This is an interesting little book.
Engaging, fascinating and seemingly detailed. I only say seemingly because I don’t know myself yet. I haven’t found anything else quite like it and it matches what I’ve been told by people more in the know than myself. The People In Between is the story of the Pitjantjatjara people at Pukatja (formerly Ernabella). Written in 1968, by Winifred Hilliard, Deaconness at Ernabella Mission for 32 years from 1954, you might expect this little tome to be filled with typical attitudes of Australia of half a century ago. But it’s not. She tells the history of Pitjantjatjara interaction with Europeans candidly and with great detail. Her knowledge of early interactions between the explorers, the doggers and others is fascinating and appears well put together. There were sources used which surprised and opened my eyes to Australian attitudes over the past 150 odd years. And much of it was completely new to me. I knew nothing of men who hunted dingo, very little of the first white people to travel through the centre to Perth or Darwin, and virtually nothing about Pitjantjatjara interaction with these people, or their culture. That’s pretty shameful for someone from South Australia. It’s clearly a history that very few of us know or have ever been exposed to.
But what makes this book fascinating is that it doesn’t treat people with the same stereotypes that other books from its time do, or are likely to do. She seems to have great regard for and connection to the Pitjantjatjara people and Ernabella as place. In its descriptions of culture, custom and lifestyle, she is an observer without Western eyes – not judging like so many before, but describing and making connections. And for an outsider, that makes for a fascinating introduction. For sure, there are moments where she places emphasis on religion in a way that doesn’t quite sit right to someone who is not religious. But equally relevant in my mind is her emphasis on the importance of teaching in Pitjantjatjara, of knowing country and language, of working with the people, not to impose ideas but to provide opportunities and to allow people to take what they wish and discard what they do not.
I wonder if, with time, my own views towards this book will change. I am hesitant to commend any book without knowing the subject well enough. But for an entry point, it was fascinating. There are moments reading it that made me shake my head, thinking “If she was saying that then, why on Earth did governments do what they did later?” With so little written from that period or on that subject that I’ve been able to find, it’s an important work, though difficult to get your hands on.