Two Sisters is a fascinating and engaging account of sisters Ngarta and Jukuna growing up in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia as the last indigenous ‘desert people’ in the region in the 1960s.
The first part of the book details Ngarta’s life. As the younger sister, she is conscious she’s part of a very small band of people still living traditionally in the sandhills. We watch her grow up – getting better at hunting and reading her country, until eventually, when running from two murderous outlaws, she can live alone in the desert for a year. The second half of the book is about Jukuna’s life and, although she has an understandably uneasy relationship with white people, she embraces God (‘in my early years, when I lived in the desert, I didn’t hear God… Now I listen to him’). Her story is thought to be first autobiography written in an Aboriginal language.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of this book was that although these events take place only 60 years ago, at the time the sisters were largely untouched by colonialisation. They led their lives traditionally: hunting, gathering, walking hundreds of kilometres across the desert, ‘telling stories around the fire’ – they knew nothing of white people. Jukuna says:
My grandmother used to tell me about the people with the pink skin, called kartiya. I was curious and kept asking her about them. I imagined kartiya were like trees or dogs or something….. ‘Are kartiya the colour of this blood from the lizard?’ I’d ask…. I was really curious about these kartiya.
Increasingly, Ngarta and Jukuna see their family members leaving the desert to take up work at nearby cattle stations (‘all through the sandhill country people were seized by a great impulse to travel north into what was now white people’s country’), and interactions with white people become more commonplace. The sisters’ stories are peppered with these cultural encounters: when one of Jukuna’s male relatives saw a water tank for the first time ‘he staggered backwards, shocked. He picked up a piece of antbed … and threw the antbed into the water as he would have done in the desert when he was approaching a jila [waterhole]’.
There are also ugly bits that made my stomach turn. Ngarta writes:
At the station they looked around in amazement at all the buildings and gates and fences – there were so many things they had never seen before. The policemen took their photographs. Then the kartiya locked all the children in a house in case they tried to run away again.
One time at Timber Creek, one of the workers brought in some grog from the town for Christmas celebrations. The men drank until they lost their senses. They drank the lot. As we watched them we became quite scared, because we had never seen anything like it before.
A few pages into Two Sisters I had to recalibrate how I was processing these stories; there is no linear, narrative arc. It can be difficult sometimes to know who is who, or how much importance to attach to a particular event. The passage of time is really fluid, seasons come and go (‘all this happened in the cold weather’/ ‘after the wet’) and people’s lives revolve around travelling between waterholes. But of course, it should be this way. I shouldn’t expect these stories to be primped and manufactured into something that’s easily digestible for me. The two women who helped Ngarta and Jukuna tell their stories have done a great job, including enough detail to guide the English reader, but not to smother Ngarta and Jukuna’s voices (much like the adept editing in Home Truths, which I reviewed here).
Ngarta and Jukuna were both renowned artists and Two Sisters includes stunning reproductions of their paintings – bold, beautiful depictions of their country’s waterholes and landscape. Ngarta was even part of a group who created an enormous painting of ‘all the important waterholes’ of their land ‘to show the government when we asked them for Native Title to our country’. The native title claim was successful- the Ngurrara claim group was granted over 78,000 square km in the Great Sandy Desert in 2009.
As I reflected on this book, I realised I’ve read only one other autobiographical account by an Aboriginal person – Sally Morgan’s My Place, which I read in the 1990s. Shame on me. I’m really pleased that, although an embarrassing twenty years later, I’ve now read Two Sisters: it’s galvanised me to actively seek out more Indigenous writing. If there’s other Aboriginal writing out there as illuminating as this, and I’m positive there is, I need to read it.
Review copy provided courtesy of Magabala Books.
Feature image: The Ngurrara Canvas. Painted by Ngurrara artists and claimants, May 1997. Photo: Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.