It is Reconciliation Week this week. An important aspect of the act of reconciliation in Australia is non-indigenous Australians listening, pondering and accepting the experiences of the first Australians. There are many ways we can participate. I chose to read the recently published memoir of a woman from the centre of Australia – Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis.
Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis is a Ngaatjatjarra woman who was born near the border of Western Australia and Northern Territory. Her parents met white people for the first time around the time she was born. Ellis explains that it was a time of extended drought in the desert which is why Ngaatjatjarra people decided to live in white people’s settlements. This is a reminder that first contact and colonialism occurred unevenly across the Australian continent.
Pictures from my memory is a story of achievement. Marrkilyi Ellis tells her story in a straight-forward manner. She proved adept at straddling the cultural divide from a young age. “I loved school”, she says. “I loved learning to read and write.” But she was also learning much from her family and community. While sharing her life story she explains to the reader some aspects of her culture in chapters about “belief systems”, “working and sharing”, “Aboriginal nights”. These chapters fit well within the narrative flow of her story.
Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis is at her most passionate when talking about language and culture. “All over the world, language gives people, a group of people, their identity”, she says.
Language and culture: you can’t have one without the other. If you lose your language, you lose the culture. … But if you still practice that culture, sometimes even without language, some parts can still be strong, while other parts are gone.
But Marrkilyi Ellis adds, “[c]ulture adapts to change”.
As an adult Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis worked as a nurse for old people in Alice Springs, taught in schools and became an interpreter. “Interpreting and language teaching opened a whole new world to me” she says. Marrkilyi Ellis has travelled around Australia and the world as an interpreter. She explains the difficult work that interpreters do and how her work helps people.
This book introduces new vocabulary to non-indigenous readers. I learned that the Western Desert peoples refer to themselves as Yarnangu. There is a helpful glossary of words and they are explained in the text. Yarnangu family relationships are very different to European family relationships. After reading the introduction by anthropologist, Laurent Dousset I did as suggested and read his overview of the Ngaatjatjarra in the appendix before reading Marrkilyi Ellis’ work. The appendix explains Ngaatjatjarra family relationships, the Western Desert language group and their life as ‘hunter-gatherers’. This type of classification is rejected by some indigenous people such as Bruce Pascoe. Dousset acknowledges this is controversial but argues that it is a fair and relevant way of describing the Western Desert peoples.
Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis does not blow her trumpet but she is clearly a high achiever and has worked hard throughout her life to help both Aboriginal people and non-indigenous people understand each other. Currently she is leading a research project at the Australian National University that is looking at Western Desert languages.
I found myself captivated by Pictures from my memory. Beyond classifications of people, language and cultural differences this book helps us to find rapport with fellow people. Anyone can relate to the emotions concerning the difficulties, the relationships and accomplishments that are highlighted in this book. Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis is very good at communicating her life and culture to non-indigenous readers.
The theme for Reconciliation Week in 2016 is ‘Our history, Our story, Our future’. Reading memoirs by indigenous authors is one way to shape our mindset and to recognise the humanity and the achievements of the first Australians.