • Yes, small business is much more work than we imagine until we’re doing it!

              Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country, edited by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins […]


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