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Doctorate recognises ancient wisdom of the Western Desert

Australian National University, Indigenous Languages, IYIL, Jane Simpson, Shape

Date: 25 July 2019

On 19th July, Elizabeth Marrkilyi Warnngupayi Ellis was admitted to the Doctor of Letters by The Australian National University “on the grounds of her exceptional contribution to the study of traditional Indigenous languages.” In her own Ngaanyatjarra homelands in Western Australia, the newly minted Dr Ellis is recognised as a senior woman with outstanding language skills and a master storyteller.

Upon receiving the honorary doctorate, Elizabeth took the opportunity to recount the rare journey she has taken through interpreting and translating, language teaching and curriculum development, cross-cultural awareness, education management, museum and heritage work, and of course research, including on four dictionary projects.

“I was born in 1962, not in a hospital but in the bush under a lovely gum tree near Giles Weather Station,” Elizabeth began. “At that time my parents and grandparents were still living a semi-nomadic life, but were on the verge of entering the stage of settled existence.”

Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis demonstrates the sand storytelling tradition tjinytjatjunku tjuma.

Elizabeth Ellis demonstrates the sand storytelling tradition of tjinytjatjunku tjuma.

She grew up in the WA Goldfields town of Leonora, only returning to what became the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, a cluster of 11 communities, as a young adult. Elizabeth’s linguistic career began when she was head hunted to be an interpreter and translator by the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs, having first worked as a nurse and assistant teacher.

“It was community controlled and we ran on the smell of an oily rag – the government didn’t put much importance on the Aboriginal Interpreter Service in those days,” Elizabeth recalls. “Back then, they wanted everybody to just speak English, but these days they run it themselves.”

For seven years, Elizabeth translated the related languages Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Pintupi in what she calls the “heyday of the service” at police stations, courts and health services, at meetings with lawyers, miners, land claimants and the myriad organisations of the Centralian Aboriginal world. She especially remembers the grinding, three-day quarterly meetings of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta board of management, involving complex expert advice and scientific terminology: “The first time I worked there, they said we want you back as our designated interpreter – so I arrived to save the day!”

Interestingly, it was chance encounters with two Frenchmen who brought Elizabeth into the world of linguistics proper. The first was Professor Jacques Montredon, with whom she co-taught Ngaanyatjarra in France in 1994, and documented narratives and gestures in her home community of Tjukurla. “The French students loved it,” Elizabeth remembers. “We took the approach of going out and having an experience – like throwing boomerangs, cooking food or exploring a cave – and using it to learn the language.”

One of those students was anthropologist Professor Laurent Dousset, who later assisted Elizabeth in research for her autobiography, Pictures from my Memory: Story of an Aboriginal Ngaatjatjarra Woman.

L to R: Inge Kral, Jane Simpson, Denise Steele, Melanie Giles (granddaughter), Elizabeth Ellis and Jennifer Green.

L to R: Inge Kral, Jane Simpson, Denise Steele, Melanie Giles (granddaughter), Elizabeth Ellis and Jennifer Green.  

Elizabeth started a Bachelor of Arts (Language and Linguistics) at Batchelor Institute in the Northern Territory, publishing a number of papers on Ngaanyatjarra in the process. “I have a passion for my language work and that is the reason I continued studying,” she said.  

She soon became a ‘go to person’ for a string of linguists, but what Elizabeth calls her “biggest and most important research” started in 2010 when she began documenting the verbal arts of her culture with Inge Kral. Five years later, they teamed up with Jane Simpson and Jennifer Green when she joined the Centre as an ARC Discovery Indigenous Fellow. The verbal arts include storytelling narratives, sand drawing stories, children’s stories and games, hand sign talk and respectful speech, including one special register that is spoken during a particular ceremony. The traditions are also evolving quickly, with younger storytellers able to adapt the sand story practice to iPads.   

“All of these verbal arts are special but they are endangered,” Elizabeth said. “That is why we need to document them for the children of the future. It was the desire of the elders in the Ngaanyatjarra community to have their oral traditions documented.”

Elizabeth Ellis addresses the congregation after receving her honorary doctorate (watch from 1:28:25).

Widely respected as a brilliant intercultural interpreter, Elizabeth explained the unique role she plays as both a language speaker and a researcher: “As a fluent speaker of multiple Western Desert dialects I know who to ask to engage in our research and who not to, when and where ceremonies have commenced, where the areas for men only and for women only are. As a researcher one needs to know this and respect these cultural rules. If you break them, you will not be allowed back to undertake any more research. There are advantages of an ‘insider’ like me doing research work with our own families and own people.”

Elizabeth’s mother tongue is still strong: Ngaanyatjarra has about 2,000 speakers and it is being passed down to grandchildren. But she recognises the danger in a world of rapidly receding Indigenous languages. Primary schools in the Western Desert have only recently started delivering the curriculum that she put together with local elders and Inge Kral almost 20 years ago.

“Ideally, you’d like to have Ngaanyatjarra teachers who instruct children in the language from an early age,” Elizabeth said. “Later, you switch over to English while keeping the mother tongue, using them both side by side. Through our work these oral traditions, although endangered, will be kept alive and strong for future generations.”

Video: Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis telling a Creation Story near Tjukurla Community in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, WA (2012)

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University