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Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna.

Two sisters: Ngarta & Jukuna

Ngarta Jinny Bent et al.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2004, 143 pp, ISBN 19020731261

When we consider the regions where Indigenous Australians live today, we wonder how they came to be in these places. How did people from central and northern Australia, living today in Aboriginal communities or small towns, make their way from traditional lands to these settlements and how did they understand their journey? This marvellous book reveals the different trajectories of two sisters who recount their transition from a hunter-gatherer life to life in a small rural town.

The two narratives complement each other. Ngarta, the younger sister, was one of the last of her family to move north from their country in the Great Sandy Desert to a cattle station. Ngarta's last years in her country, including one year spent on her own, parallel Jukuna's account of her first experiences of station life. Jukuna was not among the first, but with her husband she travelled north to live on a station some years before Ngarta. Neither sister knows why the first people left the desert to move north to the river country, nor why these first people decided to remain there, but once this movement started it becomes clear why it continued. Although all of the land was inhabited, the populations were small. With the loss of people there was a loss of community, a loss of social occasions, a loss of relationship.

During the early years of Ngarta's life, Walmajarri people had been steadily leaving the desert. As a little girl she came to know many people outside her own family--relatives and other people who came from other parts of the country to visit and move on. At ceremony time, visitors gathered from near and far. But by the time Ngarta's mother went to live with her second husband, only a few people were left (p. 40).

The loss of community was followed by a breakdown in law and order. Renegades appeared who terrorised the few people, particularly the elderly, women and children, who were left. Although they may have been very unwilling to leave their country, these people had to join their relations on the stations for reasons of safety.

As both narratives show, the people living on their country were not starving, and although people died, sometimes very suddenly, more people died as a result of diseases caught when living on stations. Because of station illnesses Jukuna and her family set out to return to their home in the south but without companions they had to give the plan up.

The illustrations in this book, the paintings of important sites by Ngarta and Jukuna, combined with the photos and the narratives, enable the reader to understand something of how Indigenous people see their own country, and the depth of the feeling in this vision. Whenever people coming from their traditional country met relatives who had already moved north, both sisters describe this: 'He sat him down facing the south. They cried together because it was so long since they had seen each other' (p. 96).

It is customary for family members when they greet each other to first weep for those who have died since they last met. Now added to this is the grief of exile, the loss of one's beloved home. The people in this book have not only lost their homeland, since they can no longer permanently return (depopulation has made this impossible), they have also lost their traditional way of life. Their old world has ended, and the narratives describe this process. The sense of loss is mitigated by a lively awareness of new possibilities appearing (p. 109):
 A few years ago I went a long way from home on a trip
 to Lyon, in France. I went there to tell the story of the
 huge painting called Ngurrara that was being shown in
 Lyon. It is a painting of all the important waterholes of
 our homeland ... I was glad to go to Lyon because I like
 seeing places that I have never seen before.

The paintings by Indigenous people constitute a return to the sites painted, and the powerful desire that inspires these paintings is the desire to be there, back at those places. These narratives, which tell why the sisters no longer live in their ancestral country, in their meticulous recording of their journeyings, are also a return to country. The narratives also show how important people are. It is not possible to return to country unless the whole family goes too.

The tact and understanding, a product of the long and close relationships between Pat Lowe and Ngarta and Eirlys Richards and Jukuna, which have produced the English versions of these life histories is a model for collaborations of this kind. Without extra material requested by Lowe and Richards, some of the narratives' meanings would remain hidden. The Walmajarri text reminds us that the book is a record for Walmajarri as well as non-Walmajarri people.

Lee Cataldi, retired

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Article Details
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Author:Cataldi, Lee
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Previous Article:Piercing the Ground: Balgo Women's Image Making and Relationship to Country.
Next Article:Lost in the Whitewash: Aboriginal-Asian Encounters in Australia, 1901-2001.

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