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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Irrititja – the Past: Antikirrinya History from Ingomar Station and Beyond by Ingkama Bobby Brown and Petter Attila Naessan, 64 pp, Keeaira Press, Southport, Queensland, 2012, ISBN 9780980594256 (pbk), $25.00.

‘History is finished now’, declares Ingkama Bobby Brown (p. 35), but clearly not, as this historical account of Antikirrinya language and culture testifies. This charming book, a collaboration between Bobby Brown, the Indigenous co-author, and a non-Indigenous linguist Petter Attila Naessan, is a valuable contribution to what is a sparsely documented part of South Australia, and to Anangu history pertaining to that region. Such ventures provide not only a written record of a world that is disappearing, but also a legacy for future generations of ‘Antikirrinya’ to seek out and treasure.

Herein lies what we found to be the main issue with this short book: it is not clear who the intended audience actually is. While this volume is commendable in aiming to blend both a vernacular recount and historical research, it is an approach that may speak more to researchers rather than local Antikirrinya readers. We are told (p. 9) that the initial idea for the project came from Ingkama Bobby Brown who wanted to make sure that tjamula kamila arangka, ‘the ways of the grandparents’, could be documented for future generations. This commendable aim follows in the wake of many similar published and unpublished accounts by Indigenous authors. Many of these succeed because they are written in a style and format that appeals to a local audience and they are filled with relevant photographs or illustrations.

Our concern with this book is that the style of the two authors has not blended into a coherent final text. Is this book Bobby Brown’s story, that is, a transcription of a personal oral history? Or is it a ‘report’ that seeks to make sweeping reference to the broader linguistic, historical, demographic, ecological and geographical context of the Antikirrinya region? A defter merging of these two aspects, both of which are valuable and interesting, would have made for a more engaging read. Bobby Brown has a very important story to tell, however we learn so little about him. The authors could have made more use of the chronological structure of Brown’s oral narrative to contextualise relevant diversions into the referenced literature. The book would also have benefitted from a genealogy of Brown’s family, also for Brown’s story, especially his account of ‘puyu pakarnu 1953-angka’ the Weapons Research Establishment bomb testing in South Australia, to be linked more carefully to Naessan’s account of South Australian history. Likewise, given Brown’s interest in plants in his vernacular texts, it is strange that the scientific names of the plants are not highlighted in the English texts.

Language is a key theme in this book and this is made apparent in the Preface and the broader description of the ‘language ecology’ (pp. 31–35). As a linguist, Naessan takes care to explain his approach to spelling, pronunciation and translation. Upfront he highlights some of the quandaries associated with the standardisation of writing in newly literate languages such as the Western Desert family of languages by focusing on the use of diacritics, ie underlining, in some orthographies to represent the retroflex sounds. As he so rightly points out, this can be cumbersome for literate Western Desert speakers and for all who try to write certain Western Desert languages on computers. The Ngaanyatjarra orthography developed by Amee Glass and Dorothy Hackett (see Glass and Hackett 2003) has indeed created a more durable system for maintaining the retroflex sounds in written language. In his transcription of Brown’s Yankunytjatjara texts Naessan proceeds to use Ngaanyatjarra orthographic conventions not only for the retroflex sounds, but also for the tap or trill ‘rr’, in order to ‘simplify the process of writing’, despite the orthographic conventions typically adopted for Yankunytjatjara and also Antikirrinya (see Goddard 1996: 9). Naessan also decides to use a ‘shorter’ version of the language name, that is ‘Yankunytjarra’ (p. 5) rather than the standardised spelling ‘Yankunytjatjara’, even though he has provided a morphological description of the standardised form (ie the language having yankunytja meaning ‘going’ and –tjarra meaning having/with). Unfortunately, the language names that he uses (ie Yankunytjarra and Pitjanytjarra) do not make sense grammatically. This unnecessary and confusing simplification of the language names had us perplexed, as did other orthographic idiosyncracies (Pregon/Fregon; Aranda/Arrernte; Mable Creek/Mabel Creek; ‘Arnangus’). For those who are fluent readers of Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara the text is difficult to read because of what appears to be a jarring spelling style.

Nevertheless, this is an important contribution to the documentation of an otherwise neglected region of South Australia and the hard work involved in producing this book needs to be applauded.


Glass, A and D Hackett 2003, Ngaanyatjarra and Ngaatjatjarra to English Dictionary, IAD Press, Alice Springs.

Goddard, C 1996, A Basic Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary, IAD Press, Alice Springs.

Inge Kral

Centre for Aborginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR)

The Australian National University

Linda Rive

Ara Irititja

Alice Springs

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