Australian Biography: Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue
Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue was born in 1932 in Granite Downs, SA, a remote Aboriginal community.
She never knew her white father and, at the age of two, was taken away from her mother, who she was not to see for 33 years.
After a long struggle to win admission to a training hospital, Lois became the first black nurse in South Australia.
In 1976, she was the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded an Order of Australia. In 1983 she was honoured with a CBE and in 1984 she was made Australian of the Year.
In 1990 she became the founding chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
Since this Australian Biography interview, she has changed her name to Lowitja O'Donoghue. She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1994.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
The name Lois O'Donoghue has become much more familiar to Australians since you've been head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission and you've also been Australian of the Year in 1984. That name Lois O'Donoghue has become much better known. Was it the name your mother gave you?
No, it wasn't a name my mother gave me. My name is Lowitja. The name Lois O'Donoghue, of course, comes from ... the missionaries gave me Lois, which, of course, is a biblical name, the mother of Timothy. And O'Donoghue, of course, is my father's name: my father Tom O'Donoghue, who I never met.
He was a ... an Irishman who ... who came to Australia and found himself as the station manager at Granite Downs in the north-west of South Australia, which is now Pitjantjara lands.
I was born at Granite Downs and the Aboriginal name, of course, for the area is Indulkana.
My mother's name was Lily. When I met her later, much later, of course, in life, she was actually Lily Woodford, but she would have been Lily, and only Lily as far as we were concerned.
And how did your parents know each other?
Well, that's difficult really to know. By the time I met my mother, of course, it was far too emotional to talk about. We had language barriers to start with and it was too difficult to talk about the relationship, I guess, of my father and my mother, and I didn't really quite know how to broach the subject. But on the other hand, I'd felt that she'd been hurt enough over the years, that really the mysteries of those things was something that I really was going to have to live with.
So what do you know about your birth?
All I know about my birth is that I was actually born in the bush, like all Aboriginal children at those times. It's ... it was a ... a traditional birth attended by the grandmothers as, of course, is the traditional way. And the only other thing I know of course, is that I ... I never had a birth certificate. And, of course, I still don't have a birth certificate.
I can't be absolutely sure but it would be fairly close to the mark and my birthday is the 1 August, 1932, and I think it would be as close as possible to the date, but I guess the missionaries had a hand in that as well.
So how long were with your mother?
I was with my mother for two years and I was the youngest child at the time of being removed by the missionaries and the only thing I know about ... I can't remember any of it, but I was told, that it was the custom in those days for missionaries to go out on a fairly regular basis with the aim, of course, of collecting the half-caste children and taking them away to mission life, which was meant to be for our good.
Were they helped by the police to do this?
Well, yes, in some areas, in fact it was the police who ... who took the children away and the stories that are told of, course, I think that the police going out was much more fearful than the missionaries going out because the missionaries would stay around for some time, of course, with their scrolls of the stories of Jesus and, of course, the idea was that they would sit for weeks at a time and not only would they be there to collect up the so-called half-caste children, they were there also to Christianise the ... the Aboriginal people.
So they won the trust of the people?
Yes, yes they did, but it's difficult from my part to understand why in fact they would win trust from the people given the fact that their ... I guess their two aims were, one to Christianise the Aboriginal people who, of course, were living in traditional ways in the camps, and to take their children away. But I guess they probably took a few goodies as well, you know, which is I guess one way of getting Aboriginal people on side, so I guess they would have taken stores and that sort of thing as well.
So did they persuade the women to give their children up willingly?
Well, no, not willingly. I mean the stories that were told, of course ... one of the reasons that they stayed of course around as well as long as they did [was] because the mothers would hide the children. In ... in my case, of course, it wasn't only myself so they weren't coming to get one child. They hadn't been ... obviously hadn't been out for some time and if they had, my sister Amy, who was two years older than me, and my sister Violet, who was four years older than me, were still with with my mother. And so, I think what may have happened there was that she had been successful for that period of time to hide Violet and Amy but when they came out again, of course, when I was two, I guess it was more difficult to hide three children than it was to hide one or two.
So your older sisters would remember life in the Aboriginal camp better than you.
Well, no they don't actually. My sister Violet, of course, was six and she can't remember any of it at all. I had, of course, two older ... I had an older sister and brother that had been taken away quite a long time earlier and taken to the same home and they don't remember, either, anything of life with my mother.
Were your older sisters also the children of Tom O'Donoghue?
Yes, and I think if you were to look at us all, we are like ... we are very much alike and it was my arriving in Coober Pedy that ... that the people in the town said, 'That's Lily's daughter', when I arrived and, of course, if you were to look at us all, we are very much alike, and the indications are that my father had a long standing relationship with my mother and there were five children by that relationship.
And yet he did nothing to prevent you being taken away?
No, but ... because it's difficult for me to really confirm what the situation was but my understanding was that he had a ... a wife and family in Adelaide, so I guess one could understand that he really was living a double life and wouldn't want ... wouldn't have wanted for his family in the city to know that he had five half-caste children.
Is it possible also that he thought it was for the best?
Well, yes, it could have well have been. It could have been a combination of both really, because obviously he wasn't going to be staying around for that long and then, of course, the other mystery is, of course, whether in fact half-caste children were all that welcome in the ... in, you know, as ... within the traditions.
By what authority did the missionaries take these children away?
Well, I'm not absolutely sure because the mission authority really had no dealings with government as such, and, of course, the history was that it was government policy to remove the half-caste children. The thinking, of course, at that time was that they were actually soothing the dying pillow and that Aboriginal people would die out. And so by moving ... removing the half-caste child and bringing in the regime of the half-caste children eventually becoming so-called white people ...
This was the policy of assimilation?
This was a policy of assimilation, yes, and so during my, of course, early teenage years and so on, I was encouraged by the Protector of Aborigines to become exempt - that was the terminology that was used - and with that, you signed a document which meant that you were now exempt and you were a white person so you were eligible, of course, to drink in the pubs and to get married and so on. There were all sorts of penalties for cohabiting with white people if you weren't an exempt person. But I resisted that.
Back on Granite Downs station, where there was an Aboriginal group, part of the Pitjantjara tribe living, were you ... would you have been accepted in the same way as full blood Aboriginal children were, or was there a problem if you had European blood among the Aboriginal community?
Well, I can only really, I guess, guess at what might have been the situation because after ... after the children were taken away, in my case, at some stage my mother moved to Oodnadatta, which, of course, was the town closest to Pitjantjara lands. And my guess would be that to some extent she might have been outcast in the sense that she had, in fact, had a relationship with a white man. Now it's difficult to know that. I've been back and I've attempted to talk to ... to talk to the people about that era. They feel at this time, of course they are all very sad about what happened and those of us who do go back on a regular basis are, of course, are very welcome back in the tribal situation. But I think at that time, there might have been some tensions.
Did your sisters remember anything of the language?
Well, my understanding is that we were all ... we were certainly all fluent when we arrived, even myself at age two.
Yes, and that is something I see, of course, as I go back and go into Aboriginal communities, that the young children are fluent in the language. So we were fluent in the language and we noticed over the period of time when we were in the children's home that the new children that came in were very fluent with the language, but we had that knocked out of us fairly soon after our arrival because as far as the missionaries were concerned that to speak the language and to ask questions about our origins, was something that ... that was not ... not encouraged, and in fact, discouraged. So we weren't allowed to speak the language or ask of our origins, and so any of that, of course, had to be done in secret.
Do you remember any of it now?
Yes I do but because I returned to work amongst my people before I went as a welfare officer, nursing sister to Coober Pedy, which, of course, on the end ... edge of Pitjantjara lands.
So did you have to learn it all over again?
I went to the Adelaide University that taught the ... taught the language because education is taught. English, of course, is a second language and so the teachers and the nursing sisters are encouraged to actually have some knowledge of the language before going out, so I went out and I was able to. But you know, it came to me easier to me than those others on the course.
It did? So there was something there still from those early years?
Oh, yes, there was. And we did ... we did speak the language of course in secret but we ... we certainly were not fluent by any means by the time we left the home.
Now tell me, when you were taken, you have no memory of that but you think there probably would have been a struggle?
Yes, by what I hear. For those who do remember, there certainly wouldn't ... would have been a struggle on the part of my mother, but perhaps not on the part of my father.
And what missionary group took you and where did they take you?
Well it was the United Aborigines Mission, it was called. And they operated, of course, in South Australia and in Western Australia and in New South Wales. The head office was in New South Wales and there was a state office in South Australia and one in Melbourne, as far as I know. So I understand that the United Aborigines Mission was a collection of churches, and in fact it was the churches that were associated with the United Aborigines Mission from where ... where our support came from because the United Aborigines Mission was a ... was what they called a faith mission and so we ... we were constantly reminded that we lived by faith and that everything that came in the way of gifts to the mission for our sustenance came from the gifts from the churches.
So it was entirely supported by the churches?
Entirely, and we were brought up to ... not to in any way, have anything to do with government and that when we left the home that we should be totally independent of government and, so, not many of us, of course, believed that we'd live by faith, of course, when we left. So the missionaries weren't that successful I don't think in instilling in us that it was possible to ... to live by faith. But ...
But they were very concerned that you shouldn't think you should go into social services at any stage of your life?
Very concerned about that. It was [a] very, very strict upbringing and very Spartan.
Where were you taken? Where actually did they operate as far as you were concerned? What home were you taken to?
Well I was taken from Granite Downs, which is now, of course, referred to as Indolkina, across to Oodnadatta because the ... the United Aborigines Mission had a presence there for ... for a long time and in fact, the first children ... the first twelve children that went into the home were at Oodnadatta and in later years the mission was set up at Quorn in the Flinders Rangers and that is where I have my permanent home now.
The home was called Colebrook Home for Half Caste Children.
Why was it called Colebrook Home?
It was named after one of the Council members. There was a Council for the ... the United Aborigines Mission Council that had the interests, of course, of the children of Colebrook Home at heart and Mr. Colebrook was the president and that's how Colebrook got it's name.
Now why were these missionaries only interested in half-caste children? I mean when they were rounding up children to Christianise them and take them away and have them integrated or assimilated into Australian society, why weren't they also trying to take full blood children?
Well, I think it was something to do with the policies of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and it seemed as if it was the half-caste children that was going to be easier, I suppose, to ... to assimilate, than it was for the half-caste children. Then, of course, there may have been even much greater resistance on the part of the ... the Aboriginal people to let the full Aboriginal child leave.
It's a funny term, half-caste, isn't it? I wonder where it comes from.
Well I mean the term half-caste wasn't the only term used of course in those days. I mean, all of our records would show how much Aboriginal blood you had and it's a term of course that is not used, of course, these days and hasn't used for a long time. So you were half-caste or you were full or you were half-caste or you were quarter-caste. I mean all those things appeared on your files, in a government department. I was surprised actually that I had a ... that I had a file because I later worked for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and had access to that file to find that there was ... about the only thing that was written on it was my name and that I was half-caste.
And it's the same with a term like full blood. I mean, given that, that blood has nothing to do with it really, that those terms were used. Did ... do Aboriginal people now find those terms offensive?
Yes they do. They do and I think we've worked very hard in a way, not to ... not to differentiate and even the terminology of being of Aboriginal descent is not a terminology that is used or that is liked because Aboriginal people like to be referred to as an Aboriginal person.
So what does your European side mean to you?
Nothing at all. Since ... since I've in fact became a little bit more prominent, I have had phone calls and letters from some members of the, my father's family and I've only ever made contact with one, a Brother O'Donoghue at Kununurra, who works for a Catholic order and I guess that was really mainly because he was involved in Aboriginal education and he was close to the areas and so on that I had dealings with, and I met him but I've not made any attempt to follow up the others. In fact some of the problems have been ... that they thought I might in fact be able to give them, you know, some ... some of the details of the family tree and, of course, you know, I'm not able to do that. So I've not really made any contact.
And you don't feel any kinship with the Irish people in the present government?
Well, I do I guess, in a way. When Mrs. Robinson was out here, the President of Ireland, there was a big contingent, of course, of press that came with her and ... and I had a meeting with her and was very much part of the functions, and so on, that were involved here and they were very interested in ... in my background. I wasn't able to tell them very much, but I guess I had a sneaking feeling at that time that they were very nice people and that I would like to get to know a bit more about it because I think the Aboriginal-Irish connection is fairly dynamic actually, and there are a lot of Aboriginal people who have Aboriginal ... have Irish background.
Well, I guess it's the combination of the Aboriginal, you know, fight for justice and, you know, what we know of the Irish and their fight.
Now this home that you were taken to - the Colebrook Home - who ran it and what was it like?
Well, it was run of course by ... by the missionaries and there were two maiden ladies, a Miss Hyde and Miss Rutter. Miss Hyde being the ... and we called them sisters and that being missionary sisters so that's where the term comes from. It's not got anything to do with the nursing profession. And Sister Hyde was the matron and the ... Sister Rutter, of course, was the deputy and from time to time, of course, there were younger missionaries who came but we can't ever remember a time when they were relieved for any length of time to go home. Sister Rutter came from England. Sister Hyde came from Melbourne and so there were times when she went to her family but they were constant in their ... in their caring and so on for us even though, of course, it was ... it wasn't such ... it was a large family and none of us were treated too much like individuals. We ... you know, we moved en masse, we answered to the bell for, you know to get up ...
Bells rang all day every day. So we got up to the bell, we went to breakfast with the bell, marching in singing hymns. And we ... everything we did, we answered to the bell so it was very, very disciplined and very structured.
So there were activities laid out for every minute of the day?
Well activities were laid out and they were mostly of course rosters. So every child, of course, was rostered so that's how in fact the chores got done around and that could be either the peeling of the vegetables or setting of the tables and the washing up and the drying and ...
How many children were there at any one time?
Well, thirty-five at at Colebrook Home, Quorn, but in later years we moved to a ... a place, which of course became Colebrook Home at Eden Hills in the Adelaide Hills. Ah, and ah, the numbers, of course, went up to around fifty in those days but, of course, we got children from the southern reserves and so on, so the ... the home was no longer so called half-caste children from the remote areas of South Australia. They were a mixture of children from ... from the southern communities.
Now you were very tiny when you went there, really, still a baby, at two. Was there a lot of affection and love from these two maiden ladies for you?
No, I can't remember any affection of that kind. Any affection that we received was really from those older girls who were rostered to look after the babies, so the affection came from them. I can't remember any affection. In fact, I guess in later years, we shied away from that sort of affection because often there were church families and so on who wanted to take, you know, children in for the school holidays and that sort of thing, which was quite foreign to go into a nuclear family type atmosphere, where, of course, they wanted to hug and kiss you and tuck you in bed and kiss you good night and that sort of stuff. I just didn't like it at all. Shied away from it and didn't really want any part of that. And there were little things like clocks ticking and those sorts of things. I could never remember, you know, in the children's home, hearing a clock tick.
Why didn't you hear a clock tick? They didn't have clocks. It was the bells?
Well, it was the bells and so on and I can't even remember, I suppose, seeing a clock but we answered to the bells, not to a clock and we would never have had a clock, of course, in our dormitory or, or in the dining room and in fact the only time we ever went into the ... into the house was to perform the chores that we had or to go into the dining room for ... for our meals and into ... the dining room became the homework centre, at nights to do our homework. Apart from that, all our activities were out of doors.
So you were really brought up by the other children. Do you remember any particular girl, who looked after you, or you had a particularly close relationship with?
Well, no I don't actually remember that from my own childhood but I remember ... I certainly remember the baby that I was responsible for when I ... when I got older and so on and her name was Doris Kartinyeri. She's Doris Thompson now and she ... she'd refer to me as her mother in the home so I certainly remember the ... the child that I was responsible for but I think that at Colebrook Home, Quorn, probably all the older girls were responsible for the babies and there just wasn't just one.
So it was very much an institution?
Oh yes, very much.
Now a lot of thought now is that that is not a good environment for developing warm, loving human being and yet you seem to have come out of it all right. Why do you think that was?
Well, I think it was because, I guess, well, I actually put it down to the discipline. I ... I don't think the discipline hurt us one bit and it really stood us in very good stead I think for ... for life ahead. It might have taken us much longer I think to ... to grow up and to come to terms with with those ... those personal relationships, because many of the things of course we were taught in the Home were things like boy-girl relationships were, of course, were taboo. Colebrook Home, of course, wasn't only a home for girls, it was a home for girls and boys, but we were always watched, certainly after it got dark and so on, that ... that we weren't getting up to any, you know, hanky panky if you like. We never saw, of course ... All the children in the home, of course, we saw as our brothers and sisters. But anything to do with boy-girl relationships and other matters, like for instance, going to the pictures or wearing men's apparel, and ... we never wore shorts. Wearing make-up and all those things were things that we were taught were wrong. And in later years, of course, when we grew up and we were out in the world and we were going back to see the younger children in the home, we never arrived at Colebrook Home in slacks, with make-up. All the make-up would come off and we appeared like we were still the kids [laughs] that grew up in the home. So in a way, I guess, we had respect for Sister Hyde and Sister Rutter, even though life was tough and punishments were severe for doing ... for doing wrong.
Oh, yes, I can remember being punished.
What were the two ladies who ran the home like?
Well it's very difficult. Sister Hyde, the matron, was very strict and stern. Sister Rutter, not so stern, but ... So really, they were there to bring us up as good Christian citizens, and to prepare us for life out in the world and so on, and they took their job very seriously.
Do you think they were fond of you?
Oh yes, I think they were. I mean, I guess, growing up that fondness didn't show, and I guess one of the reasons for that was because if you were to ask many of the other children that were in the home, they had, what we called, their pets. So there were the favourite ones and I wasn't one of those.
Oh you'd have to ask them that. [Laughs]
Well, no I don't think so, but I ... I stuck up for my own rights and for ... for those of my sisters in particular, of course who were all older than me. And so it's difficult to know whether in fact I was a ... was a cheeky child or not. But it would appear that those in fact who became the favourite ones were children who arrived as tiny babies. Now while I was considered a baby, that I was two, I didn't go in a ... as a small child. So as I look back on it, I think the favourites were those who came in as ... as children and there were I guess about twelve of them, and not one person would not know who they were. So they had their favourites. It was only as we grew up and left the home and saw them in later life, I think that they did have quite a genuine love of us and they seemed to get quite a lot of pleasure out of seeing us grow up and take on positions of leadership in the community.
Perhaps outspokenness wasn't regarded as a Christian virtue.
Yes, that'd be right.
And you were very outspoken even as a child?
Yes, I was. I was. In the home I was, but on the other hand when I left, I was very shy. And those, of course, who trained with me in nursing and so on ... and I remember when I did go out of the home into domestic service, not entering into any conversations at all and [I] remember for about two years that I was in domestic service only answering yes or no to any questions that were put to me.
Did the two ladies live to see your later success?
No, they didn't. [INTERRUPTION]
Did the two ladies live to see your later success?
No, they didn't. I mean, they lived to see me get into nursing and to train and to graduate, and to get into Aboriginal Affairs, but not the more recent success.
But ... so they were a little bit proud of you?
Oh yes, I think so.
Now you valued the discipline that was offered in the school, or in the home. What do you mean by the discipline?
Well I mean we were totally regimented of course in everything we did and we were expected always to ... to go to school every day and, of course, attend church three times a day on Sunday. We had prayers after every meal and, you know, it was just that kind of regimentation and the fact that we were always expected to do well at school and so what I say is that that didn't hurt and even in fact some of the ... what was really corporal punishment I guess in those days, wasn't only administered by the missionaries in the home. It was administered at school and all our friends, who were non-Aboriginal people, of course, who lived in the town, they experienced the same kind of discipline and punishment for wrong doing as we did but often, of course, we felt that we sustained greater punishment than most others. But looking back and having had discussions with those people that we grew up with I think perhaps the life in the home wasn't a lot different from what was the norm at that time.
Do you remember being punished yourself?
Oh yes, many times.
For what sort of things? Did you get beaten?
Well with a strap mostly. The straps were straps that were soaked in water and in fact we saw them, and then allowed to dry and so on and they were really ... they were really hard and of course you'd get great welts on your legs and on your body and so on when those ... that punishment was ... was meted out.
And what did you ... do you remember any specific instances?
Oh for not coming straight home from school, or going to school. I mean many times we were ... we were Aboriginal kids, whether you liked it or not, and at Quorn there were kangaroos and emus and we were meant to go straight to school, you know, in a group. We saw kangaroo or emu, we'd just jump the fence and just chase it and, you know, we were just side-tracked. We'd do things like take our hats off and hide them in the bushes alongside the railway line and then, of course, the railway workers that were called 'navvies' would come and burn the grass and we'd find at the end of the day all our hats had been burnt. And the other things we'd do is to remove our shoes and hide those and go to school without shoes and ... and perhaps wag school and the ... Sister Hyde and Sister Rutter would get to know about that. So we were punished for doing those childish things, I think that most children do.
And yet you value that? Some people would think that would have been a terrible life, to be regimented and punished like that.
No, well I value it from the point of view that I think that when I eventually went out into the life, out into life ... I was on my own of course, we had nothing to turn back to. I mean at the age of sixteen all the girls at the age of sixteen went into domestic employment and the boys went out bush, became stockmen and we were on our own, so I think it was good to think back, not on the punishment, but to think back on the fact that we were disciplined and I think that really we were able to survive out in the ... out in the world.
Where did you go to school? Was there a special school for you?
No not at Quorn. We went to the public school at Quorn and we ... as Colebrook children, were very well accepted in the small town of Quorn, which was a railway junction and a railway town. It wasn't until we left Quorn to go to Eden Hills, in the city, that we experienced racism and that we understood, I suppose, for the first time, we were ... we always understood we were Aboriginal children, but there wasn't any racism apart from the childish things that happen at ... at school we were called 'niggers' and ... but somehow we seemed to, you know, sort of have a fight over that and we were able to put it behind us. But when we went to Eden Hills we weren't accepted in the ... in the primary school and for the first two years of my primary education I went to school at the Colebrook Home, Eden Hills, where we had Red Cross women come in and teach us. In later years, the Education Department provided a ... a headmistress to the school and it was after about three or four years we were finally accepted into the ... into the local primary school. But I was nearing the end of my primary education, did my final year, which was the Seventh Grade in South Australia and sat for my Progress Certificate two years after I went to the city and then moved on to high school.
So at Quorn you didn't have any sense that being an Aboriginal was in any way a disadvantage in life?
It certainly wasn't a disadvantage to us in ... in the school. Many of our ... the children from the home, of course, did well. Dux of the school and we in fact competed with ... with the other children in the school. We were by far the best sports people and we ... we competed very well in the education system.
So it wasn't just in sport, it was also in academic things that you were excelling?
Oh yes we were. I mean I can't say that of myself personally because I think any ... anything that I've done I've done really since I left school. And I guess looking back on a few reports that I have been able to see, which I looked at when I was Australian of the Year ... I went back to the Quorn school on a visit and they showed me some of the records at the Quorn school and my ... my marks weren't all that brilliant. But I held my own, but I guess I took life much more seriously when I ... when I left school.
But you actually had quite a lot of fun when you were at school?
Oh yes, I really enjoyed life at school.
And how, in the home, were you conscious of your Aboriginality? That whole theme of what you'd left behind and who you'd left behind and what that identity was that you weren't allowed to develop or practice ... Did you have any little signs of that coming through to you, while you were in the home?
Ah yes, only in so far as that there were new children coming in all the time. So they were coming in fluent in the language. They knew about who we were once we said, you know, that our mother was Lily. 'Where is she?' you know. 'What is she doing and what's she like?' and so on. So we were able to get snippets of information from the new children coming in ... into the home and so we were always fully aware of course that we were Aboriginal children, and that we'd come from a traditional group of people, even though we didn't know much about it. We would occasionally see there were several of the children whose parents did visit the home, and ... because they were in a position to do so. And so there were some who came through and who visited and so we were able to talk to them and then, of course, there was a tribe of Aboriginal people who were from around the Flinders Ranges called the Antakarinja people, who were visible in the town of Quorn - not many but there were, and so we were able to see that there were Aboriginal people, who lived close by, who practised the traditions and we related to that, but not in a very open way.
Were the parents of the half-caste children in the homes, who could come to see them, were they encouraged to?
Some were encouraged to and I think that it was only those who were in a position to be able to. I mean when you consider we came from the north-west South Australia, transport was very, very difficult, because the missionaries went out by camel and so ... but the Ghan, of course, the old Ghan ran through Oodnadatta.
Yes. But people had to get in from very remote areas to Oodnadatta to get on a train and so it wasn't difficult to get around in those times. So it was those who ... who were in jobs, who were able to, who had camel teams, who were really able to move around and there were very few. I can only remember Mr. Hayes and the Lester family's father and so there were only about two that I remember who did come through, and I have no knowledge of them not ... them being denied access to their children.
Now, you were saying your own academic record wasn't so brilliant but that there were some Aboriginal children who were dux of the school. Yet the expectation for those children was still only that they should go into domestic service or become stockmen. Was there no alternative offered? What about the very bright children? Were they encouraged at all to go on?
No, no encouragement whatsoever. I mean by the time I left the home at sixteen I'd had my Intermediate Certificate, which of course was ... what would they call it now - Year ...
That would be the end of Year Nine now.
About Year Nine now.
Yes, three years of high school, so, yeah, three years of high school. So Intermediate Certificate, which was considered, of course, a good educational standard for those times but on my sixteenth birthday, I was told I was going into domestic service.
And what did you think of that?
Well of course I ... I wasn't very happy about it at all. I wanted to, in fact, make sure that I did leave on my sixteenth birthday. We at Eden Hills, of course, were in a much stronger position because we were closer to the city. We had contacts with the older girls who were out in domestic service, who'd come and visit us in the home and give us perhaps a telephone ... money for a telephone call and so on to them. So we were able to make some contacts on the outside world, which I remember doing but, of course, the mission authorities weren't aware that I was making virtually my own arrangements, and in so far as that I was ringing the older girls saying, 'Do you know who wants a girl?' That's what we used to say. 'Who wants a girl?' and that is somebody to work for them in domestic service, and that was the way the mission authorities referred to it: that so and so, some doctor or some lawyer wanted a girl and that you were now sixteen and you were going out. So I attempted to make my own arrangements to actually leave the Home and that was really the first I understood, that the missionaries felt that I was the sort of person that might get into a fair bit of trouble when I got out of the home, and I think that was mainly because I ... I stood up for myself and for others and they felt that when I got out of the home that I'd be one of these people who, perhaps ... But getting into trouble for them meant that within the first year of being out you'd be pregnant and that you'd be caught up with the wrong ... wrong element in society and so on and so all my attempts to actually get out into domestic service into the city, where I could meet the other older girls ... because we had an arrangement in the city that those girls, who were out in domestic service, would all attempt to get Thursdays off, [and] would meet at Beehive Corner, which is in Rundle Street - still there - at midday, go to Myer's basement for lunch and then head up to Colebrook Home to see the younger children, and perhaps that night go to the pictures on the way back. So, of course, for me, I'd hoped that I was going to do that as well, but what came back to me from the mission office was that, 'No she's not going to work in the city, she's going to the country'. So I found myself at Victor Harbour, which is a coastal town, a very nice coastal town, but of course fifty miles from the city, which was a long way in those days, and out on a farm, out from ... from Victor Harbour, and my only leisure, I suppose, outside of working for people by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Swincer was to look after the six children on the beach front while they did their shopping on Fridays. And then into church on Sunday. So I had no ... no opportunity to get up to mischief anyway.
So what did you actually have to do when you were in service to a family?
Well when I arrived, of course, Mrs. Swincer was ... was one week from going into hospital for her sixth child. And that was really quite a shock to me because if I ever remembered seeing - remembering of course I was brought up in a children's home and the only contacts we had, of course, was the maiden ladies, the missionaries in the home - and I couldn't ever remember seeing a pregnant woman before and I found that in a week ... in a week's time, I was totally in charge of that family, which meant that I was responsible for the ... for the cooking, for the cleaning and for the caring of those five children and that was meant getting them off to school and receiving them when they got home and ...
Did you go out and buy a bell?
No, I didn't buy a bell. I was really very pleased to [laughs] get away from the bell. But on the other hand it was a fairly regimented family as well but not one that answered to the bell.
So how did you cope as a sixteen year old girl suddenly with this huge family to look after?
Well, I managed, even though I was never in charge in the ... in the home I was never in charge in that way. We were certainly all rostered but not totally in charge of the menu and we would just be doing either the setting of the table, or peeling the vegetables and stirring the porridge or something like that. But apart from that, but ...
You did know how it was all done?
Yes, and I got a quite good report when I left.
I was there about two years, and in the time that I was there, I attended a Baptist fellowship, because they belonged to a Baptist fellowship in Victor Harbour and attending the Baptist fellowship was Matron Tuck, the matron of the South Coast District Hospital and I'd made contact with her and had placed my name on ... on the waiting list.
To become a nurse.
What made you decide you wanted to become a nurse?
Well I think the ... the really ... the main thing in my mind at that time was that it would provide me with a home and it would also provide me with a ... with a regular wage. So I think that was the thing that really drew me to nursing. However, I ... I enjoyed my time nursing and I believe, as well as has been confirmed of course by references and so on, that I was really quite a good nurse.
During the time that you were living with this family, those two years, were you paid a wage then?
Yes I was. I was paid. My wage was thirty shillings, that's one pound ten shillings. I received ten shillings and one pound went into a trust account for me in the ... in the state office of the United Aborigines Mission. Now, there's a long story to that. When I left domestic service, I, of course, needed uniforms and you would always receive, of course, what your standard clothes ought to be to go into nursing, and from memory it would be half a dozen aprons and, you know, frocks and so on, and, of course, I needed, you know ... I needed money to do that. But, of course, by this time I was eighteen years old. I made my way to the city, to the Mission office, who obviously ... and I wasn't aware but obviously was still, in a way, accepting some responsibility for us. While there was no contact with me in the time that I'd been in domestic service, I'd gone there to actually access my trust account, hoping that I'd be able to ... and, of course, the request was that I should open a bank account and that I would go and purchase my requirements to start nursing. With that I was told that I couldn't have access to the trust account until I was twenty-one. So I never, ever did see the ...
... any of that money.
Did you try to get it when you were twenty-one?
No I didn't. I resolved that they could have it.
Very angry, very angry.
Did you also feel angry when you were trying to get a place in the city and they just decided that you were to go to this place in the country? Did that make you angry?
No, I can't remember having been angry about that, because I was really ... I mean my real ... my real quest I suppose was at that time to actually get out of the home, and it didn't really matter much to me where I went. I thought it would be nice to be able to have contact with those older girls, who, of course, I all regarded as my sisters, and ... but really what was uppermost in my mind, to get out, get in domestic service and then get into nursing as quickly as I could. So I can't feel ... I can't say that I felt any anger, real anger about that. But it stays in my mind so I guess there was a little bit there. But I was really angry about not being able to access my ... my trust account. And I think remember saying, 'Well stick it', you know, 'and that I'll make it anyway'. So I remember having, being able to purchase ... I think I could have ... I know I could have purchased all of those things if I'd have had the mission authorities come with me to the store and buy all those things for me. But I wasn't about to subject myself to that. And I thought the indignities of it, anyway, because the head of the mission office was a Mr. Samuel, a blind man, who, of course, insisted that he would escort me to the store and so on to do that, and there was no way I was going to subject myself to that sort of ...
Being watched over.
To make sure you didn't spend it on drink or something?
Or something else. So I decided that I would go into nursing. I had ... I had two aprons and two uniforms as such, frocks and ...
How did you get ... how did you get the money for that?
Well I was getting ten shillings and, of course, I wasn't, wasn't going anywhere. I was only looking after the children so I had ...
That was ten shillings a week?
So that was ten shillings a week that I was receiving. So I had ... I had that and I was able to buy only two, which meant that I had to buy my shoes and stockings, which, of course, was black stockings, black shoes and the uniform for that hospital. So there was two. So I spent the first months, of course, washing continuously - washing my clothes when I was off duty, of course, and ... but it wasn't long before each pay-day I was able to buy a few more things and I put that behind me fairly ... very quickly.
So how long were you nursing there?
I was nursing ... what I'd hoped, of course, that I would nurse for two years at the South Coast District Hospital and I'd transfer to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which was the only major teaching hospital at that time.
So you had to go there if you wanted your certificate?
I didn't ... Yes I had to go to the Royal Adelaide if I wanted a certificate. I could have started at the Royal Adelaide Hospital but, of course, there was no ... The hospital didn't accept Aboriginal girls at that time.
So despite the fact that you had the educational qualifications, you were barred from training at the Royal Adelaide because of your race?
Yes, well I wasn't barred at that time because I didn't attempt to enter the Royal Adelaide Hospital to begin my training. Because I was at Victor Harbour, I was on the waiting list, I was accepted and ... but if you were trained in a country hospital, you did two years at the country hospital and then you automatically transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to do another two years. Then you graduated. When I came to transfer to the Royal Adelaide Hospital that's when I ran into my ... my first problems.
I went to see the matron of the hospital and in those days, of course, I guess, even today, of course, I haven't subjected myself to an interview situation for many years now, but of course in those days we ... we used to make sure that you wore a hat, you wore gloves, and you really, you know, presented yourself in a proper manner for an interview. And I had a interview time, saw the matron. Matron didn't invite me into the office for the interview. She stood me up in the corridor outside of her office and just told me very bluntly that ... that I should go to Alice Springs and nurse my own people. Alice Springs, of course, being a place that I had never been to, and my 'own people' being a people that I didn't know. So, of course, that really hurt me. But I didn't give up. Matron at the South Coast District Hospital agreed that I could do another ... that I could stay on at the hospital and in fact Matron Tuck was a cousin to the Premier and the Premier of South Australia at that time was Tom Playford. Well known, of course, Premier of South Australia. Was in office of course for many years. And she herself had made contact with Tom Playford and so here I was on my days off heading down on the bus from Victor Harbour to Parliament House with appointments to see the Premier, Tom Playford, and any other member of parliament that I could possibly get an appointment with to somehow open the door to my entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
So an Aboriginal activist was born. How did you get on?
Well, I had my discussions of course with Tom Playford, but I don't think he took up the cause because really I had a long way to go at that stage. That's when I decided, of course, that in this third year at Victor Harbour, that all my days off would be spent in travelling to Adelaide. I joined the Aborigines' Advancement League, which was really the only organisation and it wasn't an Aboriginal organisation as we know it today. It was an organisation of interested Aboriginal people and the people that come to mind was Doctor and Mrs. Duguid [?] ... Charles Duguid, who was a great fighter for the Aboriginal cause. There were members of churches and unions who belonged to the Aborigines' Advancement League and a very few Aboriginal people and most of those were former Colebrook children. So I joined that ... that League and I travelled to Adelaide every week to get involved in the organisation and I'd resolved that one of the fights was to actually open the door for Aboriginal women to take up the nursing profession, and also for those young men to get into apprenticeships. So we had two main causes really at that time and I became one of the people involved in that struggle at that time.
Now what happened? Did ... How did it work? Did some of the influential white people, who were involved in it do, most of the lobbying for you?
Well they did. They wrote letters and eventually in the ... not in the third year at Victor Harbour. I left after twelve months, the extension of the twelve months at Victor Harbour because it was just getting too difficult and too expensive to travel every week from Victor Harbour and I came to ... to Adelaide and there I went into private nursing. Once again I found myself, of course, I guess, in a private home, but once again with people who, in fact, were involved with the movement but through the church and I nursed their father, throughout that period of time. But I was actually in Adelaide. I was able to participate in the meetings of the Advancement League which finally, in that fourth year, culminated in a ... in a large rally in the Adelaide Town Hall, at which we had non-Aboriginal speakers and Aboriginal speakers. I wasn't, at this stage, one of the ... while I was active I wasn't one of the speakers as such. I mean most of the speaking I did, of course, in those times was making personal representation to members of parliament, personal representations to the matron at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, always being knocked back, and so I was part [of it] because we formed a choir for that night and we got massive publicity out of that. That was well, of course, reported on in the press, and it was really as a result of that ... that rally, that the matron at the Royal Adelaide Hospital wrote to me to say that ... that I could now start at the Royal Adelaide Hospita29
Which is 1954 by this time. I started at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, hoping, of course, and I think, I'm pretty sure that in fact that I'd receive some assurance from the matron that I would receive some credit for the ... I couldn't receive, of course, more than two years credit because I would have been transferring after two years from the country hospital and I ... but I found myself back in preliminary training school at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which meant that I, in fact, was starting my nursing training all over again.
And this was only because you were Aboriginal?
Yes it was.
If you had been white, coming from that same country hospital, you would have been credited with two years?
Well I would have transferred of course after my two years, but of course by this time I'd ... I'd taken up the fight for four years. I'd been nursing four years by this time.
Well, no. One year as a private nurse.
So I was three years at the South Coast District Hospital but I was always aware that only two years, of course ... I could only be given credit for two years. I understood that. But I found myself in preliminary training school. In those days, in fact, the ... the probationer nurse, who was coming in, was called a Black Pro and we made much of that in my time there that I said I was literally a Black Pro because I was an Aboriginal person, and that was because we wore black shoes and black stockings for the most part. So I went into preliminary training school which meant, of course, that I had three years training ahead of me. But I can't remember having ... having done a junior duty, of course, in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which I thought was most unfair from the point of view, and I used to make much of that, that I was a Black Pro and I ought not to be doing senior duties on the ward, and so on. But I found myself doing much, much more senior duties on the ward, and the matron, of course ... In those days, of course, the matron would do a daily round of the wards, choose a senior nurse to do a ward round with her, and part of the ... the requirement in doing a ward round with the matron was that you would give the patient's name, give the patients' diagnosis and give the patient's treatment, and the ward that I was assigned to, for my first ward, was a forty bed, male, medical ward. And because I was experienced, of course, I was able to go through the forty patients, naming them by name, giving their diagnosis and their treatment, and fortunately, for me, I didn't slip up at any stage. So you know ...
That was one in the eye to matron. Did she, do you think, regret her original decision?
Oh it was never noticeable to me. She was only at the hospital for another twelve months of my time, but she always chose on me, I think, you know, to attempt to bring me undone. But I was adamant and I made ... made sure from the first day, at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, that I was going to be the best nurse that that hospital had ever had and I worked hard at it, in more ways than one. I made sure that my shoes were shinier, my uniforms were whiter, and that I was always on time, and I did the best, best possible job. I resolved to do that and ... but, of course, after that first twelve months a new matron came on and ... and she, of course, was quite accepting of me. But the other thing that I need to say was that there were other Aboriginal nurses waiting in country hospitals, some of them having grown up with me, and we had resolved amongst each other that I would take the fight to gain entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and they would automatically transfer, which happened.
Yes I was.
Now this resolve that you would do everything as well as you possible could, were you successful? Did you do well in your exams and did you do well on the wards as well as with your uniforms?
Yes I did. I did well on the reserves. And I felt, you know, that I was ... I always felt that I was a good nurse and was told so in later years as well. But I felt I did a good job. But in relation to the examinations, that was another matter altogether. Now, while I was much more mature, and I was ... I felt capable, all the time I was worried that if I failed that not only would ... not only would it be a problem for me, it would be problem for those who were to follow. So I remember, in fact, always having to be pushed I suppose, by the tutor, to take my examinations at the ... at the right time, but in fact myself delaying them somewhat, until I felt absolutely sure, because I really couldn't afford to fail.
That's a terrific responsibility to carry. Did that anxiety, do you think, make it harder for you to do well in the exams, if you were feeling anxious when you were doing them?
Yes, I think so, but I mean I didn't fail any of the examinations. But I'd have to say that I wasn't at the top of the class either. But in terms of the practical application, which ... we had, of course, the written theory part of the examination, but in terms of the practical applications, of course, I was ahead of others.
Well they did later on. There were patients who were very ... there were some patients, of course, who weren't nice at all.
... and didn't want in fact to have a so called black nurse. So there were a couple of those experiences. But for the most part I think I had more good experiences than bad experiences.
What would they say if they didn't want you to nurse them?
Well they'd tell you, just very straight about it. And, of course, I'd just report to the ... to the ward sister that that was the case and ...
They'd just say to you, 'I don't want you nursing me because you're black'?
How would you feel when they said that to you?
Well obviously, of course, very upset, but there was no point, of course, in labouring on the matter and I'd report very quickly to the ward sister that that was the case and she'd just sign another nurse to that particular patient.
No it didn't. It happened on about three occasions.
Were you well accepted by all the other nurses?
Oh yes, yes. I have many good memories of ... well particularly of Victor Harbour, because we were all young, we all started together and we still have reunions. So I still keep in touch and, in fact, most of the reunions now revolve around my availability and in many instances, of course, I instigate them because I know that I don't get home very often, so we certainly have reunions. There are reunions of the Royal Adelaide Hospital but because there are many, many others to be taking into consideration, I don't have a lot of opportunity to meet those nurses from the Royal Adelaide Hospital. But I meet them from time to time in the course of my ... my work. I have over the years. And I've been back to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1984. During my year as 'Australian of the Year' I was invited to actually present the, the keynote address at the graduation and to present the certificates, and that was ... that was very exciting for me because I went back and by this time, of course, things had changed quite considerably and the ... by this time the theatrette and so on was actually ... and all the administration was now in what was the Nurses' Home in my time, and I excitedly went around saying, 'This is the room I slept in and this is what we did, you know, in these days', and so on. So it was good to go back but no, I had a very happy time and formed lots of friendship4
As you stood there as 'Australian of the Year', as a very much praised success story, did you think at all of the matron who wouldn't let you in?
No, I never gave her another thought. [Laughs] Really by this time I, you know ... I was on my way and I didn't think it was worth thinking back to those times.
With the families that you lived with, first when you were doing ... when you were a domestic help and then later as a private nurse, did they treat you exactly the same way, do you think, as they would have treated anybody who came into those jobs in their houses?
Yes, I think so.
So they accepted you entirely on your own merits?
Yes, I feel sure of that.
During those years that you were growing and learning and developing, did you have much experience, apart from the ones that you've described already ... did you have much experience of racism?
No, there was just the time when we shifted to the city to live and the entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and apart from that, no. Certainly not in the ... in my relationships with the ... with the staff at both Victor Harbour and the Royal Adelaide.
When you shifted to the city to live, you weren't accepted at the local school. Was that a decision that was actually made, or was it just the way in which the individuals there treated you?
No, it was a decision that was made by the Education Department.
Why did they make that decision?
They'd never had any experience I don't think of Aboriginal children before [Robin Hughes interrupts] and they did didn't know how to deal with it.
But they knew that you'd attended the local school at Quorn.
Yes, they knew that but I think that they had northern supervisors and people like that, so really the Adelaide administration didn't have a great deal of knowledge, I think, in terms of what went on in the ... in the country areas, and so on. But I mean it went on far too long for us to ... at times, of course, we thought it may have been to do with the fact that the school couldn't accommodate such a large group of children, such an influx of children, but it went on far too long for us to accept that that was reason for it.
Do you think it effected the quality of the education that you were given, that you weren't in the mainstream of education?
Oh yes, it certainly did. I mean the teachers we had of course weren't qualified. They were just volunteers from the Red Cross. Eventually of course the ... the headmistress that was assigned to the ... to the school at the Home was a qualified teacher, but the ... Sister Hyde also ... also gave some classes, very early in the peace, and she certainly wasn't at all experienced. So it was ... it was a very important time for me, you see, because it was Grade Six and Grade Seven and, you know, I was coming up for my Qualifying Certificate so really I think it certainly was a setback for me and those of my age group.
And something that came against you later, when you had to focus on study in other forms, that you didn't have that same grounding that you should have got at that time.
Yes, it wasn't that obvious because, I mean, certainly the grounding at the Quorn School was really very good and ... but I think that those two years certainly set me back a bit and I had to work much harder at it.
Did you feel that when you went to secondary school?
Yes I did. Yes I did.
And you think you didn't do as well at secondary school as you might have if you'd had a better education at that period.
Well I don't know that I really put it down to that. Can't remember sort of articulating that as being the real cause at the time, but I know that all of us, who were in that situation, have talked about, that in fact it was a really important stage of our education and our development. But on the other hand, I guess, I wasn't all that serious about my studies as well, and have seen the reports where in fact, I could have worked harder and I, you know ... I could have done my homework and stuff like that.
Now when you graduated as a nurse, did you stay on at the hospital?
Yes I did. The situation at the Royal Adelaide Hospital was that all nurses had planned to go on to do midwifery so we ... we were all, of course, on the waiting list for the midwifery hospital, which was the Queen Victoria in South Australia. However, if you were invited to stay as what was termed a charge ... not a charge sister - a junior nurse that was a staff nurse, and eventually become ... become a charge sister, well I mean, you never knocked it back because very few were invited to stay, because all they needed was to replace those that were retiring and so on. So I was ... I was invited to stay and I didn't go on and do my midwifery. I stayed on at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, became a junior sister, and within twelve months became a charge sister at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and stayed. So I was at the Royal Adelaide Hospital from 1954 to 1961.
Did you ever have any difficulty with junior nurses who came on and didn't want an Aboriginal sister to be telling them what to do?
No, I didn't. No, I didn't. In fact I do see girls. There's some here in Canberra, and other places, who contact me from time to time, who remember me on the ward as the charge sister and who've indicated at that time and even now, how privileged they were, because I was a real disciplinarian in those times.
Well, I don't know whether I was a dragon as such, but I was certainly a disciplinarian and, in fact, that's the way we were trained, and the beds had to ... you know, had to ... I mean they don't do it that way now, of course. Everything had to be in place. All the wheels turned in the one direction, and all the bedspreads on, you know, in a proper way. Nobody sitting on the beds, and so I was a ... I guess it was part of my training in the home, as well as my training in the Nurses' School, which I found, of course, not difficult at all. And ... and I guess I carried it on and I liked the regimentation, I suppose, of it all and didn't like the trend of nursing that emerged, of course, towards the end of my time at the Royal Adelaide Hospital because the nurse assistants or the nurse aids were ... were coming in at that time. I mean it was the trained nurse that was in charge of the wards. It was the trainee nurse that, in fact, was the practical nurse on the ward, but then the nurse assistant, the nurse aid, was coming in, which was another level and the ... the nurses who were, of course, in training were, in fact, coming to the point that they were not doing the ... the tasks on the ward that we performed and I ... I saw the patient care declining.
Now, that's strange that you should say that, because the whole idea of relieving nurses of the domestic work of the bed making and the routine things was so that patient care could be improved, because they could concentrate on that, and yet you disapproved of that.
Well I disapproved of it because in fact they then left everything to the ... to the nurse assistant and all the little things that patients looked for and so on, the trainee nurse was rather ignoring and saying, 'It's not our job any more. It's the job of the, you know ... the nurse assistant', and I didn't like that trend because I in fact had been brought up to be a ... a bedside nurse that attended to all the needs of the patient and ... and that was ... that was the way I liked it. And that's the way I wanted it to continue to be. And I just saw that while the trainee nurse was now the nurse who was going to give the treatment, but she wasn't going to, any longer, give that little extra that I think was required and that was attending to the comfort of the patient.
So what effect did this change have on you and your own career?
Well I ... I actually decided at that stage, I had the opportunity of going to India with the Australian Baptist Mission, not as a missionary, but as a relief nurse for those missionaries who hadn't been home on furlough, as they called it, for some ten years. And so I signed up to go out as a relief nurse to Assam, India, and I knew there that it was ... would be hands on, and it was the kind of nurse that, you know, I had been and I wanted to continue to be. So I left for India, hoping, of course, that I'd ... I'd relieve three nurses in that time. Go for three years. But I was only out there for one year, when, in fact, we were directed by the Australian Government to come out as a result of the Indochina border dispute and I was in Assam, India, almost at the foot of the Himalayas, very close to the fighting and so I came out, in the hopes, of course ... down to Calcutta, hoping that in a short time I'd be able to return but, you know, it just took too long and I though I'd better get on a plane home while I had some money.
Very tough. There were no ... no doctors so, of course, the nurse was responsible for ... for everything and of course I wasn't a ... I wasn't a qualified midwife, but I'd ... I'd actually gone to the Queen Victoria Hospital and done a very quick course in midwifery before I went to India, because a good part of our ... of our work out there was child delivery, which was very sad because there were very few live births in India.
Well that was due to the poor condition of the mothers, malnutrition, and so it was very difficult. And, of course, we ... we moved around. It was very remote, jungle country and so on and so the people if they wanted a nurse in the village overnight, would come single file through the jungles and get the nurse to come into the village and watch over and in many instances, of course, the birth wouldn't happen that night, but they would be too afraid, of course, to come out during the night. So you'd sit up in the village while everybody would promptly go to sleep and ... and watch over the mother or whoever - the patient in the village. Sometimes, of course, by morning the baby hadn't been born and so on and you'd have another day's work ahead of you at the clinic so you'd make your way back and go to work. The only saviour, of course, during that time, from the nurse's point of view ... because I can't remember hardly a night that I spent in bed because come sunset there'd be a group of people at the door to escort you back to the village to watch over somebody and you'd walk single file with a jute stick flare in the front and one at the back to ward off any, you know, wild beasts that might be lurking in the ...
There were tigers there, yes. There were cobras and there were, you know, those sorts of scary things and so on. There were, of course, the elephants that used to stampede so we, in fact, got lots of terrible injuries and, of course, I also learnt to suture wounds and so on before I left and so we had all those sorts of things that we had to attend to in the village.
What were some of the other sorts of cases that came to the clinic? You had injuries, you had childbirth. What other sorts of things did you deal with?
Tuberculosis. Almost everyone who came, particularly from Tibet, Bhutan, who used to come through, would come and everyone who came to the clinic could have been treated for something like tuberculosis and would stay around, you know, for some time. Malnutrition, malaria, and, of course, children, if they didn't survive till two years would ... a lot of children, of course, died of malaria and I myself came down with malaria when I got back to Australia. But that was due, of course, to sitting in the villages, you know, every night, getting bitten by those great mosquitos. Came back and, of course, was sought after by student doctors who had not seen malaria, of course, for some time. I found myself down for some time but I'm totally cured of that.
Now, tell me, did you feel at all phased by all of this? I mean here you were a nurse having to act as a doctor. You were young. How old were you when you went?
I guess I'd have been twenty-seven [or] eight.
And you had all this responsibility laid on you shoulders. How did you cope with it?
Well I can't remember feeling that it ... that, you know ... that it was something that I couldn't ... I couldn't deal with. And I did. I was nervous. I felt nervous, you know, on going to India but once I got there I knew that, you know, I was in charge. There was an expectation that I'd, you know ... I'd perform, and I did it to the best of my ability.
Did you have plenty of medicines and supplies?
Yes there were plenty of supplies. I felt nervous in the ... I wasn't nervous of my ... of my ability to do the job, but I was sad about, of course, the fact that there were few live ... few live births. But the village women didn't seem to be all that phased by it, because there was always, you know, another one, you know, sort of. But I was frightened of the village men, the Muslim men in particular, because I felt a bit unsafe about that. I didn't have any, I guess, real reason to be, but I felt that they watched you very closely and I felt a bit unsure about all of that. And for the most part we were meant to travel with two nurses, and we did when we could, but often we couldn't. But I wasn't at all nervous of the ... of the Boro people and that was the group of people - Mongolian featured people - who were, I guess, for all intents and purposes, Chinese, who were right on the border there. So I wasn't nervous at all about that group of people because I think they felt a sense of responsibility to you, because you'd come out from Australia to look after them and so on but I didn't feel the same about the Muslim men.
While you were nursing in India was there any particular thing that you did for a patient that stands out in your memory or any particular incident where you felt that you'd done a good job?
Well it was a delivery of a set of twins. And, in fact, to have a live birth was really wonderful and to, in fact, have a successful delivery of twins and, of course, I looked after them for many, many, many months, where in the evening - every hour throughout the day as well as the evening - I had to find these little twins under the clothing of the parents and the family because it was a big group there and they weren't in a little crib or anything. They were just there amongst the group, so I'd be stepping across the bodies at night, looking for them to feed them on the hour, and the interesting story about that was that there was an exhibition in the village at that time, and one was named Exhi and the other was named Bition.
Exhi and Bition, these were the twins?
Those were the twins, yes. So I must say I haven't heard of them or seen of them since, but it was certainly a delight to me to be able to rear them anyway, to ... up to about four months anyway.
Now travelling away from Australia and going to completely different people. Did that give you a different perspective on who you were?
Well it gave me a different perspective that, in fact, the Australian aborigines weren't ... weren't the only people that had been colonised and that they weren't the only people who were dispossessed. And so from that point of view, I think it gave me a broader perspective on indigenous cultures and, of course, it ... it made me of course much more determined ... [INTERRUPTION]
Travelling away from Australia, did that give you a different perspective on yourself, on your Aboriginality and so on?
Well it certainly did, but when I first got to India, of course, they were totally confused about ... about me and ... as to where I did come from and so on.
Well, I mean, obviously they knew ... they didn't know at that stage ... they knew I was an Australian, they would have known that, but they had no concept about Aboriginal people in Australia and they wanted to know more about that. In fact, if they could have ... if they could have got me to agree I would have had a ... I would have had a jewel in my nose, and I would have had rings on my ears and I'd have been in a sari, or one of the national dresses and so on. But I resisted that.
So in that area where you went to in Assam there were Mongolian people, there were other people. Who were the indigenous people for that area?
Well the indigenous people really were a group of people called the Santhali, and I didn't see them for a long time and they were very, very much like the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land. And ...
In appearance: tall, very dark, and were living very much a traditional way of life. So it was only when they were certainly in need of medicine that we saw them. And I was certainly very interested and excited about seeing the Santhali people, and ... but the people that I'd gone to actually work amongst were a people called the Boro people, and they were Mongolian featured people. However, in that area there were people who'd come from Bhutan, and from Nepal, as well as Indian people.
So did the Santhali people live in the mountains?
Well no, they were in the ... sort of in the jungle areas. They weren't mountain people at all, but I must say I didn't really get into ... into the village life of the Santhali people. I only saw them as they came as patients, to the clinic.
Now after all of this excitement and interest of going away and having all this responsibility in India for a year and then you had to come back to Australia, how did you feel about that?
Well, very quickly I got some publicity because I was the first ... the first evacuee, so the press was very interested in what had happened there, and, of course, the matron of the Royal Adelaide Hospital learnt very quickly that I was back in Australia and phoned me and asked me to come back to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which, of course, I agreed to do, because I needed a job and I went back, but I didn't stay very long, because everything seemed so small. The hospital being a very big hospital, but, of course, by this time I'd really been involved in something much bigger and I wanted to get involved in community nursing. And it was really at this time that I felt that I was ready to actually work amongst my own people, the Aboriginal people. I didn't join the Department immediately. I joined the Department ... I joined the Repatriation Hospital for a time, because I needed to save up some money, because I wasn't paid in India. And so it was then I started to turn my attention to putting my training into some good purpose in working for my people, because I'd always resolved that I would nurse amongst my own people, but earlier I'd not felt ready for it.
So you've now had the training. What was the vehicle? What did you find? Where did you go? And how did you do it?
Well I went to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which was a department, of course, that had been in touch with me quite regularly since I left the ... since I completed my training. And I'd continuously said, 'No, I wasn't ready for it', so I made the first contact and said I that I would like to take a position, but in the remote areas of Australia and, of course, my motive for joining the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was first to find my mother and second, to do a job in a community as close to Pitjantjara lands as I could find. So I was successful in getting a job as a nursing sister - welfare officer at Coober Pedy, which is the mining town right on the edge of Pitjantjara lands.
So over all these years that you'd been taken away from your mother and you had been really directed not to think about your origins, the thought of Lily had stayed with you?
Yes, all the time. And in fact if I was ever ... and I'm not an angry person, but if ever I was angry, I was angry about what had happened, not for my own sake but for my mother's sake, because I'd always thought about what my mother was feeling and whether in fact she cared, and whether in fact, she ever asked the question, where her children might be.
Yes I did. I mean I arrived in the town of Coober Pedy. I went to the supermarket to get my stores to go out to what was known as the Aboriginal Reserve at that time, and of course I'm talking about the ... about the seventies - talking about the late sixties actually - and there was a group of Aboriginal people sitting outside the supermarket who said, 'That's Lily's daughter', and with that, of course, I'd known some of the language, so I went over and in the language said, , 'Yes, you're right, I am Lily's daughter'.
That was just from your appearance?
Just from the family resemblance, which of course was brought home to me when I finally did, but it was three months later, and I'd have to say, I mean the people were very upset and said, 'You should go now, your mother's at Oodnadatta and we want to take you there'. But obviously the bush telegraph conveyed to her very quickly that I was in Coober Pedy and I prepared to go there at a time when I could. And the people came regularly to my ... my nurses' quarters out on the Reserve and we talked about my mother and where she was and who they were and, in fact, two of them: one was my ... my mother's brother and one was my mother's sister. So there I'd found an aunt and uncle and many others, of course, were very closely related to me, but not as closely related as they were. So we talked about it and I decided that I'd bring my elder sister to Coober Pedy for the Christmas break. We'd have a Christmas party for the Aboriginal community there, and we'd make arrangements to go through to Oodnadatta, which we did.
Well I had a job to do and my job, of course, was the nursing sister and I had to really be careful because as I'd said before that my ... my whole motive was, of course, to find my ... find my mother. But once again, I suppose, I [was] brought up to be disciplined and to do things in a proper way, and so ... and I needed a job and I didn't want to risk that chance of losing my job, because I was leaving to go through to find my mother. So I took the opportunity to find out more, to make the contacts at Indolkina and they were the people who finally took me and my sister through to Oodnadatta, so we stayed and did what we had to do, had the Christmas party and then headed through to Oodnadatta to meet mum.
And what happened when you got there?
Well it was a bit of an anticlimax for me because I'd always believed that I was the youngest child, and I certainly was the youngest child that was taken away. And my mother, of course, had not received a message that Eileen was coming through, and Eileen was the eldest, and when finally we got to Oodnadatta it was dark and mum had returned to the camp and we'd indicated that we wanted to see her that night and they'd gone through and brought her and, of course, Eileen was the most important because she was the first child you see. And it had come as quite a surprise to my mother that Eileen was coming through as well. And so it was ... it was a ... a good ... a good feeling of meeting my mother, but my mother, of course, seemed to get very agitated and disinterested very quickly and I guess I read the signs and said, you know, 'What was the trouble?' and I gathered that she thought we'd come to stay and that she couldn't provide for us in the manner that we were accustomed to. So I said, 'Well it's okay mum, you know, we're staying at the hotel tonight and for the period we're here'. With that she smiled and disappeared into the night. And for that whole trip she made a point of coming to the hotel every morning, picking us up, escorting us around the town, very proud to introduce us to the people in the town and took us back to the hotel every night. And so ... and that was to steer us away from her conditions. And so, because I was working in the area and I did have responsibility for ... for the more remote areas later, after that Christmas break, because the nursing sister had rolled a vehicle and she'd gone south for treatment, so I took over the patrol as well as Coober Pedy. I took over that control and ... which took me back into Oodnadatta two to three weeks later and I arrived in the town and I said, 'Where's Mum?' and everybody, you know, pointed to it, and I went straight to the camp and you know, things were okay from then onwards.
Why didn't she want you to see the camp?
Well I mean she'd realised, of course, that after meeting us, that we ... well the main reason was she'd thought we'd come to stay and she couldn't provide for us.
Did she feel ashamed of where she ...
Yes, obviously she did, yes. And ... but once I you know, reached out to her, she was much more comfortable about that and it wasn't such a problem any more. It was a problem for me in so far as I felt a responsibility to provide for her in a better way. But given my obsession, I suppose, with not ... not exercising nepotism, something that I'd always preached and continued to do so, I, of course, had to practice what I preached and it was, of course, a long time before I was able to ... to provide better conditions for her, because I was responsible for the whole community and the whole area, in fact, and didn't have a particular responsibility that was to provide for better housing and so on, but I made it my ... my business to tell the authorities for which I was working that the conditions were totally unsatisfactory and that my mother was part of that community. But, of course, there were others who were provided for before she was.
You couldn't have provided for her out of your own resources?
No, I was not in a position to do so at that time. I mean if we were talking about, you know, today, it'd have been quite a different proposition but certainly I was not in a position to provide for her out of my resources at that time.
What were the conditions like?
Well the conditions were just a corrugated iron humpy and, of course, there were no benefits flowing to any of the people there and, of course, by this time my mother, as well as the rest of the community, were involved in all the things that happen in Aboriginal communities of people who are dispossessed in that sort of way, and she was, you know, sort of, hitting the grog, and you know, sort of ... very badly and so was my two sisters, because there were two other sisters that I'd met at that time as well. And so that was fairly painful as well, to have to deal with that particular problem.
They were the sisters that hadn't been taken away?
They were the sisters that hadn't been taken away and I'm not sure even really at this stage whether they're ... they were half. It wasn't really an issue with us at all, but I think that they, they weren't the children of Tom O'Donoghue. But by this time she was now living with a man by the name of Mr. Woodford. So she was referred to as Lily Woodford at that time and so was one of the girls. But the other one wasn't. By this time that other girl was married ... sister was married. And she was Bibi McCallum and she had two small children.
Mr. Woodford was part Aboriginal person and he was very ill at that time. And that was the first and the last time I saw him.
How did you feel on that first night when you saw Lily? I know she was more interested in your sister than she was in you and ... but how did you feel when you saw her there that night?
Oh very happy, very happy and immediately, of course, the thing I thought, well, I can understand why the people in Coober Pedy knew, you know, that I was Lily's daughter because, you know, we're just so much like her. And she was a very, very happy person, in spite of her conditions and a real sense of humour. And in later years, of course, my husband came to know her and to love her and to ... in fact, he wanted for us regularly to travel in that area and we went to Oodnadatta many times. [INTERRUPTION]
The night that you actually met your mother in Oodnadatta, what sort of feelings did that bring up in you?
Well I was happy, very happy, but I was also sad in the sense of thinking, you know, that mother couldn't provide in the way she had obviously hoped she could. But it wouldn't have been until she met us, of course, that she would have realised, of course, that, you know, we were, I guess, as sophisticated as we were. And I don't know what she would have thought.
So you stood there really and saw the huge gap between you and your life, and this old woman who looked so like you, but whose life was so different.
Yes, you know, there were very, very mixed feelings. Never a feeling, of course, of rejection. Never a feeling of rejection. But a feeling of sadness, reaching out to her because of what had happened and thinking about what she must have been through for all those years and, of course, a feeling of inadequacy, I suppose, of how we were going to cope.
Was there an awkwardness there for you? I mean did you immediately embrace or did you ... the little girl who'd been brought up not to show too much feeling - how did you get on?
Oh no, no, we did embrace. But obviously it wasn't ... it wasn't returned in the same way because I think, you know, in the traditional way, Aboriginal people don't embrace in that manner so it was a bit of holding back, I suppose, as to whether we were doing the right thing. And ... but I guess it was spontaneous for us but a little bit of nervousness about how ... how it would all affect her.
She knew you were coming from the grapevine. Had she been waiting for you?
Yes, she had. She had waited three months. From the day that she heard that I was in the area, she had waited on the road from sun up until sun down and on the night that we came in of course, we'd come in very late, so she had sort of returned because I mean her ... her camp of course had no lighting so, I mean, once it was dark it was really time to settle down.
Even now, you feel emotional when you think about this.
Yes I do. I never ... I just can't cope with the ... you know, with the thoughts of what had happened and ... not for myself but for all those years that she, in fact, didn't know where her family ... where her family were.
... And what that had done to her life.
... And what that had done to her life. And I guess it had caused, in fact, some of the problems that we saw while we were there in terms of her ... her drinking, because she must have had to, in fact, you know, cover up many of the emotions, and so on, that she felt about that.
But given what happened to your two sisters who weren't taken away, did it ever ... did you ever think about the possibility that had you remained you might have ended up like that?
Well yes, it has and I've thought about that, but on the other hand I don't think one could ... could ever condone what ... what had happened to us and while I feel, not so much about ... I've not really thought too much about the fact that I could have ended up in the same way, but the thing that really, I guess, was impressed upon my mind, because I'd learnt also at the same time, that I had a promised husband. And I guess that was the thought, more than anything, that I had: I was glad that in fact that I'd not stayed. I mean while he was a very ... I met him, and he was a old man, a very mischievous old man, I might say, with a great sense of humour and so on, but I thought to myself, when I did meet him ... I met him actually many years later. I heard of him at that time, but I met him years later, because he was actually working for the Adelaide University, teaching them about Aboriginal music, and it was at that stage he used to tease me and say he was going to come to my camp and I would tell him, of course, also just as mischievously that I was now married to what we call a wadjila, which was a white man, and that, you know, he couldn't come to my camp.
But in tradition ... but in traditional life, he would have been your husband?
Yes, he would have been, yes.
So what did it do to your sense of your own identity to have re-met this whole life that you would have lived if you hadn't been taken away?
Well it brought on a whole new meaning and a whole new dimension in my life. One was to actually do more and to throw myself totally into Aboriginal affairs. And the second was, to know more about the traditions, but that I was going to do that by my involvement in the nursing and the welfare field. But on the other hand I didn't really look to get too heavily involved, I suppose, in the ... in the traditional way and I think some of that was as a result of knowing that I had a tribal husband, and what that might mean. But the strongest feeling was that new dimension that came into my life that I really was going to devote my whole life to the Aboriginal cause.
Did you feel a sense of great anger at the people and the whole attitude that had done this to your mother?
No, I didn't.
There was no blame, no blame laid at all. But I think partly that was a ... there is a unwritten law, I suppose, amongst the Colebrook children, not to criticise the missionaries. And one hasn't done that either. Certainly not during their ... while they were living. Some have.
Out of sense of ... out of a sense of ... oh, what's the word?
Loyalty for them. And so ... and that still continues really to many, to this day. And some won't be happy to hear me criticise, even ever so slightly, as I'm doing, at this time, to hear any criticism at all of the missionaries.
But it wasn't just the missionaries, was it? There was a policy, a government policy, that was doing this and if it wasn't the missionaries it would be the police and welfare. So it was a broader thing that said that it was okay to take babies away from a grieving mother and leave her with that devastation. I mean, if ... if something could politicise anybody, it might be that kind of realisation that that had been done. And it's interesting that you didn't feel a sense of wanting to take revenge or do anything like that.
Well I think it was just loyalty and the thought that what would the rest of the family think of me, and I mean the Colebrook family for ... for just doing that. And I just felt that there was another way. There was another way.
And that way was to get totally involved and for us to fight for better conditions and to move forward. There really wasn't a great deal we could do about the past history. And so, you know, I wasn't to dwell on it, but it was at this time, of course, that we were getting heavily involved in the ... in the Aboriginal movement and the fight for the referendum, because I was involved with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander, which, of course, was the main organisation that was, you know, fighting for better conditions. But, of course, at this time also ... I was getting much more heavily involved in finding out more about my past and ... and the traditions, and so I guess I was ... I was really doing both.
How did you find out more about the traditions?
Well I did that because I was working, you see, as a ... as a nurse in the area and so I ... I visited on a regular basis to ... to, I guess, see for myself more than anything, because I wasn't fluent with the language and I was always mindful that I didn't want to delve too deeply in things that might be taboo for a woman.
In your early years, as you were fighting to be accepted as a nurse, you were offered the chance to be made exempt from being an Aboriginal. What did that mean, to be exempt?
Well what that meant, of course, that I would sign a document that I would ... I was now prepared to give up my Aboriginality to become a white person and, of course, we referred to that as a dog medal. I, of course, resisted that all throughout my nursing career and, of course, by the end of that time, it was coming to the end, I guess, of that particular protection era but it was rather a lot of pressure, a weekly pressure from the Protector of Aborigines to come and sign the necessary documents for that to happen. But by that time I felt that I was ... I'd been accepted at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and while things were difficult, I had confidence that I was going to make it on my own.
When you were trying to get entrance as a nurse and you first became active as an Aboriginal, was it suggested to you that you should apply to become an exempt Aboriginal. What exactly did being exempt mean? What were you exempt from?
Well, I guess, all it meant was that I would become a white person and that meant, of course, that I would have the ... the opportunity to actually associate with white people, and above all it seemed as if I would have the right to enter a hotel and, of course, I wasn't interested in really ... I didn't think any of those things were all that important to me at the time.
So you were actually exempt from being protected under the Act, were you? Was it because of the notion of Aboriginal protection?
That's right. And, of course, what it meant was that I had to go to the office of the Protector of Aborigines, sign a document wherein I received a certificate, which meant, of course, I was no longer an Aboriginal person.
And what was this called among Aborigines?
Well it was called the dog medal.
Well I think because it was distasteful and we felt that, in fact, we were being tagged and it was resisted by many but, of course, the ... those of our men who joined the armed forces for the most part signed an exemption form because they didn't want to be treated any differently from others and we understood that, that for them they felt they didn't want to be seen to be treated differently and didn't want to be outside the hotels when their mates were actually celebrating.
So even though you had been brought up in a system that was meant ... designed to make you reject and resist your Aboriginality, you still valued it sufficiently not to want to give it up.
Oh yes, very definitely.
Well I think it was because all our life, of course, we'd been ... we'd been treated like we were Aborigines and we always knew, of course, that we were ... we were different and so we really ... we really cherished that. And the other aspect of it, of course, we weren't all that accepted in the white man's world and there was always a difference made. So I think we ... we hung on to what we felt comfortable with.
Now having got that out of the way, we'll leap ahead now to where we were yesterday. Working as a nurse welfare officer, in Central Australia, what actually did you have to do?
Well I was responsible for the ... the welfare of the Aboriginal people, particularly in the Coober Pedy area at the time when I went there and what that meant, of course, was ... one of the big things of course was collecting all the children up from the camp areas around Coober Pedy, bringing them in to the Aboriginal Reserve and putting them through the showers. Because the Aboriginal people had no facilities and the children were required ... it was compulsory for the children to be at school. So that was one of the jobs that ... that I had and that was putting them through the shower and putting them into their school clothes and then taking them off to school, as well as preparing their lunches to go there. But at the same time of course I was responsible, if in fact they were ill, the children as well as the Aboriginal people in the camp situation, that I would tend to that. I had a small clinic at the Reserve and the hospital was close by. So I attended to those matters as well. But in the time I was there, I wasn't really happy with the ... with the situation that it was my total responsibility to be responsible for the children, to pick them up. So I began to involve the parents in that exercise to come themselves to the Reserve and shower their own children and begin to take some responsibility for that. However they couldn't take total responsibility because they didn't have the facilities themselves and we moved, of course, fairly quickly, towards improving the housing conditions and getting Aboriginal people into houses either on the Reserve or in the township of Coober Pedy themselves, which made them much more responsible for their own family.
What were the worst problems you dealt with during this time?
Well alcohol of course was a major problem and so it was difficult to get the Aboriginal people - that is the families - to be responsible for their children. But I must say I was really pleased with the ... with the ... the efforts that I made and the results that were forthcoming because I think really governments in the past had taken total responsibility and Aboriginal people really didn't feel that they were responsible any more because governments had come in and taken responsibility for them, so they were losing a sense of responsibility for their family and pride in themselves and their family and I was able to see in a very short while some results from that and, in fact, some Aboriginal people getting off the alcohol. There were some families who did that in the short time I was there and who wanted to be much more responsible for their families.
So the strategy of offering responsibility for their own lives, you saw working in a quite practical way.
Oh yes, I did and, in fact, it wasn't done by governments before. But I felt that because I was close to the people and they were all in one way or another related to me in the extended family, that they responded to my presence and I ... I think that they realised, of course, that ... and to some extent I think I might have been a model as well for them in seeing what was possible.
Were you the first nurse welfare officer to be Aboriginal in that area, operating in the community?
Yes, well I was in the Coober Pedy area, but before me there was Faith Thomas, who actually grew up in Colebrook Home, who trained as a nurse as well at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and she was on nursing patrol in the further north, in the Pitjantjara lands proper, but by this time she'd left the area and I'd also done several patrols throughout that area.
Now what was happening in your personal life? By this time you were over thirty-five. Had you had anything to do with prospective husbands? With boyfriends? Did you ... what part were men playing in your life at this stage?
Well I had actually. When I went to the ... after I came back from India, I met a ... a man by the name of Gordon Plumer Smart, who was a medical orderly at the hospital that I was working at, and he, of course, had indicated to me how he felt about me, and I was actually quite, I suppose, surprised about that, but the difficulty with that was that he was a married man with a family and I'd been brought up, of course, quite strictly in relation to those sorts of matters and he was also a man that knew my ... my brother-in-law. He's served in the Second Tenth Battalion and had broached the subject by saying that, 'I ... you know I was in the army with an Aboriginal man', and I said to him, 'Yes, well ...', when he told me who it was, I said, 'Well he's my brother-in-law', and he was married to my elder sister. So really at that time I indicated to him - and we're talking about 1962 at this time - that I couldn't in any way continue a relationship with him.
It was only because he was married? I mean were you attracted to him yourself?
Yes I was. But it was because he was married and so I indicated to him that he should discharge his responsibilities to his young family and that if, in fact, I was still around and available when his children were off his hands, well then obviously I'd ... I'd be interested. So, I guess, throughout the whole period ... We finally married of course in 1979. By that time his children were, of course, all married. And we'd kept some contact, writing letters and that sort of thing.
But it didn't go any further than that?
No, it went no further than that, until such ... until I later, of course, left Adelaide and went back to Quorn to live in the country and at that stage he was retiring and he joined me at Quorn.
So really you stayed faithful to that idea over twenty years.
Yes, I did.
I cared for him very much. And ... and we did, you know ... we wrote letters and we saw each other on a number of occasions when I visited the city. But all throughout this time, of course, I was moving from country hospital to country hospital and then, of course, to Coober Pedy, the remote areas and part of the reason, of course, was to make it a bit easier for myself as well. But, so, yes, that happened.
Was it easier for you if you didn't have to see him all the time?
Oh yes it was much easier for me if I didn't have to see him all the time. But the sad thing about it all, of course, was that his wife felt that I'd broken up the marriage, when I consider what I'd gone through, you know, through all of that time. But anyway, finally we married and we had thirteen good years together. He was a very supportive husband, supported ... in fact I think we had a virtual marriage contract that I would want to continue my involvement in Aboriginal affairs and he didn't stand in the way of that and he supported me through all that time and ... not that he always supported Aboriginal ... all of Aboriginal policy. I mean we had quite ... some quite heated arguments from time to time about the way Aboriginal affairs was going and he always had a view about, about everything, as I think over those times ... I think that was because he didn't want to always feel that he was dominated by the woman and that he did have a view on almost everything.
The fact that he was white and you were Aboriginal, did that create any difficulties?
No, none whatsoever. He was very, very well received. He was better received of course by ... by my people than I was accepted by his family. I wasn't accepted by his family at all and the ... I had had contact with his son a little bit earlier, but really the main contact that I had with his family was after his passing, when I notified them and they came to the funeral and so we do have contact now, but not a lot of contact. But at least we were able to say that it was a pity that it had to be left so long before, you know, we got to know each other.
Yes I do.
During the years that you were waiting to get married, did you have any difficulty persuading him to your view that ... that it was important for him to stay and rear his family?
Oh well, yes, he certainly would have liked to have eloped and got married and so on, but I guess he knew that ... that I was serious about it and he got on, of course, with his life, hoping that every now and again he'd receive a letter or he'd get a note in the letterbox to say that I was in town or something to that effect so he did accept that what I'd said was what would happen.
Now after meeting your mother, you've said that you really decided then that you had to commit yourself to the Aboriginal cause and become quite political in your activities there. What form did this take? What did you actually do over the next years of your life to advance the Aboriginal cause?
Well, while I was working in the ... the state Department of Aboriginal Affairs, I also ... outside of the workplace, I was involved in every Aboriginal movement that there was. And there was the National ... there was what we call NADOC, which is the national celebration of Aboriginal people, and at that time, of course, there were many non-Aboriginal people involved in that, but we quickly took that over. And I was involved in the other movements, like setting up the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal medical services, the Aboriginal Women's Council, education and also in the housing area. This was a time of course when there wasn't any federal funding for Aboriginal affairs, but we still formed them, these organisations, working on a ... on a weekly basis, having meetings and working towards improving the conditions for Aboriginal people in all those areas. But, of course, it wasn't until 1973 that ... and that was in the Whitlam government, when funds began to flow in to Aboriginal affairs from ... from the federal area. So we were relying, of course, on the ... on the goodwill and donations of non-Aboriginal people during those years and also by fundraising ourselves, and whenever we wanted to go to ... to state and international conferences, we ... we paid for that ourselves. We hitchhiked, we stayed in caravan parks and if somebody was fortunate enough to have enough money to pay for a room, we virtually all camped in there. So they were interesting and they were exciting times. They were hard times. But often ... but they were times of real ... real unity amongst Aboriginal people and sometimes I look back and think that they were ... they were the times that I really ... I really enjoyed and sometimes wish we were back there in terms of ... because I think we had greater unity then, than we have now.
So you had an optimistic spirit, and a sense that you were all going in the same direction, but you didn't have much money to do it with.
No, that's right. And ... and we seemed to have a lot of solidarity in those days and we appreciated each others commitment and particular experience and expertise in particular areas and we ... we relied on each other very much in those days and it was really a very good feeling to work ... working towards together ... towards a cause.
Did you take a leadership role right from the beginning?
No, I don't say that I did. I did, I guess, in the ... in the women's movement, but I only saw myself as really part of the team, and to some extent, I guess, I had a bit more education than the others that were involved. And also, you know, I was single. I wasn't tied in any way and so ... and many of the others of course were ... had married young and they had families, so they had other commitments. So from that point of view I guess I gave a lot of time and effort to it, but I didn't see myself necessarily as the ... as the leader of the group. I was just one of a group.
What difference did it make in 1973 when the Commonwealth became involved? What difference did that make to you and to what you were doing and to the Aboriginal movement generally?
Well the difference it made to me personally was that I was employed in the ... in the state Department of Aboriginal Affairs and it was really that state office of Aboriginal Affairs, it was dealing with Aboriginal policy issues that became the first office - the federal ... the first federal office of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. So that's the difference it made to me and it was as at that stage I was the most senior Aboriginal person who was actually transferred across to the ... to the Commonwealth Government and it was there that I saw an opportunity for me, of course, to reach the goal of being the head of that ... that department in a short while and I had an ambition to do that.
Well because I just felt that really I'd ... I'd worked long and hard in the interest of my own people and I felt that taking up the senior post in South Australia would enable me, of course, to have greater input into Aboriginal policies and be able to push for greater self-determination for Aboriginal people, but it didn't. It didn't work out quite the way I wanted it to. I did become the Regional Director of the ... and the first Aboriginal person in Australia to head a ... a department - state or federal - of Aboriginal Affairs, and I was really very keen to consult with Aboriginal people and it was the early days of funding of Aboriginal community organisations, and I began early to consult Aboriginal people and the organisations and brought them in annually to talk about the budget that we would put as a state to the Federal Government and, of course, the budget was always far in excess of what was available to us and so I had to get Aboriginal people to see that ... that our expectations, of course, weren't going to be realised. And the thing, of course, that frustrated me most, [was] that because I'd put in so much effort to consult and to set ... get Aboriginal people themselves to set what they saw as the high priorities in Aboriginal Affairs in South Australia, and then to find that the efforts that we'd made when it came here to central office, you know, a red line was drawn through all of that, and the bureaucrats decided they knew what was better for us. So I didn't stay very long. I stayed ... I was twelve months in that, that office. There was much effort, of course, by the secretary of the department, here in Canberra, to get me to change my mind and to stay, but I decided that I could do better outside. I left, of course, without any prospects of a job, and that was then when I decided to return to Quorn in the Flinders Ranges and work outside of the Department.
Well I did that first of all by moving to Quorn and found a small cottage that ... that I bought, but together with my ... with my husband. He wasn't my husband at that stage, but he was to be my husband within twelve months of going to Quorn and we bought this house together and I quickly found a job with the Education Department as a Aboriginal Liaison Officer and that was helping the Education Department to deal with the Aboriginal children in school and the ... the racism, of course, in the ... and that was in Port Augusta, which is a town at the top of Spencer's Gulf, just a small distance from where I lived to deal with the problems in the town and the problems within the school. But within a very short time - space of time - the National Aboriginal Conference elections were to be held, and I'd had some dealings with the former elected body, which was the NAC - the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee - and while I was in the Department, I'd worked towards the elections for the NACC, and ... but by this time I was outside and I nominated for the, for the election and got ... and was elected, was successfully elected, and became the first chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference. So therein, I suppose, really started my ... my political career, outside of the Department.
So here you were having left the Department out of sheer frustration that you couldn't get done what needed to be done, but now you were catapulted back into a situation where that department was going to be a department you'd have to deal with.
Yes, but I was dealing with it from outside and so while we weren't the formal ... we were really a political lobby, and we ... it wasn't ... the NAC wasn't established under legislation, so it was a loose coalition, I suppose, of elected representatives acting as a ... as a political lobby, always wanting, of course, to be the formal advice to government and hope the government would seek our advice. And so we became a force to reckon with, even though we weren't the formal advice to government. The government, of course, had changed by this time. We now had a Liberal Government in power, who had ... who still supported, of course, the elected representatives and so, of course, that body went to two elections and then it ... it was abolished, and mainly because it, I guess, was acting as a political lobby and not giving ... giving advice to government and towards the end, of course, of the time that it was abolished, it was ... it was then recognised as a formal advice to government. But government interpreted that it wasn't giving the advice, either the advice that it wanted ... that it was abolished.
And what happened to you then? What did you do next?
Well then I was invited to ... by Clyde Holding, who was the Minister by this time, to give advice to the Government on a replacement body for the NAC and so with that I came once again to Canberra. I'd been here on a number of occasions to take up my consultancy and I advised the Government on a structure ... the structure that we now have as ATSIC. Now while it ... it probably went a bit further than my advice to government, certainly in terms of the number of elected regional councils, because Minister Jerry Hand did widespread consultation in relation to the boundaries for the elected representatives, and I've said to him and I've said to others, he agreed with every ... every boundary that was drawn on the maps and we ended up with sixty regional councils and 800 elected representatives. And of course ...
Very. It ... and so I was really responsible for ... for three years of an organisation that I believed was unwieldy and really too difficult to sustain. But perhaps I should go back a little bit further to say that at the end of my consultancy, of course, I went back home and there were other matters, of course, that I was involved with, like the Aboriginal Development Commission, and there's a long history, of course, to what happened there. I came in. I was on the Aboriginal Development Commission as a first ... one of the first commissioners. Charles Perkins was the chairperson of the Commission at that time but towards the end of the ... the Commission, of course, the Minister ... the then Minister, Jerry Hand, sacked eight Aboriginal commissioners of the Development Commission for not accepting a direction and I, once, again found myself a commissioner on the Aboriginal Development Commission and the last chairperson of the ADC. And I had hoped, of course, at the end of that time that I was going back to Quorn, because my husband was retired and we had hoped to spend some time together.
The catalogue of all the different organisations that were involved in trying to advance the Aboriginal cause and to work out policies is very long and complicated. Why do you think this is? Why do you think that there have been so many more different shapes and arrangements for Aboriginal Affairs than for most of the other major concerns in the country?
Well I think that's difficult to answer but I think it was because nobody had the answers, and so government's tried everything that they could and there've been just so many mistakes made in Aboriginal affairs. And while I think governments have studied countries like Canada and America and New Zealand and so on, obviously they're not the answer for us and hence the difficulties I think that we've got into over the years.
You've lived through quite a range of different policies in relation to Aborigines, too, not just organisational change, but massive policy change.
Yes I, of course, have lived through them all and the first of all the policy of protection, then assimilation and that was considered to be wrong, then we became integrated, then we had self-determination, and self-management and, of course, now we're working towards reconciliation by the year 2001. So certainly, yes, we've had a range of policies and, of course, that all becomes very confusing for everyone but, of course, the policy of self-determination is the ... is the policy, of course, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have been striving for. And while governments give lip service to self-determination, we still have a long way to go in terms of determining our own future.
At a personal level, it's the thing you've always worked with too, that you take responsibility for yourself and you feel that Aborigines should also, as a group, take responsibility for themselves. Now you're head of an organisation that's charged with just that duty to get Aborigines together, to take responsibility for making policy for themselves. What are your main problems?
Well my problem, my biggest problem, of course, is the ... the problem of past policies and the fact that governments have put in place many organisations. Many Aboriginal organisations have emerged as a result of government policies and I just think now it ... it is just difficult to get Aboriginal people to get to the point where ... what it will mean I think, is less organisations, so that we can fund organisations much more adequately to actually deal with the problems. Now, one of the policies we have, of course, is that regional councils will, in fact, have regional and community plans and so in the first term all the regional councils worked on regional and community plans but, of course, what needs to happen is that they've got to be more than just a wish list of what people want because in that process I think Aboriginal people were asking for more organisations, which, of course, means that there's more organisations to fund, the dollars we have got to be spread across all of those organisations and it's not an efficient use of funds. So the most difficult task that I believe I have as the head of this organisation is to turn that around, and I'd like to turn it around by indicating to regional councils, which I have done, is that regional plans have got to be more than a wish list. There've got to be some really hard decisions taken, and that is, that in fact some organisations will need to be amalgamated so that in fact you have less administrations carrying out the major programmes that will improve the conditions for Aboriginal people. Not only in housing but in education and in health and across the board.
But given that one of the major Aboriginal problems has been employment, aren't you going to have difficulty in reducing the number of bureaucracies or organisations which actually provide jobs to people who otherwise would have a lot of difficulty finding jobs. Isn't there a contradiction there? Isn't it going to be difficult to persuade people that it's in their interest to give up organisations that actually provide them with work?
Yes, yes, it will be difficult and, of course, we found that out recently when we were doing our course research in relation to the ... the Green Paper on Employment that the Federal Government is wrestling with at the moment. But we found, of course, that ... that the figures would look much worse than they do at the moment if it wasn't for the dollars that go in from the ATSIC budget to community organisations employing Aboriginal people round the country. But I think if we were to amalgamate, many of those jobs would still be available, but we'd be funding less ... less bureaucracies, or less administrations as such if we could actually ...
Less paper pushing and more action?
And more action, yes.
Now in terms of the actual problems that are being dealt with in the Aboriginal communities through the programmes that you're presiding over, have the priorities changed very much in the sort of ... over the many years that you've been involved as an Aboriginal activist, or do a lot of the root problems stay the same?
No, the priorities haven't changed much and the root problems remain the same. But I believe the problems of alcohol and substance abuse, of course, have ... have become worse. And so we ... we really need to put a greater emphasis on that and I have ... while I have an interest in the ... the whole area of our programmes and so on, I've become very, very concerned and interested in the ... in the area of young people and the homeless - the homeless children. And particularly in my home state, I've made a habit of now staying when I go to South Australia, as close to Hindley Street and North Terrace as I can, to actually put in some time with the workers that are working and dealing with that problem. And so on. And I see myself becoming very actively involved in that when, in fact, I'm finished in this job in twelve months time. And I want to in fact give some time to that on, more on a day to day basis than I'm able to do at the moment in the trips that I do to Adelaide. So that is a very big area that ... that is not really being tackled by anyone. But what I really want to say is that the ATSIC programmes, of course, are programmes that are in place mainly because state and territory governments are not providing the services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people that they're providing to ... to their citizens. And they see that as a ATSIC responsibility or a Federal responsibility. Our funds are really are a top-up to the responsibilities they have and one of the big tasks that we have is to get state and territory governments to accept their proper responsibility for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.
In the ... in all the areas of housing, health, and education and also to those young people who are on the streets and, for the most part, are wards of the state. And so they have a tremendous responsibility here and unfortunately they see the ... the result of the referendum giving responsibility to the Commonwealth and they often quote that as a reason why they don't have to deal with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens of their states and territories.
You mean the referendum that ... are we talking about the 1967 referendum that included them in the census and made them recognised as citizens to be counted?
That's right, but ... but ...
But how does that take away the right ... of the need for the state to take care of them?
Well it doesn't but it also went on to say that the Commonwealth should also accept responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, but that was really when, in fact, the Commonwealth did, in fact, start to put extra money into Aboriginal affairs. But what's got to be understood of course is that the Commonwealth does pay money to the states as well in all these programme areas to assist the states to do that, and then, of course, on top of that there are the programmes that this commission provides as well, but is really only extra effort that's made on our part, and also to provide funds for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples out of frustration, of course, to provide funds because states and territories are not doing their job.
There is this feeling, I think, among a lot of people that over the last few years progress has been made and money has been spent to try to improve Aboriginal health, housing, employment, education and so on, and yet there's a sense that there isn't the progress that people would like. We still have terrible problems with Aboriginal health, we have deaths in custody, we've had a commission into it and nothing seems to have improved. Do you get that sense that there's a big gap between the wish to do things, the money to do things and the actual results? Why do you think that is? Why is it so difficult to get results?
Well I think the problems have been because Aboriginal people haven't been involved themselves in setting the priorities, making the decisions and when you consider that ATSIC has only been in existence for four years, that really has been a really big job for community people: all of a sudden to be given responsibility to make decisions for themselves. And I think a lot of headway's been made in terms of ... not outcomes on those programmes that we're responsible for and delivering, but there's certainly been outcomes in terms of knowledge ... the knowledge that Aboriginal people have gained over the four years. For instance, the mystery of how budgets are formulated, how you go about lobbying governments to provide extra funds, and how you get involved in regional council decision making and the need to set priorities in Aboriginal affairs so ... because I mean the bureaucrats did that before. And so in the last four years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people are coming to terms with that. Now, we'll make our mistakes in the same way, but governments have done it for 200 years. If Aboriginal people do it for four or five years, well then obviously we've got to be allowed to make some mistakes along the way but, of course, we are more keen to get outcomes, I believe, than governments have been, because it seems as if the more money you pour in, the more satisfied governments are that they're doing something. But we can't be content with that, of course, and while I have to confess at this stage that we haven't seen the outcomes that we'd like to see I'd certainly hope that in the future we can move towards seeing greater outcomes.
You talked rather wistfully of the unity and camaraderie of the early days, before there was much money, when Aborigines were working for something which they saw as happening in the future. Do you think that some of that arose out of a lack of appreciation of the enormous difficulties of what you were trying to do in bringing together people, who really [are] scattered all over the country, [with] different languages and different backgrounds. I wonder being in this job has made you feel ... what it's made you think and feel about Aboriginal unity.
Well I'd still like to think that we could ... we could go back to those times, when we had unity, because I believe that we, in fact, would get greater outcomes if we could. But we're ... I guess we're all too obsessed with what we're doing ourselves and not thinking enough about, in fact, coming together and talking about how we can perhaps move towards greater outcomes by working much more closely together but, unfortunately, I think having now formulated the organisations we have round the country, responsible now for ... for budgets and programmes, life is ... is too busy, I suppose, and we don't take the time out to perhaps network, ring each other and give each other the support and so on, that we did in those days back, you know, in the sixties but, I guess, that's the way life is. And, of course, now I'm in ... I'm certainly in a position of great responsibility. People often say power. I don't exercise power in the way that people might expect, because I see myself, of course, in this position as the first amongst equals and that the decisions ... the policy decisions that are made and the decisions that are made about funding to programmes and so on that are made by the Corporate Body, which is the Board of Commissioners ... and I've never been a person to get carried away with power, and so that's the way I operate.
You talk about leaving at the end of the year and going back closer to the community with the same kind of enthusiasm that you talked about leaving being a charge nurse and going back to bedside or community nursing. Do you find this distance that you are sitting in this office from the actual work face, work with Aborigines, hard to deal with?
No, no I don't actually. I've ... I guess experience over all this time, I've always made a very big point of always keeping contact with the community and I like to live in a small community and to get back there because I think it keeps your feet on the ground. Now admittedly, since ... since I lost my husband, I haven't got back to Quorn as much as I'd like to but, of course, life's been very, very busy here. But my family keep in touch on a regular basis and when we have Aboriginal people in town from my own home state as well as other places, I think they make sure you keep your feet on the ground, so I don't feel very remote. But I've worked very hard at ... at making sure that I keep my contacts.
Over all these years that you've been so close to Aboriginal communities and you've been looking at it and thinking about it and analysing it, in your heart what do you think is the most important thing to be done to really make a difference?
Well ... well in my heart I think ... what I feel is the most important thing to do is to really tackle the alcohol and drug abuse problem, because I believe that if, in fact, we're able to do that, Aboriginal people would be able to regain some of their dignity and I believe then they would be in a position to be able to deal with all those ... those more difficult problems of ... of housing and also of health and education, because I believe then people take on their rightful responsibilities.
Well, of course, I mean it really is ... the only way I can do it, of course, from ... from this position is to encourage the Board of Commissioners in terms of budget allocations and for everyone to see that ... that that I believe is the biggest problem because then there has to be a shift of emphasis, of funding to those community organisations who are actually working on that particular problem. So really that's the first thing, that there has to be a shift in terms of funds allocation to those particular areas.
But what would you spend those funds on? What method can be used to be work with people who've been involved in this kind of pattern of abuse for a long time?
Well there are ... there are programmes in every state and territory that are actually dealing with it, but it's not just as easy as running day centres and rehabilitation programmes and so on because it's much more complex than that, because you have to get the confidence of the people and you have to get people who ... who are in fact, abusing alcohol and drugs to see the need for them to, in fact, enter into such a programme. So that is the most difficult. So we have to give the organisations the ability in the first place to ... to seek these people out, to also provide them, of course, with ... with the necessary accommodation and sustenance and so on, to get and gain their confidence in the first instance, that they need to do something about the problem. So that is always the problem with those sorts of programmes in the first instance though ... and also giving the workers the necessary support and so on that they need to keep going.
Some people have linked the alcohol problem and the drug problem to the dispossession of land and they take the view that the central problem is the land rights problem and that a lot of the others flow from that, including alcohol abuse. What do you think of that?
Well, of course, I mean land is ... we term land as our mother, of course, and that land certainly is ... is very important to us but, of course, we have the recent High Court decision in relation to Native Title and we now have the legislation and from ... from what we know, of course, only ... only ten per cent of Aboriginal people will really benefit from the Mabo decision, so there all of those people who are ... who are well and truly dispossessed, who have no chance, of course, of proving Native Title, and so that is also a difficult ... a difficult area that needs to be ... needs to be dealt with. So those people, of course, in urban and rural areas will need to be helped in some different ways and that's why in fact in this budget we are hoping to, in fact, receive significant funds for a national land fund, which, of course, will purchase land on behalf of Aboriginal people who've actually been dispossessed. Now land for ... for a number of reasons - cultural, social and economic reasons in the more urban areas - can be bought to enable Aboriginal people to ... to have social and cultural centres and also to own buildings and so on to operate their legal services and their medical services. That's probably about all we'll be able to do in terms of compensating in some way for ... for the dispossession that has actually occurred. But for the traditional areas of course there will be those who will ... there is quite a lot of land of course that, that has been bought up over the years in the Northern Territory and in the Kimberley, to a lesser extent in Queensland. Of course they will have the ability to ... to apply to the tribunal for consideration of their Native Title Claim.
Could you tell me about your part in this: how you felt when you heard about the Mabo decision, and then what it's meant for you in terms of your work here in the time since that decision was made.
Well, look it was very heady days, of course, last year while we were negotiating. It was difficult, but it was ... it was exciting and it was a tremendous responsibility, of course, we had as well and we were always aware of that because everyone was watching and my own particular role in it, of course, was only a member of the team, but a senior member of the team and being the chairperson of ATSIC, we were the funding body, of course, that enabled the other members of the team to be in Canberra as often as they needed to be to enter into those negotiations and so it was a ... it was a responsible job that we had and we really, at the end of the day, had to come out with a result and, of course, on the last night it was just euphoric and I guess, as I look back on the photographs and the coverage and so on of those times, it was obvious that I was very pleased by the outcome and it was good to get home at Christmas time with a feeling that you'd actually been part of a great achievement for Aboriginal people.
But in the wake of it, afterwards, trying to get the legislation right, being constantly criticised for not having gone far enough, or having gone too far, how do you deal with that personally? Does it worry you when other Aborigines attack you and say you haven't done the right thing and that you've sold out and use phrases like that?
Well look, I've never been a person to worry too much about those sorts of criticisms because I'm also a person that thinks ... thinks about what I do and every move I make I would have thought about it before ... before doing and also before speaking, and I think I've always been of the opinion that if, in fact, you've given a lot of consideration to it, that you believe it's the right move you're making and that you've just got to press on. If at any time I felt that I was in the wrong, and that I had made a mistake, and that I was in the wrong, I make sure that I fix it up pretty quickly and I never take any of those problems to bed with me at night and so I think that's why I've been able to keep going because I don't lose sleep over anything really because I believe that every move I make I have thought about it and I believe I'm doing the right thing.
But what about when you make a mistake, does that bother you?
I haven't made any very big mistakes, I don't believe, mainly because, I guess, from a very early age, I've had to work very hard at always doing things right and while they ... that was a very onerous ... onerous of course in the ... in my early years, I find that it really is just not difficult for me these days.
So you feel satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations relating to Mabo and to Aboriginal Title, but you're saying to ... say people in the white community who feel 'Well look that's fixed things, you know, we've, we've done the right thing here and it's going to', you would say, there's still so many Aborigines that won't be affected at all by this and who'll be in the same situation.
Yeah, well that's true, but of course we can ... we have to still deal with those Aboriginal people who've been dispossessed through our programmes. But the outcome of the Mabo decision won't make a great deal of difference. But, of course we had a ... we certainly had a victory in the High Court decision that dispelled the legal fiction that this country was occupied by no one: 'terra nullius'. So that was a very big victory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, but the final outcome of the legislation and so on will ... will not benefit, you know, too many Aboriginal people, but we'll continue to deal with those other matters through the programmes and so on. But I do feel satisfied with the outcome. But we've got a lot of work to do. I mean the tribunal is just being established, the head of the tribunal, of course, is ... is not yet appointed and there've been - one of the things that I've been pleased about, of course, that there haven't been massive claims but the, the Commission itself from the when the High Court was handed down, proceeded to give a selected number of Aboriginal organisations round the country the financial ability to research claims for Native Title, and I think that, in fact, if we do the research properly, which I believe is happening at the moment, that later on we can expect, of course, that there will be many more claims, but up till now there are only two claims before the ... before the tribunal.
Will the tribunal that deals with Native Title claims have an Aboriginal chair do you think?
No, I don't think so. There will be ... it'll be a ... somebody from the legal profession, but, of course, there will be room for Aboriginal people and so on in the processes of assessing the claims and so on and, of course, we haven't go down to that sort of detail at the moment, but in relation to the negotiations, to assist the ... the head of the tribunal ... but all those details, of course, are not really worked out at this stage.
There is a large section of the white community in Australia who've been extremely distressed about the decision and full of fears and concerns about whether their own land or interests will be affected by these claims. What do you think about that and how have you dealt with it from this position?
Well I think we dealt with it throughout the process of the negotiations by trying to allay people's fears that there wouldn't be full scale claims over urban areas and so on, and tried to indicate to members of the public that Native Title had been extinguished in those areas. Of course it wasn't helped by the fact that there were some significant so-called ambit claims throughout the process, but I mean, one doesn't really have control over ... over those sorts of things, and ... but I think really people seem to have settled down and I think the indication now is, at this point in time, people seem to be fairly relaxed about it, so I guess I was indicating that. Our Minister of course, Robert Tickner, was indicating that people didn't need to worry about their own backyards and so on. But, of course, there's still lots of tensions and uncertainties in the area of ... of mining and the pastoral industry and those sorts of areas but, of course, we've got Rick Farley, who actually heads up the Farmers' Federation, who, of course is ... is a person that we're able to work with. He's a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, so he's come to terms with the relationships with Aboriginal people and he's able to, in fact, tell his ... his constituency, if you like, that really so long people talk ... and I think, really, communication is a great medium whereby, in fact, we can put to rest many of the fears that ... that the non-Aboriginal community is facing at this time.
What sections of the pastoral industry might have a problem? I mean, are there areas in Australia where there are pastoral properties owned by white people, where there may be claims and how would you see that operating?
Well, of course, Aboriginal people have to prove Native Title, so I mean it's going to be a long process for them through the tribunal in the first instance, but I think one of the most important things for the pastoral industry, of course, is to ... in the first instance, work out some protocols between Aboriginal traditional owners, which is something that they could have been doing for a long time, of course, which would have in fact not brought about, I think, some of the claims we might see in the past. If there were proper protocols about the understanding of Aboriginal use of the land, and the fact that they would be able to travel through some of these pastoral country for tribal ceremonies and also for hunting, and some of those areas, so it's still a matter of those people who are close to the areas, where there could well be claims for Native Title ... if some of those protocols could be worked out, in fact there won't be massive claims. And those sorts of things are happening and where, in fact, there have been good communications, things have worked out fairly well and will continue to do so.
Some people have talked about the notion of Aborigines taking things over and there's been a lot of fear in the talk. Do you find it at all ironic when white people talk about being afraid of Aborigines taking things over?
Well, I mean, sometimes those are the things that do concern me and make me feel a bit angry from time to time, because I think that no one could doubt that we are the most, I think ... Well we're not people, in fact, who have gone out purposely to take over anything, and history ... history will bear me out on that, so we're not aggressive in any way and all we want is for ... for people to understand that we also have rights, and that those rights should be respected and that people should come to terms with the fact that we have rights and those rights have been eroded and this High Court decision enables us to actually get back some of those rights.
Now talking about the basic problem that faces Aboriginal communities of getting together the self respect and sense of responsibility for themselves that's needed to take the next step forward, you yourself have never had any difficulty with that. You've had a lot of strength about making choices and following them, even at times with pain and difficulty to yourself. What do you think makes you different from so many other Aborigines who find it difficult to keep to the path that they lay out for themselves?
Well it's ... I think mainly because I had some sense of direction, I think, from my very early days, as a result of the discipline and so on that was applied. Unfortunately for many Aboriginal people, of course, they've been in the situation of being herded on government reserves. Their own responsibility's been assumed by Protectors of Aborigines and by government officials and if you become part of that system, it's always difficult to break out of it and it's like those families whether they're Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, who get caught up in the welfare system, that welfare breeds welfare and it's difficult to break out of that sort of cycle. So, you know, I understand that. And I understand how much more difficult it is for people who have in fact been caught up in that particular cycle. But I think that because of my background and the foresight I had that I wouldn't get caught up in ... in any of that, and the fact that the mission authorities always warned us against seeking government ... government assistance, and that we were always encouraged to be in the ... to be in the workforce even though it was domestic employment ... We ourselves of course had to take the step to get out of that ourselves. But I must say that I'm, I guess ... I'm also part of a very ... a lucky era if you like. Being born in the thirties, having evaded, of course - I knew something about the war years - but having evaded the war years on the edge of the ... the, you know ... the difficult times and so on, and I've always been in a job. Even though ... even though it was difficult getting a job I've always, I've always been in a job and my husband always used to say - and not giving me any credit for having made some success - that I was born in a lucky era and, I mean, I agree with that too. That for us times have been ... have been quite good.
Some people who believe that Aborigines should be able to determine their own lives and who, like you, feel that protection or some sort of paternalism towards Aborigines is part of the problem, have a solution of just simply withdrawing welfare benefits and help to them in a financial sense in order for them to find their direction. What do you feel about that kind of approach?
No, I wouldn't support that approach at all. I mean people need all the help that they can get to assist them to find their way in the community and, of course, one of the things that Aboriginal people are talking about, of course, at the moment is the need of course for economic enterprise, so there certainly is a ... a lot of thought being given to the purchasers of properties and also getting involved in ... in joint ventures, into tourism, and into a whole range of things - of course running pastoral properties and so on. But many of the pastoral properties we have, of course, were in a bad condition and will take some time of course to get to being able to be a viable economic enterprise. But we need to do more than talk about it. We need, in fact, to be working towards economic enterprise and at some stage putting ourselves in the position that we will no longer be dependent upon governments for the kind of assistance that we're receiving now. I really look forward to that day when Aboriginal people are more able to control their own affairs. In fact the economic position will enable us to do it.
Now the instrument that ATSIC has used to try to make sure that Aborigines are setting the agenda and making sure that things happen in their areas is very dependent on the regional councils and those regional councils to work well, have to take a lot of responsibility and be very effective in what they do. Isn't there a problem of culture here, that in regions there are needs and perceptions of the Aboriginal communities, ways of doing things which aren't compatible with the white man's bureaucracy and the sort of administration that's required from Canberra. Is there a difficulty there?
Well there certainly is a difficulty. There's difficulty with this whole organisation, of course. It is a brave bold experiment by this government to introduce an organisation like this, and it is very unique. We have nothing to model on anywhere in the world, with this organisation. It's dependent upon a good partnership or relationship with the Minister, with the bureaucracy, and with the elected arm of this organisation. So it's not been ... it's not been an easy organisation to establish and the other matter that you raised and you alluded to is a problem because it gets back to the ... the traditional ways of doing things but we've got to understand here that, in fact, we're operating a 900 million dollar budget, which is funds that come from the taxpayer. We're under a great deal more scrutiny than any other organisation in the community, and so we're very mindful of being accountable to the ... to the Australian Government for the funds that are given to us and everybody's just learning, so you can see that it's been a big pressure on the organisation and we started and with sixty regional councils, 800 elected representatives, and we reviewed that within the first two years of the elected organisation. We've reduced that now to thirty-five, with 570, elected councils. But what's going to make it easier this ... this term is that the commissioners, the Board of Commissioners are now full time and the chairs of regional councils are full time. And so I can only go on I guess addressing to the board of directors and also to the regional councils that they need to take regional perspectives and national perspectives at this level, rather than take a family perspective, which, of course, gets back to the criticisms of nepotism and ... but I think people are understanding more and more that those ... that people are watching and ... but it's very difficult.
But isn't there a really basic problem that whitefella law and whitefella's ways of doing things has a word like nepotism, and is against it, and says that people in charge of regional administration have to do things very fairly, while at the same time Aboriginal obligations require you to take care of your own specific family, sometimes at the expense of other families in the region?
Well until governments can actually come to terms with that and appreciate and make some allowances for that ... Unfortunately we've got to understand that we're dealing with a white fella organisation here, and taxpayers' monies, and we've got to respond to that and all of us are hoping, of course, that the ceremonies and the culture will continue, but where we're dealing with whitefella governments and so on, we've also got to also change our style.
One of your deputy ... your former deputy ... [clears throat] Your former deputy, Sol Bellair, has criticised you and this organisation and said that basically it's still really run by whites. What do you say to that?
Well I must say that I was ... I was surprised by the comment and I did see the comment, because he actually sat on the board here for four years. He, in fact, saw the decision making processes that ... that actually went on. Admittedly this administration has to, in fact, produce the board papers and so on, but at the end of the day the decisions, the policy decisions, and the funding decisions that are made by this commission are made by the board of commissioners, at this level and they're made by the regional council at the regional level, and for my former deputy to say that is really not telling the truth about how things operate at this level. It is really up to this administration to carry out the policies and the decisions that are taken by the board of commissioners. One of the difficulties, of course, that both regional councils and the board of commissioners have problems coming to terms with is the fact that they have no responsibility for the administration of the commission. The commission administration is headed up by a chief executive officer who is a public servant and who is appointed by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Affairs, and I have no difficulty with that at all. I'm here in Canberra. I have meetings with the senior executive on a regular basis. They consult me regularly about ... about matters that they're unclear about. But the only way that we're ever going to be able to change that is if, in fact, ATSIC comes from outside of the Public Service. We are a statutory commission and for all intents and purpose, we operate as a department of state, which gives us, of course, powers that we wouldn't have if we went outside of the Public Service, and so, really, we're faced with either making it work as it is presently structured or making a decision, which, of course, has been discussed by the board over the ... the four year term and it was a recommendation of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody that the Aboriginal affairs administration, ATSIC, should come out from under the Public Service Act, which would mean, of course, that the commission would be an independent statutory commission that would hire and fire its own staff and be outside of it. But we would also lose something in so far as we are, at the moment, able to have access to Cabinet documents and are able to get close to the ... to the Prime Minister and to the Cabinet and give advice. So it is ... it is something that, in fact, this new board discussed once again at its first meeting. So it is something that we're considering.
Now apart from the structural things though, as far as you're concerned, this whole issue of the obligations that you have to your family in traditional Aboriginal ways of doing things and the sort of way that you're obliged to run things if you're looking at fitting in with a whitefella way of doing things, does that ... how do you feel about that yourself, personally? I mean, I detected that there was a sort of element of guilt in you over leaving your mother so carefully in line, in the queue, for assistance when you had the power to help her. And you resisted the temptation to do that but you didn't look entirely happy about it. Is there still a conflict for you inside yourself about these two ways of doing things?
Yes, it's uncomfortable. Uncomfortable. But I just can't see a way through it and the only way through it of course is a ... and a very radical suggestion of course and ... not so radical coming out from under the Public Service, but the fact that any appropriation from the government will be an appropriation that's ... that's given to Aboriginal people to administer in the way they feel appropriate. And that, of course, also opens itself to misuse. So it is uncomfortable, but I'm afraid I really just don't have a complete answer to how best it can be done.
What happened in the end with your mother? Did you eventually sort her situation out for her?
Oh yes. My mother finally came out of the humpy and into a house and, of course, she ... she travelled south and met the other three children and her grandchildren, but she was always in a hurry to return to Oodnadatta so she didn't really want to stay south and change her way of life. She was always anxious to return, but in later years, of course, after I married, we were able to travel on a very regular basis to Oodnadatta and also to Pitjantjara lands, and meet regularly and get to know better my people and so on in that area. So it was good and my mother, of course, has now passed away. She passed away in the same year as we married and ...
No she didn't, she didn't. It was ... it was actually before she passed away but she didn't ... she wasn't there for the wedding because it was always difficult to manage the ... you know, the transport backwards and forwards. But I finally, of course, had the ... Because she passed away in the Port Augusta Hospital, and I finally had the task of actually transporting the casket back for a traditional funeral and we were on the road for days, and because of tribal ceremonies in the area, we didn't get back to Indolkina, but she found her final resting place in traditional ... traditional grounds outside of Oodnadatta.
And what was that like to attend the ceremony of a traditional funeral?
Oh well it was certainly was the first. While I'd had opportunities in the past, but because of my responsibilities in Aboriginal Affairs, I wasn't able to ... to spend much time in travelling back, but while it was interesting I experienced, of course, the ... the traditional mores and so on that had to be observed at the time and that was to provide for the extended family, over a week, while we waited for the traditional elders and so on to get across, well, to finalise the traditional ceremonies and to finally come across for the funeral, which was something, of course, that I had to learn as I went and I tell you, it can be a pretty expensive responsibility that you have, but one that I was happy to be part of.
Were the ceremonies themselves impressive to you?
Well yes they were, but it's a sort of traditional mores that one can't talk about and has to ...
Yes, they are secret ceremonies, just to the extended family.
So that was a really big year in your life: the year that you married, the year that your mother died and yet you still kept on always disciplining yourself to go on with your work. Has that been the secret of your success in life, that you've always been able to give to the community, even though you were going through a lot personally?
Well, yes, but I mean I don't ever ... it doesn't ever appear a hardship to me, because it's just the way I guess I've ... I've operated from my very early years and I mean the same was, of course, only two years ago, I lost my husband, of course, and I was attending the opening of the Strehlow Foundation in Alice Springs and got a message to say my husband had been admitted to hospital with a massive heart attack. I'd hoped to get there. I hired ... I actually chartered a plane, but I didn't arrive in time and he'd passed away a half an hour before ... before I got there. But it was something that we'd always prepared ourselves for as well, because we talked about the possibilities that ... because I was working here and he was home, that there could be a possibility that I wouldn't be there and, once again, you know, we'd sort of prepared the way for any possibility like that, but my deputy was overseas and we weren't able to locate him to get him back. So once again I found myself involved in a family situation as well as carrying on the work, so I attended the funeral and came back to work days later.
In the years after you got to know your mother, did you ever feel that you got as close to her as you would have liked to? Or was she always ... I get the impression that she was always just sliding away from you. Why do you think that was? Do you think there was a sort of element of hopelessness in her about the fact that you'd been taken away and she had no power to prevent it, and that she never, ever was able to get over that and open up to you the way you would have liked her to.
Well I don't believe that I ever got as close to her as I would have liked, but I believe the main problem was the fact of the language barrier to start with. And the other was the ... I guess the questions I wanted to ask and the things I wanted to know I thought would have been perhaps a bit intrusive and a bit hurtful to her and I felt that she'd been hurt enough over the years, so I didn't pursue it.
Do you regret that now? Because there's a lot she could have told you about herself, her relationship with your father, and about the actual circumstances of your being taken that would have been valuable to you, wouldn't they? And yet you restrained yourself. Did you ever try to talk to her about it?
No I didn't. It would have been ... it would have been helpful but I accepted, of course, that the mysteries were never going to be revealed.
Did you ever meet your father?
No, I didn't but I had reason to believe that he might have wanted to make contact with me. When I was at the Royal Adelaide Hospital I was working in the outpatients department and I saw a man that answered to his description on a number of occasions, being a redheaded Irishman. But that's all I ... that's all I observed, but when I raised it with a couple of Roman Catholic fathers who used to attend the hospital, they indicated to me that they thought that it could have well been him.
You didn't know the name of this man. Did he just watch you?
Oh he was just watching, yes. Just appeared on a number of occasions in outpatients when I was working there.
Did you feel any curiosity about him?
No, I must say I didn't. I've never, ever really wanted to know my father or any members of his family.
No, I'm not aware of a feeling of resentment as such, but I'd been brought up as an Aboriginal child and I related to ... to that community and so I just decided that for me it was my mother that I wanted to find and to get to know, and I was satisfied having done that.
Do you feel any resentment at all?
No, I don't.
You don't resent the white community, you don't resent an Australia that didn't give Aborigines a proper place, an Australia that hasn't been able to get much right for Aborigines? You don't feel resentment?
No I don't, and I don't think it's a ... a very hurt ... a very healthy feeling to have, because to be resentful I think is ... just stands in the way of ... of moving forward.
I find it very difficult to get angry. There really have only ever been a couple of times that I was certainly angry about and have been angry about what happened, not so much to me, but what happened to my mother in not being able to keep her children and more angry about the fact that the missionaries didn't have the foresight to inform my mother that we were all right and to make contact with her, to let her know that we were all right.
Now, the women in the Aboriginal communities around the country play a particular role. Do you think that the contribution that women have made has been particularly important for keeping Aboriginal people and communities functioning?
Yes, they're by certainly the most active in community life, in organisational life, and they are certainly the backbone to the Aboriginal movement. But unfortunately when it comes to the electoral process and also to the leadership roles and so on, women haven't emerged in the way that they ought to have, but I think that's out of a sense of responsibility of not leaving their post, so to speak, at the community in the organisational level.
You don't think it has anything to do with the Aboriginal men keeping them out?
Well I don't think the Aboriginal women would tolerate that and certainly their strength of character would indicate that they wouldn't tolerate that and there are many women, of course, who are now taking leadership roles around the country, but on the other hand I think they still feel a sense of responsibility to ... to be at the coal face, as it were, in the communities and also at the organisational levels, within the organisation, but we do have the ability, of course, to appoint women on national boards as well as on ... in the state departments and that's being done more and more.
You're, of course, a great exception to the absence of women on a lot of the councils and so on, and you've always been there. Why is that, do you think, that you've been able to do that?
Well I think it was mainly because I served my apprenticeship and having done that at an early age and come through the organisations as I did. I mean there are many Aboriginal people who say to me, and have said to me over the years, 'How do we ... how do we become a national leader?' and I've had to tell them, of course, that they need to ... they need to come through the process and they have to first, you know, go through the apprenticeship stage and that's the only way. But I think that people today have the ability to come through a little bit more quicker than I did. However I think that the ... the apprenticeships that I had in community organisations and so on, stood me in very good stead for those national responsibilities that I've taken on over the years.
What's the particular contribution that you think that women have made in Aboriginal communities?
Well, of course, they've always been concerned about the ... the rearing of the children and ... and so that is particularly important and helpful because I mean they're the ones who are coming through of course as leaders of the future. So that's been the greatest contribution, of course, they've made and the other contribution, of course, as I've said, [is] in the organisations. But the ... the very fact that, you know, they ... they stay in the organisations for a long time, and they're just not in and out of the organisations. So it's their ability to stay with the ... with the job and their stick ability, of course, in the face of tremendous odds at times. And it's becoming much more difficult, of course, with the problems of alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence.
Once upon a time the women were less involved with alcohol than the men. Is that changing?
Well yes that is certainly changing and I guess it's a matter of ...
It's changing the community at large, of course, as well.
Yes, yes, and I guess it becomes such a battle, you know, and if you can't beat it join them, you know. And so, I guess, it lessens the pain in some ways for them as well, but it's a very unfortunate fact of life.
What's happening in relation to the domestic violence issue in the Aboriginal community?
Well, of course, we have ... we have quite a number of programmes and so on in place. In ATSIC itself here as we have the Office of Indigenous Women and we have women's issues officers operating at all the regional office levels. And then funding to community organisations and, of course, we have some very strong traditional women in communities and the most well known one, of course, is the women who operate at Papunya, who, every night, of course, watch out for these ... those members of the community and so on who ... who are abusing alcohol. And they have formed night patrols and they just take control and deal with the problems, but I guess again it's, it's really a band aid kind of operation, but they're those strong women, once again, trying to indicate that this is destroying a culture and people are really wanting to do something about it.
You yourself have never had children. Is that something you regret?
No I don't. It was a ... it was also a definite decision on my part.
Well because I was totally involved in Aboriginal Affairs and then, of course, I made the decision to not get involved, of course, with that relationship and so I guess I was waiting, of course, for my husband to discharge his responsibilities and we finally married, of course, but life just went on for me and ...
How old were you when you got married?
Now you're asking me. Well I was certainly in my thirties. No, no, no I was in my ... I was forty-five I think when I married. So no I mean I have a ... I guess I've always had responsibility for others and I have a huge extended family, many nieces and nephews and so on, so that's been family enough for me.
Do you ever see the little girl that was your special responsibility in the home?
Yes I do. I see her on a regular basis. We have an organisation, of course, that we call Colebrook Community Centre and one of the things I haven't said, of course, is that we have ... we have the old Colebrook Children's Home now back and we operate that now as a community centre. And we're going to also provide retirement units there for those of our members who ... who have reached retirement age and who need some caring for in their ... you know, in their retiring years. So we have the opportunity to get together, of course, certainly once a year with our Annual General Meeting and Doris is inevitably there and we ... For any of the family reunions and festivals and so on that we have, I'm able to see her and, of course, she ... she certainly still sees me as her ... her mother and the one who cared for her throughout those years.
Seeing as you worked for so long as a nurse and your background was medical, do you find it sort of particularly difficult when ATSIC, as its recently been, under attack, for not doing more in the area of health.
Well I don't think there are many people out there who ... who are necessarily mindful of the fact that ... that I am qualified nurse because it's a long time since I ... since I nursed and many more years, of course, in Aboriginal Affairs administration. And I don't feel a particular responsibility for health only. And I have a responsibility across the whole area of our programmes. While I have, over the years, taken a special interest in health, it really doesn't occupy my special attention these days, over and above that. While I'm unhappy about the ... the situation that exists out there, it is really now the responsibility of the community controlled health organisations who receive funding to do that as well as the Commonwealth and state governments.
So it's not ... you don't see health as really a specifically ATSIC responsibility?
No, it's not. I mean we receive a budget of fifty million dollars and we ... we certainly fund the administration of the Aboriginal Medical Services and the reasons why we've had to do that is to pick up the responsibilities of the state and territory governments. So that in no way relieves them of their prime responsibility to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health matters.
Yes, they certainly do and we've had the opportunity throughout this period of time, since about October last year, when the former Senator now - Richardson - all of a sudden found out that the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people was ... was in a bad situation. Something that we have know about, of course, for a long time and have been attempting to get state governments to accept their responsibilities for it and also to do what we could to fund the Aboriginal Medical Services. The Aboriginal Medical Services have brought about this situation themselves, of course, where they had made a decision that they felt that ... that it would be better if they came under the ... the responsibility of the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health. The main reason for that, of course, is the need for ... for more funds to do the job that they have to do. But this commission, of course, doesn't support that position. We believe, of course, that the Commonwealth Government could, in fact, provide funds over and above the ATSIC allocation to Aboriginal Medical Services without the medical services actually becoming a responsibility of the Commonwealth Department of Health. Now the real problem I have with the transfer of that responsibility to the Commonwealth Government is really a matter of principle and that principle is that it is a return to mainstreaming and if, in fact, the programme - our programme - for health returned to the Department of Health, why shouldn't housing and why shouldn't all the other responsibilities we have go mainstream and it really is a principle that we've fought for, for many years.
So you feel that in all of those areas, Aborigines should be looked after in the normal way by mainstream departments and that you should be a special topping up, targeted sort of organisation.
Yes I certainly do and that ... and that ... that's what our responsibility is.
You're a woman who sits very much between two worlds, between two different cultures. You do it in your genes, you did it in your upbringing, and now you're doing it sitting, managing an Aboriginal world through a white bureaucracy. How do you feel about that? How do you handle it and how do you see yourself in terms of your identity?
Well my identity quite clearly is that I'm first an Aboriginal person and I'm second ... I'm an Australian. That's the way I see it and I have no difficulty with that. The only difficulty I have when I receive criticism and I do receive criticism from my Aboriginal ... from Aboriginal people, of course, that I've sold out or that I, you know, for all intents and purposes, am not an Aboriginal person. Of course I think I've proved that by the way I've conducted my life over the years, that that really can't be said of me. But I also feel at times that there are problems with my own family and one of the difficulties is being here in Canberra in this so called ivory tower here, when my family feel that they can't have access to me and that's by virtue, of course, of the fact that I head a large organisation like ATSIC and that there are many times of course when I can't always speak to them, or see them. So when you go home at times, people say, 'Who do you think you are?' you know. Well I mean that hurts. But it is just a problem that I have heading an organisation like this where I'm just not always freely available. But I attempt to see community people here in my office. I make myself available when I go round the ... around the countryside. My office here has great difficulty, in the early days of my appointment, of knowing who my immediate family was, because I'm auntie to many people and so very early in the peace I had to tell my staff here the names of my sisters and my brother and of my nearest relatives, my nieces and my nephews, so that, in fact, if there was a family matter that needed to be dealt with, that they should be put through to me. So we're attempting to deal with it and I'm still attempting to keep my feet on the ground and be available to people, as well do the job that I have to do.
Do you feel at all cheated that you missed out on being introduced to traditional ways?
Well, I suppose, to some extent I feel ... I feel that way, but I've actually come to terms with that now. And it ... it is a problem I think when you've been cheated to be able to get back into ... into the traditional ways, because you have to be very careful about ... about those mores that you have to observe, and that you don't get yourself into serious trouble, so I've been very careful not to ... not to do that to the extent that, I guess, I've stayed more outside of it than I've actually got ... got into it. But by virtue of still maintaining my links, you know, with my traditions ...
Do you do a bit of picking and choosing between the two ways of doing things to work out what kinds of methods or styles or approaches, that are from the Aboriginal background and what from the European that make sense and works in practical life? I mean a lot of people who have access to two cultures create a sort of hybrid of the two in terms of what they do. Are you conscious at all of doing that?
No, I don't think I am conscious of doing it.
Do you think you have done it a bit?
Oh yes I think I have done it but I'm not conscious of it. But I know I feel good when in fact I have, for instance on my ... on my new board, I have Commissioner Yami Lester, who is a very close relative of mine, who ... who is now on the board and who comes here and from time to time I have people who come here who speak the language and who accept me as one of the ... one of the tribe and I'm able to converse with them. And I think that, in a way, reinforces to the other commissioners, to the staff in this commission, to Prime Ministers and to Ministers and so on, that I ... that, you know, I do belong to the ... to an Aboriginal community, to a rich culture and that in fact I ... I speak the language and I feel really good when I'm able to display that in ... to those people that I'm closely associated with and they're really the only times, I suppose, that you can do that.
Now you've also had high office, you've also been given high honours as Australian of the Year, Order of Australia, British Empire Awards and so on. You've have a very dazzling array of achievements there. When you go home and people say, 'Who do you think you are?' and you have to sort of keep your feet on the ground, is that a problem at all? Have you ever sort of thought, when you think of your beginnings out there in the bush and you think of where you've come to, does it ever strike you as being something that you've had to cope with or deal with?
No, perhaps the only one was the acceptance of the Australian of the Year, by virtue of that being Australia Day and Aboriginal people, of course, don't celebrate Australia Day. It's now being celebrated as a ... as survival, or in the past it's been a day of mourning because it represents colonisation. So I've been told since that I was the only person that took a fortnight to make a decision about whether, in fact, I would accept that ... that award.
Were you the first Aboriginal to be given it?
No, I wasn't the first Aboriginal. I mean, Yvonne Gooloogong Cawley, of course, had received it before and Mark Ella as a young Australian. But for me, it ... it was something that I really had to think about, and having thought about it, I decided that it would ... it would give me a platform on which to further the interest of Aboriginal affairs and, of course, in those days we didn't have the tour of honour that we have these days, but I set up my own little committee and did some tours of honour myself, and so, and that was ... while it was a high honour, it was also a stressful time for me because I was referred to as a Judas, and so some of my people, of course, weren't happy about the fact that I accepted the award, but later on, people, I think, got quite used to the idea and there have been other Aboriginal people, of course - Mandawuy Yunupingu - who have accepted the award. But I think it's still a very difficult decision that an Aboriginal person needs to make and it's an individual decision one makes, and one has to make it on the basis of the achievements that you know, you might ... you might be able to advance.
One of the things that's striking about you and that others have commented on, is that you meet all sorts of world leaders, and you appear on international forums, you've spoken at the UN, you deal at a very high level with many people and you do it with great confidence. What's the secret of your confidence?
I don't know really. I guess it's ... you've got to have some confidence in yourself. You've got to understand your ... your subject and you have to have a vision, you know, for the future. And, I guess, it's all those things, but it's not to say that I don't get nervous about doing these things, so I'm just human like everyone else, but getting the opportunity to do it, of course, is certainly a privilege and having had the opportunity obviously I've got ... I've had to prepare myself in the best possible way to bring about the sort of result that I think is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
What is your vision for the future? What would be your ideal for the Aboriginal community in the future in Australia?
Well the vision, of course, that I would have for my people, of course, is that we would be able to get involved in economic development that would put us in a position of being able to manage our own enterprises, so that, in fact, we were not dependent upon government.
You've had some extraordinary experiences in you life, many I'm sure that you didn't ever expect to have. Which of them are highlights for you, big moments that you'll always remember?
Well I'll try and give them in order they happened, not in order of, you know, the highlight or the experience. But the first, of course, would have been my graduation as a nurse. That was by far the first. The next would have been, of course, which was very short lived, was to become the first Regional Director of a Commonwealth Department, and I guess the ... the next big highlight, of course, would have been being elected representative of the National Aboriginal Conference and becoming its first chairperson, given the fact, of course, that there were few women elected at that stage, and to become the first chairperson of that. And I guess, Australian of the Year, 1984, and the appointment as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, even though that this appointment, of course, has been one that ... has been one, I guess, that I wondered whether, in fact, I could achieve bringing about an organisation of this kind. But the other highlights, of course, during my term here was having an audience with the Dalai Lama. [It] was ... was really a wonderful experience and difficult to really articulate what that ... what that really meant and meeting Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela ... I must say the visit of Bishop Desmond Tutu last year was during the negotiations for the High Court decision and those of us, who were involved in that process, gained a great deal of strength from Bishop Tutu at that time because we felt that we were rather drained of having, for a long period of time, sustained a lot of output, a lot of giving, and he was able to, in fact, renew our strength, if you like, and give us something to carry on with and we indicated that to him when he was here. So that certainly was ... was something that I felt as a strength in a time of really great pressure.
You were brought up very strictly in the Protestant religion, attended a Methodist Church, was it?
And brought up by the missionaries. Did you ... how does religion ... what part does religion play in your life today?
Well certainly not religion in the way it was taught to us: hellfire and brimstone I called it and so ... but I believe that I have a great deal of spirituality, which I draw from my own traditions and I prefer to call it a deep spirituality that I have, that gives me the strength to carry on and it's certainly not in the sense [of the] fundamentalist Christian religion that I was brought up with.
What do you in fact believe about God and a spiritual life?
Well I don't believe in God in the way it was taught to me. I believe in mythology and the ... the attachment to the land and the ... the Dreamtime, and the spiritual beings of the Aboriginal traditional culture. That is where I draw my spirituality from.
And how does that come through in your daily life?
Well it just comes through in that I appreciate nature and I appreciate everything around me that is born of nature. And so, I guess, that's the way I ... it comes to me in my day to day living.
And how did the Dalai Lama fit in with that?
Well, I mean, I think it's very difficult to explain because he had certainly an aura about him of spirituality which I really can't articulate and he seemed to understand the sort of spirituality that I feel and more than that I think would be difficult for me to explain.
What kinds of things did he say to you?
Well he certainly talked about language and the ... the power of speaking your own language and he understood, of course, the position here in terms of the number of languages and he attempted to give me advice about that we ought to adopt one language, which, of course, I indicated to him would be a very difficult thing to do, but the other thing, of course, that he wanted to know was whether I had an Aboriginal name and I indicated to him that my name was Lowitja and he appealed to me to use it on a regular basis and there were some people, of course, from this office who were ... who were witness to what actually happened on that day, who insisted that I do that, but we just didn't continue with it.
Why not? Right inside you are you Lowitja or are you Lois?
Well deep inside of me I'm Lowitja and not Lois, but I guess it ... it just seems too difficult to make the change.
Well it's difficult to say. Sometimes I think when I leave this high office I may. I never took on my husband's name either and I often think I could do that and the other thing I might do is I have a number of honorary doctorates and those who bestow them upon you want you to, in fact, use the doctorate and I think I might do that as well. But not for the time being.
I don't really know. It's only because I think there's been pressure on me to do so. I don't have a very strong feeling about that, of course, and I'm not sure that I would but last week, of course, my nephew was in town and he has an honorary doctorate, but he also is a doctor anyway in his own right and he indicated, of course, very strongly that I ... that I ought to and tried to convey to me that the universities feel aggrieved when you don't. And, I suppose, I've thought about it a little bit, but not a lot.
Do you feel a weight of responsibility, having been the woman Aboriginal to do so many things, to set some sort of an example to the younger women coming on, the younger Aborigines coming on? Does it mean a lot to you to think about how you behave and what you do with them in mind?
Well I certainly feel a sense of responsibility but I don't have any great difficulty about how I conduct myself on a day to day basis, and I have reason to believe that there are Aboriginal women who model on me and I'm pleased about that. But on the other hand I conduct myself in the way I believe I should and as a result of it, I guess, I am a role model to ... to Aboriginal women.
What do you think's going to happen after you die?
Well, I mean the earth is our mother and that's where we came from and that's where we will return.
Do you imagine any kind of consciousness?
No I don't.
So you think this life is the one we've got to live and that's it?
Yes and that's why it's important that I live every day in case there's not a tomorrow. So I think it's important that every day we live it, and we do what we can to contribute in whatever way we can, and, of course, my job, of course, is to advance the cause of Aboriginal rights.
Looking back over your life, the one life, what are you proudest of, of what you've done?
Well the thing, and I didn't say it before, the biggest highlight, of course, was actually finding and meeting my mother, which, of course ... and I think I'm proudest of having done that, because it was a difficult thing to do. It was difficult times, transport was difficult and it wasn't easy to get about and so on, so I ... That was certainly one of the ... one of the highlights and one of the proudest things I've done because I was able to also ... to ... to introduce my mother, of course, to the other members of the family and give her a better life than the life she had lived previously.
Was meeting her also a big emotional breakthrough for you?
Well yes it was, because I mean previously I ... I was in a position of really ... of not knowing and it ... it really opened up a ... a part of my life that I didn't know anything about. So it certainly was important and it set me on the road I think to ... to a life of ... of helping others.
It gave you a greater sense of security in your Aboriginal identity?
Oh yes. It certainly did that for me and there's no doubt about that and I think if all of a sudden you find your roots and you understand who you are, it's certainly going to help you and it certainly did for me.
The major word that's used in relation to Aboriginal affairs is reconciliation, and that is about the reconciliation of the two parts of your life: the white part and the Aboriginal part. Looking back over your life, what do you think is the major barrier to that reconciliation working?
Well, of course, the biggest barrier is acceptance, understanding and for Australians, generally, to accept that Aboriginal people have rights, and to appreciate, in fact, that we have a ... a living culture and one that they can be part of in terms of making in fact ... working towards our own identity as Australians and part of that, of course, is I guess moving towards a republic, where we become our ... our own people, as Australians, and understand who we are.
So being a republic is important for you?
Well it's becoming more important. I mean, I guess, I hadn't thought a great deal about it until I was invited to be part of the Prime Minister's Advisory Council and while I'd not given a great deal of thought to it before and I certainly had to quickly come to terms with it and make some decisions myself as to ... but having also been involved, as I have, for some time on the National Australia Day Council, and thinking about the preparations for Australia Day and so on, I often think that Australians really don't have much idea of what they're celebrating and don't appear to have a national identity as such, and moving towards a republic would probably help us to do that.
How do you feel about the fact that Australians have been ready, been very ready, to take certain aspects of Aboriginal culture and appropriate it to themselves. I mean, there's been talk of adopting the Aboriginal flag, that's right behind you now, as the national flag, that that could be a possibility. And then there's also great willingness for Australians in promoting Australia as a tourist destination in developing a notion of Australian art to appropriate aspects of Aboriginal culture for Australia. How do you feel about that?
Well look I'm very excited about that but at this point in time I think it's only a means to an end. It's very superficial at this time. If Australia were to get very serious about that, as we work towards reconciliation, I think I'd be much more excited about it than I am at the moment because it's superficial and, at this stage, it's not a reality and I think those Aboriginal icons, if you like to call it that, are just being used, at this point in time, to attract the tourist trade, and I don't really think that Australia really is serious enough about it.
Could you envisage a time in which white Australia might actually look more closely at the way in which Aboriginal culture manages social groups and so on and uses some of that to learn from?
Yes. Well, I think, I wouldn't be all that optimistic about that, at all. But ... because ... and also the matter that you raised about the flag, and so on, I've already expressed an opinion about that in my National Club speech when I was asked whether the Aboriginal flag ... would I support the Aboriginal flag becoming the Australian flag, and my view is ... is that I wouldn't because I believe it's our flag and it's our unifying force and we would ... we would ... even if there was a change of flag, we would still need our own flag I believe.
Looking back, way back to your beginnings, those formative years in Colebrook Home, do you ... what are the things that come mostly to your mind when you think about that period?
Well it's a mixture of feelings really. There's a feeling that it was too strict, it was Spartan, and the other feeling's that it was a happy time because we were all children together, all [having] been taken away. We had lots of good happy times together. So there's a mixture of feelings about those times and so there are good and bad feelings about it.
Who or what do you blame for the fact that you were torn from your mother?
Well I .. I lay the blame, of course, at the feet of the mission authorities because the mission authorities, while adopting the similar policies of course to government, but their ... their prime aim, of course, was to Christianise the Aboriginal people. So it really is the ... the mission authorities that I blame entirely for the removal of the children and also for their attitude towards the Aboriginal culture as being pagan and to be routed out at all ... at all costs. So while I think I have said before that it is, amongst the Aboriginal children that were brought up ... we have an unwritten law, I suppose, if you like, not to criticise the missionaries, I've always been unhappy about ... about that and I guess I have been careful also not to be too critical.
You're obviously a person who feels things very deeply. You show emotion and it's clear that you feel emotion and yet you're also very disciplined. When you're feeling strong emotion about things, how do you handle it?
Well, I mean, I guess, I don't really try to ... I don't try to control it or hide it. I think it's ... it's a very difficult thing to do and I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of either. So I don't try and ... and try and hide emotions that I feel strongly about.
If you had something to say to a young Aboriginal girl who was rather like the young Lois leaving ... leaving to set out and face the world aged sixteen, what would it be the best kind of advice that you could feel you could give her these days?
Well look, all I say that I'm glad I haven't got a sixteen year old that I have to give advice to, because I think really it'd be very, very difficult to give that sort of advice. And because I've had no real experience of it, I ... I don't know what I'd say, apart from to be careful and to do your very best and I think that's ... that's really all you can do. But having chosen not to have a family and to ... I don't really want to be put in that position where, in fact, I have to even think about what sort of advice I'd give to a sixteen year old.
But sixteen year olds would be watching you and thinking about your success and, I suppose, I'd like to know ... you've always had to behave in very strong ways, often in very difficult situations, what do you rely on, do you think? What's been of most use to you in your make up and in your attitude that's helped you get through the tough times?
Well I just think it's an inner strength that I've ... that I've built up, you know, over the years as a result of course of the ... the strict discipline and so on that was applied in the early days, and that's why I say that I ... I don't regret the discipline that was applied but I didn't support the punishment as such. I think you can apply discipline without punishment and so I guess I have a reservoir of inner strength. I ... I ... I also am not afraid of my own company and so I have many times when I'm alone, I suppose, and I'm able to think about the sorts of things that I ... that I do and I'm always careful, of course, to ... to actually have time to myself so that I can do the job that I'm expected to do.
You seem to have been able to maintain quite a deal of optimism, whereas a lot of people in Aboriginal communities become very pessimistic and depressed. Why are you still optimistic after all the setbacks that you've had?
Well because I think that I've ... I've chipped away at it and I've ... I've made some achievements I think by ... by keeping going and always coming out and trying again. You just can't give up. And I've learnt to do that.
What's your vision for the future of Aboriginal people?
Well my vision for the future is that ... that Aboriginal people will come to terms with the fact that they need, in fact, to work very hard at strengthening the traditional ways of life. And so we really have to work at that. That's very important for us. So we must maintain our Dreaming, we must maintain our traditional ways in every way, and to enable us to do that, of course, we need to become less dependent upon the government. And so I think that we ought to be working towards economic enterprise so that we can take control of our lives and work to a greater degree of self-determination.
Well I guess it's attitudes ... would be the thing that would cause me to be angry and I can't understand often why non-Aboriginal people get ... always feel, in fact, that they are superior to Aboriginal people and so I guess really, while I say I'm not a ... not an angry person, that would bring out anger in me and there have been many times, of course, when I've felt angry just standing in a ... in a line waiting, when in fact non-Aboriginal people feel that they ... they ought to be served ahead of you, and there've been many of those experiences over the years.
Well it certainly doesn't happen here in Canberra, and I'm not sure that it would happen in many places now, but it certainly happened before I came here and took up this job. But because I now have a much higher profile there's not many places that I go to now when I'm not recognised.
Have you ever been discriminated against because you're a woman?
No I can't remember that I have actually. From a very young woman, of course, I've been involved on boards of ... of committees and I've been at the national level for a long time now and I seriously can't remember having ever been discriminated against as a woman.
What's the most unpleasant thing you've ever had to deal with as an Aborigine being treated badly?
Well I think it was in my early nursing days when there were a number of patients who refused my presence and I had to indicate that to the ... to the sister and encourage the sister, of course, to find someone else to take over that particular duty. But, of course, I was young and starting out in those days and that ... that hurt me but, I guess, I got over that fairly quickly.
What was the most recent time that anybody did anything to you that made you feel that you were being treated differently because you were Aboriginal? [Pause] You can't think of an incident? There hasn't been one for a long time?
No there hasn't been, no.
Can you remember ... do you feel ... Sorry. If you are feeling angry about attitudes that you feel are foolish or annoy you, do you feel able to show that anger? For example, in discussions or negotiations, when people are not treating the Aboriginal position with the respect you feel it deserves, do you feel that it will hurt your cause if you show that you're annoyed?
No, I don't do that. I think I can show annoyance when I'm ... when I'm dealing with heads of government and in negotiating situations and I've done that, and people know by the tone of my voice.