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Pictures from my memory: my story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman.

Pictures from my memory: my story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis 2016 Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 153pp, ill., 23cm, ISBN 9780855750350 (pbk)


In this book Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis recounts her life as a Ngaatjatjarra woman, born in the Western Desert around the time of first contact with white Australians in the region. Her lifelong narrative spans her childhood in desert communities and education on missions, reserves and in Alice Springs and her career as an educator in Aboriginal communities and as a sought-after interpreter for government departments, politicians and the courts.

This memoir contributes to a small but growing group of biographical publications authored or narrated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including Morgan (1988), Ginibi (1994), Grant (2004), Davenport, Johnson and Yuwali (2005), Lockyer (2009) and Kemarre Turner (2010). Publications involving Western Desert peoples are primarily produced by non-Indigenous authors working in communities, such as Myers (1986), Peasley (1983), Tonkinson (1991), Cane (2002), and Acker and Carty (2012). Pictures from my memory is set apart from these works--it is a captivating personal account that tackles the unique challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Ellis' generation, being among the first to live and be educated in both Aboriginal and Western communities. Ellis' memoir is bookended by an introduction and overview (by the editor, anthropologist Laurent Dousset) of Ngaatjatjarra and broader Western Desert language, kinship, social organisation and politics.

Through her generous and frank storytelling, readers are offered a rare insight into Ngaatjatjarra language and culture, including the kinship system and associated rules and protocols around the right to take, taboo relationships, ceremony, hunting and gathering and labour division, funerary and marriage practices, and tjukurrpa (Dreaming Law). Ellis recounts episodes of her life and comments on society, culture, language, family, religion and identity as comprising these parts.

The narrative is situated around the significant periods or moments in Ellis' life. Following her birth at Warakurna, Ellis' family eventually made their way to the missions at Warburton, Leonora and Wiluna. As a teenager, Ellis and her siblings would spend their school holidays in Wiluna, learning from their parents about how to survive on the land in accordance with the 'strict cultural rules' that govern how food is hunted, gathered and shared (p.27). Their games included collecting foods, such as seeds and grains (for grinding into flour for damper), vegetables such as bush onions, potatoes and kulyu (yams), and fruits such as wirriny-wirrinypa (a type of berry). During their time at Docker River, Ellis recalls looking for karliny-karlin-ypa (honey grevillea nectar) with her siblings to yiirltjanku (drink), either directly from the flowers or diluted in water. We are told that the children nowadays call the nectars 'bush cordial and bush lollies', and that while Ellis and her siblings required their father's permission to collect honey grevillea nectar on completion of a special men's ritual, now it is consumed as soon as the flowers emerge (p.45). Ellis and her siblings also learned through imitation and would play wiltja-wiltja, a cubby house game where they would erect houses and build fires, make tea, play families and act out girls being 'grabbed' by men for warnngilku (forced, as opposed to arranged, marriage).

They were taught about the tjukurrpa, described by Ellis as their 'important stories linked to the land' (p.27). Fragments of these stories are interspersed throughout the narrative. Those who have visited the Western Desert or are familiar with Western Desert tjukurrpa will recognise the warnapa, or feather-foot men, and relate to the chapter on 'Aboriginal nights' capturing the fear of the oppressive dark of desert nights permeated by mamu or nyirurru (devils, evil spirits or ghosts).

Unassuming stories such as this may appear to be simple recollections of fond memories on first reading, but are revealed as complex expressions of culture and identity on deeper reflection. In each story, there is a lesson in normative behaviour and rights and obligations governed by the kinship and social organisational systems. There is commentary on those structures and their evolution and adaptation since colonisation. And there is a true sense of Ellis herself--a testament to her skill as a storyteller. The inclusion of anecdotes and commentary on Ngaatjatjarra life serves her motivation in writing this book--to preserve her cultural knowledge and stories for future generations. Ellis was driven to write this memoir by the intrigue and interest people have shown towards her, as a multilingual woman leading a cross-cultural life between desert communities and urban cities.

1 he book moves into the later stages of Ellis' life from boarding school in Alice Springs to starting a family and professional life there. The skill with which Ellis represents being woven between cultures and places and balancing her family, cultural and professional obligations and pursuits gives the reader a sense of the complexities of being a Ngaatjatjarra women in contemporary Australia. In 'Settling in as a family', a chapter about the birth of her second child and establishing her family in Alice Springs, Ellis tells of the racism she experienced in that town and how she adapted to Western institutions and ways of living while maintaining her cultural strength, practices and beliefs. The other purpose behind this book was to 'help Indigenous and non-Indigenous people talk to each other and understand each other' (p.x). Ellis' memoir certainly contributes to this shared understanding and serves as a historical account of first contact between Western Desert and white people, including the presence of the Weapons Research Establishment and the accompanying Native Patrol Officers, the CSIRO's experimentation on Western Desert people, government policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the Australian education system and race relations.

Ellis concludes with comments on kinship and the pressures of cross-cultural living, and signals her intentions for the future. Ellis has achieved a great deal with this memoir, recording her life story thus far, reflecting on society, culture and identity, and preserving her language and culture for future generations of Ngaatjatjarra people. Ellis' voice is strong and her story engaging, making this a valuable contribution to the field with broad appeal.


Acker, Tim and John Carty 2012 Ngaanyatjarra: art of the lands, UWA Publishing, Perth.

Cane, Scott 2002 Vila Nguru: the Spinifex people, Fremantle Art Centre Press, Fremantle, WA.

Davenport, Sue, Peter Johnson and Yuwali 2005 Cleared out: first contact in the Western Desert, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

Ginibi, Ruby Langford 1994 My Bundjalung people, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld.

Crant, Stan 2004 The tears of strangers. Harper Collins, Sydney.

Lockyer, Betty 2009 Last truck out, Magabala Books, Broome, WA.

Morgan, Sally 1988 My place, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA.

Myers, Fred 1986 Pintupi country, Pintupi self: sentiment, place, and politics among Western Desert Aborigines, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Peasley, WJ 1983 The last of the nomads, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA.

Tonkinson, Robert 1991 The Mardu Aborigines: living the dream in Australia's desert (2nd edn), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Fort Worth, TX.

Turner, Margaret Kemarre 2010 Iwenhe tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person, IAD Press, Alice Springs, NT.

Reviewed by Stacey Little, AIATSIS, <>
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Author:Little, Stacey
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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