Australian Biography: Rosalie Kunoth-Monks
Until the age of 9, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (1937–2022) lived on remote Utopia Station in the Northern Territory where she learnt the Aboriginal laws of her tribe, the Amatjere (Anmatyerre) people.
In 1953 she was discovered by filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel and won the lead role in Jedda (1955), a film that became an Australian classic.
In the interview, she talks about why making the film was such an uncomfortable experience for her and that the filmmakers credited her as 'Ngarla' Kunoth against her wishes.
Later, Rosalie spent 10 fulfilling years as a nun in a Melbourne convent before leaving to set up the first Aboriginal hostel in Victoria.
She continued to be active in social work and politics and as a campaigner for Aboriginal people.
She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: July 10, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Rosalie, when and where were you born?
I was born in 1937, here at Utopia, on the Sandover Creek, or River.
When you say on the Sandover River, what do you mean?
Well, you know, the Sandover River is a sandy creek. It's quite a big creek, and I was born in the bush, you know, the Aboriginal way.
So who was there at your birth?
Well I don't really know at this stage, but I would imagine that my mother's older sister would have been there and whoever was the midwife of the day.
My mother's name was, well I can't really ... I can't say mum's name, but she was a Ngarla woman from this tribe.
It's part of our Aboriginal way that we don't say the names of our departed. It's not only because it's the way, it's because I observe those rules and regulations, which we have.
And she was a Ngarla woman, and what was she, a tribal Aborigine?
Did she live that full tribal life?
My father's name was Allan Kunoth. He was from Alice Springs of a German, part-Aboriginal parentage.
Right, so his father was German?
His mother was part-Aboriginal from Alice Springs, of the Arrernte people,and her father was an Englishman, John Pavey, from what she told me.
Now, how were you brought up, in this mixed household?
Very well. Always right from the beginning speaking the Aboriginal language, because dad and mum both spoke the Aboriginal language. One was Arrernte, but it's the same dialect, and the Amatjerre, which is my mother's tribe here. So we spoke those two languages first.
So that really was literally your mother-tongue. When did you learn English?
Well dad became aware that we had to go to school, so he gave us a crash course in English. And, then he said, 'I didn't realise I was blessed with such dumb children', but it wasn't that we were dumb, it was just that we'd spoken our mother-tongue first. So, about, about 1947-48, maybe a littler earlier, was when we first came in to speak in English.
Did you have any brothers and sisters?
Yes I have eight siblings, beside myself. I'm the second eldest in the family and we're all living.
How did your father's family feel about his marriage to your mother?
Well apparently grandfather kicked up a fuss, and said, you know, dad could have married a part-Aboriginal or a white woman, instead of a traditional black person. But dad wasn't the type that would listen to anybody when he saw that it wasn't wrong. So there was some little bit of discrimination in the beginning, but our grandfather was our grandfather as we grew older.
How did you parents actually meet?
Here on this land, at Utopia, because apparently, I think in the early 1930s, grandfather and grandmother came here - that's my paternal. And of course mum's people were here on this land as they'd always been. So this is where mother and father met.
So your grandparents, did they come here to run a cattle station?
Yes, that's ... apparently in the early stages it was sheep. So dad walked across from Tempe Downs, which is south of Alice Springs, with the sheep and this is where they chose to settle. Amazing. Amazing feat. But that's what they did. [INTERRUPTION]
What brought your grandparents to this district?
I'm not sure what brought them here, but they ... not they, but grandfather managed cattle stations. And after managing a few - I mean, he was at Bonn Springs, Hamilton Downs, they went to Tempe Downs - I don't know what brought them this far out, but this is where they ended up. And apparently my father at the age of twelve bought this sheep, grandfather's sheep, from Tempe Downs which is, oh, maybe a hundred and fifty kilometres south of Alice Springs. And this to them, of course, was unknown country. It certainly wasn't my grandmother's traditional area. So she was coming in from the Arrernte, her traditional background, into the Amatjerre people, who are my mother's people here. So like, I suppose, many other settlers in the early stages of Northern Territory or central Australia, they just went off into the wilderness and went as far as they could until they found something they liked and they settled here.
Apparently from what I hear, grandfather's brother, great-uncle Sonny, he named it Utopia because he got lost one day and grandfather went looking for him, because there was a certain amount of work to be done that day and Sonny wasn't with him. So he asked Sonny, 'Where do you think you've been all day?' And he said, 'Where do you think? I'm in Utopia aren't I'. Just saying, you know, it wasn't a heavenly place, it wasn't nice at all, and apparently they kind of thought, 'Well that's a good name for this area. Let's call it Utopia'.
So it was actually slightly ironic. He was making a bit of a joke with it.
Yes, well it's like the adjoining station. There's a suburb or an area of London that's called Woodgreen, and out here where the grey stumpy mulga is, the station owner next door called his lease Woodgreen, much to the amusement of his family.
Why ... why do you think that your father was so attracted to your mother that he defied his parents about the marriage? What was it between them do you think?
Well I can't ... I can't really answer that because I'm not sure what the attraction was between them, but certainly there was an attraction, and, I mean, just the sheer fact that my brothers and sisters have had a good upbringing is proof enough that there was something between them, which is wonderful to think that you can ... you know, it doesn't matter what your background, or your different languages are, you can come together.
Why do you think that your father chose to have you brought up speaking your mother's language and really in the tribal way, rather than choosing his more European background as the method that you'd be raised by?
I think because father became very aware of discrimination in the early stages, especially in his life. And he also studied the Aboriginal cultural background and to him the Aboriginal cultural background had a far better meaning for human existence, and actually he verbalised quite a view of that and he's left us little writings and things which he'd done, and dad was very deeply committed to humanity. And he was a huge man, but he was a very gentle person at the same time and [a] very deeply caring person. So I can understand why he chose us, or chose Aboriginal culture, as being our first culture.
But then later did he think that you should be introduced to European ways?
I think because coloured children had to go to school. Actually I remember his mother at the top of Todd Street having a talk to him about Roy, myself, and Albert attending school, and then dad bringing us home to McDonald Downs, where we were ... well where he was shearing, and telling my mother in our language that we had to go to school. Of course we had no conception whatsoever about school, and we heard mum and dad talking about the school. And like in the Bush Christening, where it seemed to that small boy, that he might be branded like the cattle, we kind of felt that we might be done the same way. And then dad told us that for the next month or so that we had to speak English. Well he had absolute silence because we couldn't talk English. So we used to sneak off and talk to mum behind his back, but little by little, instead of calling him papa and mum marja we started saying mum and dad. Little things like quadja, water - we had to say water. So little things like that and we ... we soon got the hang of it.
Did you stay on Utopia, on the station here, right up until you went?
No we were at McDonald Downs, which is the station east to here because we never actually stayed in one place.
Why was that? Your father didn't take over the management?
Because my father was a shearer.
Right, so he didn't take over the management of Utopia from his father?
He owned Utopia at one stage, I think 1937, especially when I was born - dad was the owner of this station then. But later on, because dad became the only shearer in the Northern Territory, we were on the move. So dad didn't ... oh, grandfather stayed on here. Grandfather Kunoth.
And your father went shearing. So you moved around a lot. Did you find when you were moving around that you were always welcome?
Well I think we certainly were. I mean no shearers from [the] south would come down, up here, and do shearing because the sheep had burrs and everything else like that, and the union doesn't, you know, allow people to get burrs in their hands while they are shearing. So, dad was like gold to sheep owners in this particular area.
It's not considered sheep country, is it?
Of course it's not, but it existed, actually, until I left school. And for me to come back this time, not so much Utopia, but to the adjoining stations like Delmore, Derry Downs, Mount Swan - those places were sheep stations when I left in the 1950s.
What was the life like moving round as a shearer's child?
Well I think because it was a large family - I mean with nine of us and mum and dad, we were almost self-sufficient - I didn't have to have the same playmate everyday of the week. I could chose down the line from my brothers which one I wanted to play with, or which one I got on well with. So we were self-sufficient, and certainly no hardships or heartaches [were] involved in that.
And did you learn about how to live off the land: about how to eat bush food and so on?
That, since infancy, yes. You can't ... you can't live any other way out here and belong to the Aboriginal people. So of course we learnt what were edible and what's ... what isn't. And I'm actually doing that to my little grandchild now. It's just second nature. You have to teach them as soon as they're able to comprehend what you're saying. So no worries about that.
What other things did you learn from the Aboriginal heritage?
I think with ... with Aboriginal cultural living, just the sheer fact that you're living together, that you're living a communal life - that is your whole learning process. So nothing really is just left to chance. The teaching process starts right from infancy as I said earlier, and it just continues on. It gets harder as you get into your teen years, because then you're coming into the rituals and so forth. But when you're small and you see your teenagers - they might be your uncles - going through the rituals, you're involved along with the family: in the dances, in the songs, in the food gathering, all that, you're there because you're not away in a crèche somewhere, you're with your family, so you're learning all the time.
What was the most important thing that you had to learn as an Aboriginal child?
I think your place within that community and the tract of your dreaming, or we call it our Altyerre. Your Altyerre is what makes you who you are. So it's that.
And what is that? What is it that makes you who you are?
Well, I'm a Apengarte woman, I come from the Ulpra clan group, and my dreamings are especially for that clan group and I belong to that clan group. I am related to certain other groups. Like here, like I said, I'm Arlparra, but there is also Angwerley across the creek. There's Arawerr people. They're all the same tribal group, but they're not your clan. The Arawerr people are ... there's the Kaia ... there's all ... there's 700 or so of us here, but we are just that little bit different from each other.
And what's the significance of this place and these relationships in your everyday life?
It's my whole being, it's my existence.
Do you have obligations and duties?
Indeed. Indeed. We've just finished this, you know, couple of days ago with our ceremonies in relation to 'sorry business'. That person happened to be my cousin so I had obligations there. You go through ceremonies that are as old as when grandfather, my mother's maternal, when they were here. So that's still in practice here ...
The 'sorry business' is when somebody dies?
Mmm. So you have obligations and you have rituals to carry out during that time, or during initiations you still have your obligations and your rituals to carry out. And each one has got a role to play in relationship to your person that is going through that particular ritual.
So you took all this in as a small child living with your mother's people. When you were a teenager, did you come back and go through the ceremonies then?
Yes, indeed. Because we weren't taken away by force and put into a home, our father put us ... put us into St Mary's children's village, where children from the outback boarded to go to the school in Alice Springs. So every holidays, naturally, we came home and just continued on with our Aboriginal side, and with our family here. With our rituals. With our huntings. Everything like that. So it wasn't severed at all.
Because you were living in a time, weren't you, when a lot of children of mixed-blood were taken away? What protected you from that?
I guess grandfather had been a police trooper in ... in the Northern Territory, or in central Australia. The Kunoths were well-known. His sisters had married into the pastoralists. I think his sister married a Mr. Bloomfield, who now owns Love's Creek Station. One of the others married the Hayes. The Hayes are very well-known pastoralists in central Australia. So because of that maybe we were a little bit apart and the sheer fact that mum and dad were together. Dad didn't come along and have children by an Aboriginal woman and move on. We were a family unit and therefore they left [alone]. Probably people made noises to say, 'You better get your children into school', you know, 'because they're getting old'. Maybe, I don't know. No-one's really told me. But I know my father put me into St. Mary's and I also know he paid board for us children, which was different to any other child there.
How old were you when you went to St. Mary's?
I was nine, going on ten.
And so your European education started. Now what was that like?
Sink or swim. It really was. It was sink or swim because I remember talking to one of the Chalmer's girls out here and saying, 'We've got to go to that place called school, whatever that is'. And as children will, we discussed it for a while and she said, 'I don't think you can go to school'. And I said, 'Well dad said I'm going. And so are my two brothers'. And she said, 'Oh, only white kids go to school'. And then I said, 'Oh, perhaps they'll boil me'. Oh, no, she said it to me, 'They might boil you and you'll become white like me'. And I said, 'Oh, well, that could be it'. But I didn't give it much more thought, but then I realised that if you're boiled, you'll probably be dead. So I was on tenterhooks when we got to St. Mary's and the fact that we might be boiled, especially when we lined up for lunch - not for lunch, but to pick our lunch up, to get into the bus to go to school the first day. I thought this was it it, we were going to be boiled. But of course, in fact, we found out different.
How long did it take you to realise that they didn't have that in mind?
Well I think it took one horrifying week of expecting to be boiled and then realising that kids did go to this place called school, and they were brown or even darker. And we didn't get boiled.
Sister Eileen Heath ran the boarding hostel, which was St. Mary's. But the school was made up of South Australian state schools, the teachers.
So she was a Sister of what church?
She was a deaconess of the Anglican church. She still is actually. She's still alive.
So it was part of the Anglican mission to take care of Aboriginal children who were coming into to go to school?
What kind of an education did you get?
Exactly the same as the South Australian curriculum of that time. Although it was very hard for maybe a nine-year-old kid to be sitting with five or six-year olds in grade one and on a matter, I remember, trying to make head or tail of what the teacher was saying. But it's incredible to say that children are resilient and that they do come through. Certainly my brothers and I did. [INTERRUPTION]
When you were being taught about Aboriginal law and about the system of where you fitted in relation to all your relations and so on, what was some of the specific things that you had to learn?
I think your interrelation with each other, and your responsibilities towards each individual. It didn't matter if you had fifty, a hundred, two hundred, or three hundred people. To each one of those individuals you have a relationship and a responsibility. In other words, say, in my own family, biological family, my mother, Topsy, who is now in charge of my siblings and myself, she's our mother's sister. But she is not an aunt, she is our mother. We don't say Aunty Topsy: marja, mumma, mother.
Is that after your own biological mother died, she took over that responsibility?
No, whether my mother was still alive or not, she is my mother. There is a group of Ngarla women that are my mothers. On the other hand there are a group of Apunaga woman, women, who are my aunties: awonie, awonaja. That's an aunt, but they are on your paternal side. So they are always your fathers. Gender does not mean a thing there. They are my fathers and they carry out responsibilities towards me, as my father would. So it becomes genderless. My mother's side: my uncles, maternal, that's my mother's. They are genderless also. Therefore they become my mothers, and their tender relationship to me reflects that of a nurturing mother. They no longer are men or women. And it's one of the things that I personally cannot get over. With my maternal uncles I can sit there and talk to them and discuss my intimate concerns, my problems, as I would with my own mother, and they have perfected this like no one else has on earth. It's beautiful. So that's where I'm at now. And those mothers of mine, they have a sister-brother relationship with my own daughter. Therefore they are teaching my daughter to take care of me, as I get older. My daughter's daughter - I have got a daughter's daughter - becomes my sister, playmate, my mischief-making - oh, I don't know - little imp. That keeps me vital, young, and interested. Doesn't matter how many grey hairs I've got, she is my playmate and we reflect that relationship. That grandchild of mine becomes the mother of my ailing mother, who is her great-grandmother.
So she's mother to her great-grandmother?
Yes, indeed, whereas my daughter to her grandmother is the sister. So Amelia, who is my grandchild, becomes the nurturing body of my ailing mother. And it reflects it because I'm living through it. It reflects that relationship. Amelia, who is two, nearly two-and-a-half, will come and say, 'How are you daughter, hello daughter'. And to my uncles, my maternal uncles, she'll say, 'Hello son, son John', or, 'son, Walter'. One of my uncles is Walter, the other one is John. And she'll say that. She'll say, 'Hello son', because she's been brought up that way, and it's beautiful.
So she's already learning that she's going to have to take care of these people when they're old and can't take care of themselves?
Yes, although she might not comprehend the responsibility at this stage, she is easy with calling a seventy-year old her daughter. She is easy with calling a sixty-year old her son because that's the true relationship of those two individuals. Now that's just as an illustration, just in my own family group. But this goes on throughout three or four hundred people, the relationships there.
And what are the obligations of the people on your father's side? What does it mean to be a father or in the place of a father?
In the white side?
Well just in terms of, you say, you've explained what it means to be a mother in Aboriginal custom, or to be in the place of a mother. What does it mean to be a father? What are your obligations as a father?
Exactly the same. It's taking care of, making sure your physical needs are met, your emotional needs are met, your psychological needs are met. And he has responsibilities probably that differs a little bit to the nurturing role of the mother side.
Not very much. No. But he has responsibility pertaining to the law of the land, carrying that through. Although the women also have roles in carrying through the laws of the land, the laws of the culture. Both of them have a strong role to play. There is no - let's say, I think the terminology is a chauvinist or a macho-physical being - there isn't that in the Aboriginal culture. Sure there might be ... the genders might be that a man is physically stronger, but when it comes down to the necessary things, like meeting the need of a individual person, they both play that tender role, making sure that person is brought up in the best possible way.
You were late starting at school, at nine years old, did it take long to catch up?
I think it's taken me all my life to catch up, so, yes.
What happened at school? How did you do with your lessons?
I think just getting the rudimentary things of reading, writing and arithmetic in place would have taken about three or four years. That's one thing in ... In Aboriginal culture, we really don't have the numeracy and of course we don't have the written language, so that was a brand new concept that we had to grasp. However we did grasp it and all our lives, including my brothers and myself, it's an ongoing thing. But then learning in general is ongoing. It's just that it did make you feel a bit awkward when, say you were in grade four, and your peer group, age group, were maybe up in first-year, second-year high. However, we managed.
So when you went to school, you went to school in the state school, with white children as well, how did the white children and the Aboriginal children relate to each other in those days?
Absolutely no worries at all, simply because the children were locals from Alice Springs and they'd grown up side-by-side with the Aboriginal children.
And was there anything that happened while you were at school that was particularly memorable for you?
No. Not really no.
Were the teachers good? Did you have good teaching?
I believe they were. I formed some attachment to a Mrs. Barrett. She was grade four-grade five teacher. There was young Mrs. Stilla, who came into our midst and we all thought she was gorgeous. Miss Lucas I remember. And of course Willa Stilla, one of the teachers there, and a Mr. Duffy. So we remembered them all so they do form a memory, I guess, for the rest of your life.
You'd been used to running fairly free. Did you find coming in and just having to sit still and do what you were told hard?
I suppose we did, you know, but I can't ... I can't kind of quite recall whether it was all that difficult. I guess during corroboree time we had to sit still too, so not really. Not that it left a. you know, bad impression on me.
Oh, I think it was the same as what it is today. Perhaps little children now have a bit more freedom in talking in class. We didn't. But not much different because I'd done religious instructions and gone in and talken about Aboriginal people and that, and Aboriginal culture, in schools. Not much difference, Robin.
Did you have religious instructions in those days?
Yes, indeed we did.
And what did you think of all of that? Was that the first time you'd come across the Christian religion?
What ... how ... what impact did it make on you?
Very good impact, which has lasted a lifetime. The fact that, you know, there was God, and there was somebody responsible for us, yeah, it made a difference because our life, I think in the Aboriginal life it's spiritual. You've always got mythological beings that were responsible. So the concept of God, being God the father, and Jesus being the son, and our Lady, Virgin Mary, it ... it wasn't far-reached at all, so it was easily, easily adopted.
It didn't seem very different to you from what you'd already thought?
It still doesn't. [INTERRUPTION]
Was there anything at school that made you stand out from the others? Nothing happened?
What about when the film crew came to the school?
They came to the hostel, and ...
Right. Let me ask you that question again. That's the answer I'm after. When you were at school, did anything happen to make your life a little bit different from everybody else's?
Oh, right. Yes. Not in ... not in the school sense, but Charles and Elsie Chauvel came. Can't even remember when it was, 1953, and picked me to play the lead in the ... in their feature-length film.
While you were at school, was there anything that happened that was particularly memorable that affected you?
Yes, there was. A film-making couple, Charles and Elsie Chauvel, Australians, they chose me to play the lead opposite another Aboriginal person in a film, a feature-length film.
Yes, I did.
Well, I don't quite know, but it happened. They picked two girls from St. Mary's: Cecilie Huddleston and myself, and they also had another girl, Harriet, I think her name was, Harriet Perry from New South Wales. And they got us all together, put us in front of cameras, made us speak to the cameras. That was the first time we'd ever had anything ... us two St. Mary's girls anyway, had anything to do with things like that. And slowly the other girls went home and I was the sole person, Aboriginal-teenager person, left there. And I wasn't given a script or anything. I was just told to stay on and also to go off fattening foods, and that's how I got my lead in Jedda.
What do your think they were looking for? Did you ever find out later what it was about you that they liked?
I've got a feeling it was that I was the closest to a full-blood Aboriginal person in my mannerisms and in the way I behaved. That probably got me the role because I had to play opposite a full-blood Aboriginal person. And they were looking for a uniquely Aboriginal ... [INTERRUPTION]
What do you think it was about you that made them chose you over the others?
I think it was my Aboriginality, that I was closer to the traditional Aboriginal in my mannerism, in the way that I used custody of my eyes, not to kind of look point blank at people like I can now. And the fact that I didn't have well-groomed nails, or well-groomed hair or anything like that. I looked closer to the traditional Aboriginal person.
Were you surprised that they'd chosen you?
I don't think I was in a position to be surprised because I really did not have the comprehension of what it meant to be on celluloid, to be on film, because I didn't think that's ... well, if I did think at all, it certainly wasn't along the lines that I was going to be on screen. I truly did not have that comprehension.
Had you seen a film before that time?
I think I had. I'm not quite sure but I'm quite, somewhere at the back of my mind I'm sure Sister Eileen took us to see Joan of Arc, an old film, at the open-air theatre in Alice Springs. That might have been my only one.
What did you think was happening on the screen? What did you believe a film was?
Well I do ... I think that if I really look back and be quite truthful with myself, I was in a state of confusion, a state of trauma, and I really didn't want to ask questions about what I was doing there, or what they were going to do with me. I was quite literally petrified that I wasn't going to see my family, or my country again, because I was in a class of white people. Certainly there were other Aboriginal people there, but the other Aboriginal people did not have a relationship with me, because they did not belong to my tribal group, therefore, when I think about it, it still brings up a funny feeling of anxiety.
So you really didn't want to be chosen because it meant going away?
Not only going away, it was ... it was a state of being flung into a situation where you didn't have any control whatsoever about yourself, or about when you could go and hunt for the next goanna or ... or when you could go and get wild passionfruit and bury it into the ground. Because the trees up the top end, they're quite different to me and therefore I couldn't eat any of the traditional foods either. So it was ... if you could imagine, it was being lifted from somewhere familiar into the completely unknown, and then being told to do this and do that. It doesn't matter how nicely I was told, I still objected to the fact that I found myself in that situation when I had no power to say, 'I don't want to do this', which I didn't.
Did anybody ever explain to you properly what was actually happening to you, or did they just tell you, bit by bit, what was going on?
It was out of sequence. They just told me what I had to do for that particular day. It wasn't even for that particular week. And whenever, say, whenever I had to be in close proximity to the leading man, Bob Tudawali, I didn't like that because in my small mind it felt like they were trying to force Bob to have a relationship of some kind with me. Of course on screen he had to. But in my small way of thinking, it seemed, you know, it was wrong.
You really didn't understand what acting was?
I did not. I really didn't.
So where did you go to do the filming?
Well, first of all they flew us on a light plane. That was another new experience I hadn't flown before.
No, I was very sick. I was air sick. They flew us to a station west of Katherine, which is near the top end there - Coolibah Station, and that's where all the film crew were, and that's where they did a lot of the homestead shots, especially with Sarah McMahon and little Jedda. And that of course was all new to me and probably quite new to a lot of the other Aboriginal cast. And that's where we kind of tried to have some kind of relationship with the crew because we were going to be on the road together for almost a year. So that's where we started off there.
Throughout the Territory actually. From Coolibah I think we went to Katherine. Did the river scenes there, where we were on a raft. Then we went up to Darwin. That was the first place where I'd seen such an expanse of water, which was the sea.
You'd never seen the sea before?
No, I hadn't been away from central Australia at all.
What sort of impact did that make on you?
Well it looked like the horizon. Like the sky line and the ground line had all come together and all of a sudden the ground line was gone and the sky was lying on the ground. That was ... that was my true impression because of the beautiful blue sea: saw the land and then all of a sudden the land disappeared and it just became blue, and that was water. But in my ... as you could imagine, I hadn't seen that much water, so when somebody asked me what it looked like, my response was 'It looks like the sky lying on the ground', which is beautiful. [Laughs]
So were you excited by these new experiences, or were you too frightened to take them in probably?
No, I think the predominant thing in my mind was that I was sickly homesick. Sickly. So if you could imagine maybe being overseas and not knowing whether you are going to ever come back. That feeling of desolation and loneliness, all the time. That's what ... that's how I was. But nobody would believe me I was like that, but I was.
Who did you spend your time with?
Little Billy Ferrar, the one who played little half-caste Joe. We were fairly close when we were on the station, and he was a lot younger than myself. But he knew all the bush tuckers and all that up in that area, so he taught me all that. Mary Griffiths, who was the Aboriginal cook, a kind of minder of us younger ones. She was the other one. [INTERRUPTION]
So who did you spend your time with?
Billy Ferrar and Mary Griffith. Really there was no one else until we got further down south, and then a lot of the time I spent with Sue Chauvel, Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel's daughter.
Now where did you actually stay? Whose house did you stay in?
Whilst in Sydney?
Well all around, wherever you were travelling.
Well we were mostly in tents and I'd be with Mary, Mary Griffith, the Aboriginal cook, and, well she was the chaperone I guess.
Did she look after you well even though she wasn't from your tribe, from your background?
But she was a part-Aboriginal person therefore she didn't have any traditional - outward traditional thing, so it was the full-blood Aboriginal people that I was not relating well too because I didn't ... you know, we both were aware that we had a culture. Therefore I couldn't go up to a strange person and say, you know, 'I'm so and so', because that person happened to be a man. But with little Jedda's parents I did get on with because they had a family unit. That was May and Arthur Dingall. They had little Margaret and the little boy, little baby boy.
So you did have some people that you could go and get a little bit of comfort from when you were getting homesick?
Yes, if I wanted to cry or I wanted to complain about Mrs. Chauvel it was always Mary Griffith that I went to.
And why did you want to complain about Mrs. Chauvel?
Well Mrs. Chauvel, God bless her soul, was the taskmaster. And she had to get it done, but, to my small understanding, I couldn't take that. I used to think she was the bully-lady. But she had a job to do and she did it to the best of her ability. [INTERRUPTION]
How did you get on with Mrs. Chauvel?
Well, she was the force behind activating me, so we didn't get on really that well, and being a mother-figure too, she criticised the way I walked, the way I sucked my thumb.
Had you always sucked your thumb?
No. Only during that time because of the insecurity. So I'd have, you know, my thumb in my mouth and this one around my nose, and she'd say, 'Nobody's going to pay to see somebody with a thumb in their ... whip that out'. But of course it was, you know, I didn't even do it consciously. It was just a comfort zone, I guess. And this was almost at sixteen years of age so she must have been horrified. But Mrs. Chauvel, I think in her heart of hearts, you know, she knew she was responsible for me and she knew she was also responsible, co-responsible, for the outcome of that film. So she really ... you know, she had the whip out, not only for me, but for all of us. But I ... of course we had a personality conflict there. And there was some memorable occasions where I'd say, 'No. I want to go home', and then they'd have to wait half an hour while I finished my sobbing and tantrum and then get me back on. Or they'd have to do a different shot. So they'd leave me alone for ten minutes. But going through your teens, being away, not understanding, making excuses for myself, but it's true, must've worn her patience thin.
What did she do on the film? How did she work with her husband, or how did they divide up the roles?
I think they were as one. They would always consult each other before the scene, during the scene and after the shots. Always. So she was, in every way, a partner with her husband.
No. Mr. Chauvel was beautiful. So Mr. Chauvel would come in and smooth the ruffled feathers on both sides: his wife's and mine. His leading lady. [Laughs] No he was ... he was a darling. I have very fond memories of Mr. Chauvel. If Mrs. Chauvel hadn't wanted to transform me into something she wanted, maybe we would have got on a lot better.
Apart from sucking your thumb, did you get into trouble for anything else from her?
Yes, oh, just about everything. Just about everything. If I put scratches on my legs, you know, running through bushes and that, being too exuberant, she's say, 'Now look, we've got to put make-up on that to cover that scratch up'. Things like that, which I guess responsible leading ladies would take on themselves: to look their best, to behave accordingly. I didn't because I had no comprehension of my part in that film.
How did you get on with the film crew food? Did you enjoy that?
Yes, I enjoyed it, and I wanted the steam puddings and things that were turned up in the tent, but I wasn't allowed to have them because Mrs. Chauvel said that the public wasn't going to pay to see a fat blob on the screen. Well I didn't care what a fat blob was, or I didn't understand it, because I'd come from a background where if we had some padding on us during the good times it was good for the lean times. So that didn't wash water with me at all.
So she kept you away from the food. Were you hungry?
I craved a lot of the sweet things, like normal kids I guess. But Mrs. Griffith, Mary, used to every now and then call me in and I'd have the scraps, you know, that was left over from the sweets. I got caught once. She and I got caught.
She was the Aboriginal cook, Mary.
She was threatened that if she gave me any more things, I think, they'd send her back and replace her.
How did you get on with Robert Tudawali?
I didn't really get on with Robert Tudawali. Of course he was a commanding type of person, but I didn't have any time with him, you know, after the filming. Not after the filming, after the shooting for the day. So I didn't really get to know him. I didn't get to know his wife either, properly.
What happened after the shooting for the day? What did you do?
Well you'd go back. I'd probably have a little bit of school work, learning my [lines] ... you know, three hours and things like that, but nothing really exciting. You just feel into the groove of, you know, either you were on before the cameras or you weren't. You'd be playing with paddy melons, playing around or something, with whoever you could find.
Did the filming take you to the city?
Yes, it took us to Sydney.
And what did you think of Sydney?
Oh, I didn't think very much at all, about it. It just gave me a terrible start to see there are so many buildings because as you can see, this is where I come from. Certainly there had been ... there had been buildings in Alice Springs, but not ... not in the mass that there was in Sydney. So I guess I was in, how can you say, in a state of limbo for ages prior to knowing the route from the Chauvel's place to the studio. Then I realised, you know, that's the route you take. Sometimes they'd fool me by going a different way. But, excepting for maybe, you know, when Sue Chauvel took me down to the beach, or a weekend ...
Sue was Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel's daughter, only daughter.
And she would take you down to the beach?
That was very nice because at that stage there were oysters, and we used to take salt and pepper shakers and would crack these oysters open and eat them on the beach. It was nice. And the other thing, of course, was that we'd go to church on Sundays and we'd also went to the youth fellowship at the church there. I can't even remember which church it was.
Yeah, because it was continuity of my life at St. Mary's, where a large part of your life was in church or in the chapel.
What were you filming in Sydney?
They did all the indoor shots, you know, in the studio. I can't even remember how long I stayed there really. Must of been about four or five months.
Were you part of the partying life and the after ... after-shoot get-togethers that are often part of filming?
No. I didn't know any of that.
Well I was a teenage child. In those days I think you had to be eighteen or twenty-one prior to doing your own thing. But I wasn't aware of the other things anyway, so it didn't make any difference. My life was more as a child of the Chauvel's household.
And did they look after you well in that sense?
Yes, indeed. Yep.
So you were fairly well protected by them?
Very much so. I felt I was in cotton-wool. Yes.
You felt restricted? You felt a little bit like as if you were in a prison?
I was only restricted in that sense, that I'd had freedom to walk, to climb trees, to hunt, maybe to go and watch a game of football - things like that, which I'd done in Alice Springs. Our lives at St. Mary's consisted mostly of finding supplement Aboriginal food to go with our European food. So all that was a complete change.
So when the filming was over, what was your main feeling?
I'm going home, which was the case.
When you were staying with the Chauvels and they were taking care of you, what was that like? How did they go about it?
Well it was a family unit. It was a very close family unit. I now understand it because it's exactly the same type of unit that I have with my daughter and my husband, here and now. And somewhere along the line Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel and their daughter, Sue, had to make room for me in that close family unit. So I was always the outsider. Mrs. Chauvel would remark on the way I chewed my bones. Say it was a roast lamb on Sunday. Well the best part of the roast lamb is actually being able to chew the bone, but I don't think that they did that themselves. So it was out of the ordinary that this little savage, brown girl was chewing on the bones at the table. So I'd ask her if I could have the bones afterwards and sit out the front and chew on that bone because the nicest part of the meat is next to the bone. No big hassles. The fact sometimes I rolled on the front part of their lawn, playing, just being boisterous, that was a bit out, because young girls were brought up to behave in a certain way in the 1950s, whereas that wasn't the way I was brought up. If I felt like swinging off a branch of a tree, we were free to do so, along with my competitive brothers. And I had to keep up with them anyway. So all those little things, which are different ... and probably Mrs. Chauvel had the idea that because I was an Aboriginal person that I was different. I was different to a certain degree, but I was able also to take orders, or to behave in the way she wanted me too. All these little things didn't make for a smooth interaction with the rest of the family. But towards the end there I did get very fond of Sue Chauvel. She was about twenty-four then and we had a relationship that was like an older sister to a younger sister. So we did get close, but then she had her work during the week and I had my work. So we didn't really have that much time, excepting in the evenings and at the weekends. And looking back on it, I admire Sue, at twenty-four years of age, for putting aside a weekend as frequently as she could to fit me in. So it wasn't ... it wasn't really a big trauma. The fact that I had to live in a house was no different from maybe living in a congregate dormitory with the rest of the girls at St. Mary's, or indeed, being at home with mum and dad.
During the whole period of the filming, did you ever try to get away?
Yes, when we realised - not when we, when I realised we were just out of Alice Springs here at Henbury, I thought I could make a break and run for it. So I did. I took off when I wasn't needed in front of the camera. But unfortunately the country was all sand-hill and they could track me fairly easily. But I did run away again.
What kind of emotions did you get called upon to show in the film and did you understand why you were doing this, why you were being asked to act this particular ways?
No. I think most of the emotions there were fear anyway, so it was natural. It was natural that I show fear because of the situation that I found myself in. So I think ... I think they were fairly slow and lenient with me in making sure ... Mrs. Chauvel would take me aside and she'd say, 'Now I want you to be angry here'. One ... one particular scene that I do remember is the piano scene where she said to me, 'You're really angry. Like this look'. And she'd always show me the scene that I had to act out. So that was our little dress-rehearsal prior to going in front of the camera. Then she'd make me rehearse again in front of the camera, in front of the crew. So she was patient in that way. Ripping my hair out in front of the piano there, that was all natural because that was the way I was feeling anyway. So that was a great scene. I think we only did two shots to really capture it. The longer she went with the scene, say, repeating it, the worse I became: the more I didn't want to do it. I'd already given what she wanted and I didn't want to do it. And there was no way in the world that they were going to make me do it. So there was always this confrontation of Mrs. Chauvel and I. And then Mr. Chauvel would come across and he'd put his arm around me and then look ... [INTERRUPTION]
Mrs. Chauvel was always the one who directed you, not Mr. Chauvel?
Almost always. I can't remember a time when Mrs. Chauvel wasn't there prior to my scenes. Mr. Chauvel would be the one that would come in and kind of calm the ruffled feathers. Mrs. Chauvel was the one who got out of me what she wanted on that particular scene. So she probably knew that she was driving me, and Mr. Chauvel would come in and calm me down. And sometimes, of course, even Mrs. Chauvel's great patience would wear out, so he'd ... there were times when Mrs. Chauvel was in tears and I'd feel, 'Goodie, I've got her crying', that kind of feeling, like every mischievous child. I mean I ... even when we were at home, if dad said, 'Don't do this', my brothers and I would plan how we were going to slowing torture him to see it our way. So I came from that background, where I wasn't going to let the adult human being stand over me. I was going to put in a jolly good fight and I always did I'm proud to say. But it was naughty. But I wasn't to know that.
So your ... your feelings during all of this time was a mixture of resentment and anger. Did you ever plot escape?
Yes. I did. And when I was on familiar grounds, at Hanbury, that is just ... I think it's about 150 ks from Alice Springs, south, I knew approximately where we were. So one ... one day, when I wasn't in front of the cameras, I decided I was going to make a break for it. And I did. That was straight after the scene where they made me ride a horse with Joe and then there's suppose to be that little romantic interlude where I turn back into his arms. And I thought, 'Oh, they're trying to make me go with that man'. This is ... I took everything literally. So I thought, no, I'm going to run away before they do anything else awful. And I did. I escaped, and then I could hear them coming just almost at sundown. They'd tracked me, and Bill Harney and all those fellows, they came and found me in amongst the spinifex and dragged me back howling and crying and kicking and screaming. But, they always had a way of, you know, handing out the little bribes like, 'You can have a lolly or a columbine or something', and 'It won't be long before you are home'. So that scene ... well, I lost that plot. I couldn't run away.
So they handled it all really with rewards and punishments. Nobody ever sat down and tried to really explain to you what was going on?
No. No. It was always a little bit of bribery. Always at the end of the line the carrot was that I would go home as soon as we finish all this. So that was the goal, to finish the thing, and then I would be able to go home.
Why do you think nobody every sat down and really listened to what your problems were and explained to you what was actually happening? I mean, it seems you had actually very little idea of actually what was happening and what was going on, and if someone had explained it to you, you might have been more co-operative.
Yeah, could have been, but, you know, like even from home, where I came from, what dad said went. Dad will say, 'I want you in the shearing sheds tomorrow to toss the wool', or something, 'from the floor, the shearing shed floor'. We did it. Sister Eileen at St. Mary's said, 'I want you to go and scrub the bathroom floor on Saturday'. That was your job for that day. Sister Eileen said, 'I want you all up when the bell goes at seven tomorrow'. We all got up at seven. In those days, young people like myself, we didn't have a say. Like say, for instance, my daughter has a say. She can say to me, or she said to me when she was about fourteen or fifteen, 'Mum I'm not going to do it'. So you said, 'Okay then, you don't have to do it, I'll do it', whereas in the days when I was growing up you did as you were told. So I guess this concept and this psychology went into, you know, the making of me to be an actress and so I just did as I was told, most of the time. Eventually.
You had a sense, though, with Mrs, Chauvel, that you were judged all the time and found a bit wanting?
Always. Always lacking. But then probably in that I felt ... [INTERRUPTION]
So during this time that you were filming, Mrs. Chauvel, really ... you felt she was judging you and finding you wanting?
I think so, and somewhere at the back of my mind I got to the stage where I believed I was wanting because I wasn't more like a white girl - able to take directions at a moment's, you know, notice, or the least bit of ... bit of direction. So that of course made me dig my heels in a bit harder and say, 'I'll make you work for what you want out of me'. So that, that challenge was always there to try and get on top of poor Mrs. Chauvel.
But at the end of the day, for that, do you think that it was ... did this experience have a negative effect on your own self-esteem in the fact that you were taken into that situation and made to feel that perhaps you weren't doing as well as you should have?
Probably at the time it did, but then when I got back to Alice Springs and everybody kind of said, 'Wow, gee, you know, you're this, and you're that'." And ...
And I said, 'Hey. These are my peer groups. What are they saying to me?' you know. And then after a while I thought, oh, no. You know, I'm Rose Kunoth. Why are they treating me differently?" So, they're ... you know, it was a funny period after - after and during that time.
I noticed on the film credits that you weren't called Rosalie Kunoth, you were called Ngarla. Why was that?
Well Mrs. Chauvel took me aside, right at the beginning, and she said, 'What's you're skin totem?" And I said, "I'm Apengarte'. I knew what she was talking about. 'Apunaga'. 'Nah, that won't do. What else, what else do they call you? You got an Aboriginal name?' And I said, 'No. Well I'm Apunaga'. She said, 'What's your mother's totem, skin totem?' I said, 'Ngarla'. She fell in love with that. That actually ... That's where we fell off from each other right from the beginning. She said that I had to be Ngarla. And every part of my body screamed and said, 'I am not a Ngarla. I am a Apunaga woman', because I'd been brought up knowing who I am, and for a white person to change my skin was more than I could take. So really, I'm just coming to terms with myself. That's probably where I kind of looked at Mrs. Chauvel and thought, you're not going to change me or change my skin'.
Why didn't they want you to be called Rosalie?
White person's name. I had to be an Aboriginal. Because it was for overseas consumption and God knows what else. Couldn't be Rosalie, that's too English, too, you know, Anglicised. So I had to have an Aboriginal name.
Did you see the film when it was finished?
No, I didn't see it until the premiere in Darwin. That was the first I saw of it and I was horrified.
Did that happen immediately after you'd finished shooting?
No, I'd gone back to school, I'd gone back to St. Mary's, and then one day Sister Eileen came to me and she said, 'You're going up to Darwin, better get you ready'. And I said, 'What for?' because I was scared of going anywhere after the film experience. She said, 'No, you're just going up for a night or two and you are coming back and you're staying with Father and Mrs. Haley', the Anglican priest and his wife. And I did ask her, you know, whether she was sure that I was coming straight back and she assured me that was the case and that I would be staying with church people. So that's why I went up.
You felt safe with church people?
Oh, yeah. Mmm.
And did you have to get dressed up for the premiere?
Yes, I had a white, oh, mid-ankle frock of, you know, net, and nice shining material underneath and straps. I remember having fresh flowers on one of the straps. Yeah, it was nice.
And did you like that part of it? Did that make you feel a bit more like a star?
Well because I had ... had a look at children's books, like Cinderella and all that, I kind of felt like one of them, so, yeah, it was nice.
Did you have to make a speech?
Yes. I can't remember who gave it to me, but somebody gave me a little paper saying, 'I hope you all enjoy the film as much as I did making it'. [Laughs] So that's what I said. If it had been left to me I would have said, 'I hated making this bloody film. I hope you enjoy it more than I did', you know. But that wasn't the case, you had a written little thing to say. But that's when I became aware that we'd done something that wasn't ordinary because people wanted to touch you and I got a fright. [Laughs]
Was it, did that frighten you or did it excite you?
No it frightened me. I thought, why did they want to touch me for? You've got to be gay, you know. The shame way, what Aboriginal people do. But you don't really touch strangers and that.
Did your parents come with you to the preview?
No, I went up on my own and Tudawali and Mrs. Tudawali were both up there. So we all ... but the thing that I realise now, later on, was that I think Bob went downstairs, where the Aboriginal people sat, and they took me upstairs to where the officials were. So there was a difference there, but I wasn't aware of it on the night.
So they actually had a segregated ... segregated cinema?
Yeah, they did in Darwin.
Did they have that in Alice Springs too?
I can't remember because we didn't frequent Alice Springs' cinema that often. When we did go it was supervised. St. Mary's children would go in to a film that was approved by those that were looking after us on behalf, say of our parents. So I wasn't aware of that. But certainly looking back on Darwin, it must have been segregated in that Bob disappeared somewhere else, Bob and Peggy, and I was upstairs, I think with the owner of the cinema and of course Father - not Father so much, Mrs. Haley, the Anglican minister's wife.
So why were you made an honorary white on the night?
I think because I didn't come from that country there, probably. Bob probably chose to sit with his people, which was probably his stance in saying, 'I'm an Aboriginal person. I will sit with my family', whereas I ... I wasn't there. I mean if it happened in Alice Springs I would have said, 'No, I'm sitting with my mum', and gone down, you know, wherever the family is sitting.
So what did you think of the film?
Well looking back on it as an adult, I think it was a very brave thing for Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel to do. I appreciate the Aboriginal context within that film and I also appreciate the story line itself, where a white woman tries to take to herself an Aboriginal child and tries to make that child a carbon copy of herself and it doesn't succeed. Because in my life time I've seen so many children taken into care by policies, by the government, that's been there in place, especially in the fifties and the sixties and so forth, and that failing and miserable adult trying to come back and trying to find their roots. So the story line wasn't too far-fetched at all from real-life drama, especially in the Northern Territory.
What did you think of it at the time?
At the time I was horrified to think Bob Tudawali could touch me. That was the thing, you know. Me! Not allowed to touch me. I belong to somebody. Not allowed to touch me. So that was the overwhelming thing, especially when he grabbed me by the ankle. I remembered him saying,'You know what they suppose to be trying to get me to do to you', and I said, 'No', you know, like every teenage kid. And then when I saw it on screen I was horrified because it had sexual context in it. I was horrified and so was my mother.
In Alice Springs ... [INTERRUPTION]
What did your mother think of the film?
Mum was horrified because in my life, back here, I was actually promised. My promised husband was here, at Utopia, and to think another man could grab me by the ankle, because that's quite intimate to grab ... a man to grab you by the ankle, they knew, even if there was a cutaway, they thought, that's wrong. They shouldn't be doing that. So mum was horrified. I was horrified. Mum and I had long discussions of it and it not ... not having eventuated into sexual activity.
Yes, she was. Mmm. So, she believed me of course.
Oh, Dad was more European. You know, he was quite excited that his beautiful daughter was on screen and he believed that that was just. You know, dad had a different concept of ... of ... of my experience or foraying into that film.
And when it was all over, what were you left with? What do you think you got out of the whole experience that was positive?
The positive aspect I guess was the geographical awareness. That there was, and is, other places besides Alice Springs and the north-east area where I come from. I knew there was a Darwin. I knew there was a bitumen road that came all the way down to Alice Springs. I knew there was a city called Adelaide because I've waited for a plane there. And then I knew there was Sydney. And around that, I knew there was water, although I hadn't see the east or the west. When I looked at the map of Australia I had a fair idea. So my geographical awareness of ... of that little map that is Australia became very real in my mind then, so it helped me. That was the most positive thing I found I got out of it.
But what about your confidence? Did you feel special? Did you feel that you had something very particular to offer because you'd been selected for that? Or had the experience of doing it undermined that for you?
I think that it had undermined it. Anyway, if I did have a swelled head or anything, that I was any different from my brothers and sisters, it was soon squashed. There was none of that. We're all equals and there's no finer example of that than the Aboriginal culture to point that out to you. You and your brothers and your cousins, and your mothers and fathers are all equal. And I think that was the great stabilising thing in my case, that I came back and went on with life as it was prior to any traumatic or out of the ordinary experience because life itself was larger than that.
Now, you'd had a year out of school, did you go back to school then?
Yeah for another year. But Sue Chauvel had kept up the school work. She did, we always... Actually I gained a little bit more comprehension in that one-to-one relationship with Sue. So it was good. That was good. And I was probably a little bit more, how can I say ...
Advanced, than ... than my peer group of that day.
So at what stage did you leave school? At what level did you?
Eighth year, which was not bad for starting at, how old was I? Nearly ten, in 1956 wasn't it, yeah.
So what happened after you left school?
I worked around Alice Springs for a little while and then I always felt that I wanted to be involved in the church in some way.
You weren't tempted to go on with an acting career?
No way. Siree! No, I kind of ... I wanted to work probably for my people, but at that stage because I was involved in the church, it didn't matter that it was only for the Aboriginal people, it was for people in general. So that's what I did. I left Alice in '57.
What happened to Bob Tudawali? Did he stay in acting?
Apparently he did, yeah.
Did you keep in contact with him at all?
No. No. Well you couldn't. I didn't really have a relationship with Bob or the top-end people. Once the filming was over that was it. Every now and then he would come down to Alice Springs. [INTERRUPTION]
When you came back to Alice Springs after you'd finished the filming and you were a film star, was this ... did this make you very popular with the boys around the place?
Oh, I think there were remarks, you know, from boys, and men, and that was quite new. Because I'd been one of the crowd with the St. Mary's girls and then coming back and people pointing you out and, you know, just making ... making remarks. I felt ... I felt threatened by it, yeah.
Oh, in the crowd because the St. Mary girls, we were a large crowd, so you were in the crowd and didn't ... didn't stray out of that. But I guess when you went out to work, when you first went out, you know, into the community, that's when I felt it a bit more.
Felt the pressure.
What kind of job did you get when you went out into the community?
Well there was the ... it was called the Residency. It was where all the VIPs came and stayed in Alice Springs. So I did kind of, you know, waiting and cleaning and all that round there. I don't know whether I was kind of some form of tourist attraction or what, but that was my first job. And I lived at St. John's Hostel, which was in Alice Springs, which was right next to the church there.
Do you remember how much you were paid?
No. I haven't the faintest. I still don't worry about pays.
Did you make much money from making the film?
Well to tell you the truth I really don't know. Whatever money was made I gave it to dad. I remember signing it over for a new truck that we wanted to buy because dad did the shearing and carting the wool into Alice Springs to the railway.
So he got a new truck out of Jedda?
Yes, which is nice.
And when you were working around town, did you start mixing in with young people? Did boys start to play any sort of a life, role, in your life, boys and men?
Oh, I suppose when I was about eighteen I did have boyfriends, yeah.
What was the situation in relation to the man you'd been promised to back with the tribe?
Well he was still here. He didn't die until I come back this time actually. I can't say his name, but his brother's there and I help his brother a lot. His brother's married to my first cousin.
So why didn't you marry him when you'd been promised to him?
I think because there had been a conversation along the lines that grandfathers and dad, that's my maternal grandparents, that we didn't have to go through the ceremonies, or, indeed, through the whole ritual that we were born too. It's only as adults that we've come back and taken our place where ... where we left off.
So if you had been going along the path that had been laid out for you by your tribal requirements, you would have come back as an adolescent and been given to this man?
I don't know whether it's spared, but they made dispensation, that we had been to school and that we belonged to the larger, wider community of central Australia.
Did you go through any of the other rituals of adolescence, the initiations and so on?
No. Certainly my brothers didn't. They came back as adults and chose to go that way.
So with a tribal marriage not the path happening for you, what did you in your mind think was going to happen in relation to your future and marriage and men?
I hadn't thought of marriage because I'd given my life to God.
At that age, while you were still in Alice Springs?
Yes, at that age. Yeah. There was a gentleman, who wanted to marry me when I was about eighteen, and that was one of the reasons I had to remove myself from Alice Springs. And this was done consciously because I was tempted to get married and I thought, no. I'm not prepared for that kind of, you know, close relationship with anyone.
Who was it? What kind of a person?
His name was Keith, Keith Clarke. He was a white person and he was a bit older than myself, and he had other children and he had been married to a part-Aboriginal woman prior to them separating and getting divorced.
And what were your thoughts about all of that at the time?
At the time I thought I just wasn't ready for a commitment to another human being, because I wasn't ready. Unlike young people of today, to us marriage was a very serious thing. That that was making a home for your off-springs, your children and that. So I certainly wasn't ready.
Did you come very close to it though?
Yeah I came very close to getting married so I went to ...
I think I was almost on the verge of kind of naming the day of getting married or having that commitment. So I went and talked to my priest and I said, 'Father I'm not ready. Where can I go?' I didn't even say goodbye to the gentleman concerned. Father put me on the plane and I went down to stayed with Father and Mrs. Bott in Adelaide. And from there I went to Father and Mrs. Renfrew, and then I wanted to test my vocation to the religious order. So it was quite straightforward after that.
When you were living with these families of priests, of Anglican priests, what did you, did you live with them as family or what was your relationship with them?
I lived with the Botts as members of God's family, almost like a ... like a ... like a religious order, I guess. When I left and lived with Father and Mrs. Renfrew I took care of their children in a paid position, with always the idea of continuing and pursuing what I felt was my vocation in life.
Which was to do God's Will in a religious context, which I'm still doing today.
And after you'd been with them in Adelaide, what was your next step towards this?
My next step was I got to know some of the sisters, religious nuns, of the Community of the Holy Name, which is an Anglican order in Australia. After having got to know a few of the sisters there, I wanted to go another step further, and that is to test your religious vocation within the community.
Made arrangements to go to the community house in Cheltenham, in Victoria, and become a postulant, which is the first six months of ... of recruitment into Holy Orders. So I did that and then I did my three years in the novitiate, and then in 1964 I took my final vows into the religious order.
Poverty, chastity and obedience, of course.
And during the time you were there, were there any other Aboriginal people in the order?
There was a Torres Strait Islander girl there.
Did you feel any particular connection with her or was she like all the other sisters?
Well by that time you'd become aware and you'd lived such life as being one in God's creation. So I was not really aware, nor would I have made special concessions because there was an Aboriginal person there. I had become a member of a religious group of people, therefore, they were all my brothers and sisters.
Could you describe what your everyday life was like while you were in the order?
Mmm. Everyday life was made of ... it was nine prayer hours. In that you also had Mass, a lot of physical hard work, a lot of theology and also a lot of extracurricular things, like if you were ... if you wanted to become involved in childcare, which I was, you did training for those maybe with the social welfare department of Victoria.
What kind of physical hard word did you do?
Keeping the whole convent clean and all that. Doing your chores in the chapel. Stoking the big bonfire with the coals and things to keep our hot water going. Always, always supplemented with a lot of hours of prayers, was physical hard work.
What do you think it was, looking back now, at how you felt at the time, that drew you so strongly into this vocation?
I guess it's my spiritual background. I guess it's my spiritual being. And the fact that I always felt at home in looking at what I believe is God's creation, which is the natural things in life like the trees, the birds, all that beauty. Man made things sometimes, especially the materialistic side of human beings, to this day horrifies me. I don't believe that's our true being.
Rosalie, you were always so afraid to go away from home, and yet when you went off to the convent you willingly left and went for a really long time. What was different when you were at that age and you went off to Adelaide, that made you feel not so afraid to go away?
I think there comes a time when you leave the nest, and anyway, there was the fact that my family unit had broken up at that stage because my mother had died. So there was no longer the home unit that I'd grown up with. And each one of us ... My elder brother had got married. The other brother, Bert, had left home and was working, and so I was the next one. After ... straight after mother's death I did look after my youngest three siblings, which was Theresa, Irene and Ken. And once they were able to go into St. Mary's, really, there was nothing left for me but to get on with my life. So that's ... that's the reason I was free and had to make the best of my life.
How old were you when your mother died?
I was just going on eighteen when mum died.
Did that have a really big impact on your internal feelings?
Yes it did because my mother died during childbirth. I was present. I was one of the ... not really a midwife, but because mum had all of us in the bush I was present and I did witness the agony and perhaps for a long time that was the reason that I did not want to maybe conceive a child and go the same way. It is a traumatic experience and, well, I guess that was the reason, with me, thinking that maybe I did not want to get married, and I didn't, certainly didn't, at that stage, want to be any part to childbearing.
My mother would have been probably in her early forties when she died.
So how long after that did you ... You were eighteen when she died and then you left Alice Springs. How old were you then?
No, I was seventeen when mum died. So I would have been eighteen, almost going on nineteen when I left Alice.
Now after all those years that you told us about that you spent in the convent, what made you leave the convent?
I guess, you have an awareness that dawns on you, and it did dawn on me, that the Aboriginal people were treated as second-class people. I was living in relative security. Somehow I'd always managed to escape a lot of the pain that my people were going through. Within the convent we did watch news and sometimes I would see Aboriginal people struggling for their rights. And a dawning came to me that I was alienated from those people that I identified with very strongly. Those people were my mother's people, and therefore my people, because I carried the colour in my skin. Although I had always been lucky, and I say this quite sincerely, I had been lucky. It wasn't good management. It was sheer luck that I'd escaped a lot of the blatant racism that was being delivered to my people. So after having talks to our Reverend Mother, who had been a social worker in the ... oh, in the mainstream prior to entering the convent, she realised that perhaps my vocation needed to change in that I needed to go out of the convent and to work amongst my people: work or share the pains with my people, I'm not sure. But anyway I felt that the alienation which I'd had for ten years had to come to an end, that I wasn't meant to be locked away in a convent.
Well you first of all you talk to the Reverend Mother, and then you talk to the leader of your church, and in that diocese it was Frank Woods, who was the Archbishop of Melbourne. And I asked if I could have dispensation from my vows, which were taken in good faith for life, and, because - it wasn't an excuse - because my reasons were quite valid, and he felt it and so did the Reverend Mother and so did the Sisters of my community, because they felt that this probably was what I needed to do, I went with their love and their support, which to this day I still have.
So there wasn't anything negative about the life in a convent?
Oh, no that's what developed me into the person I am today.
What aspects of the convent life, looking back now in retrospect, what aspects of the convent life do you think did most for you to develop you as a person?
I think the fact that ... that you do not go into a convent thinking, this is what I want, me. The fact that you go into a convent to be of service in whatever way you can be of service to other human beings and other creatures around you. That's what made me different. I have not thought of myself as wanting, or needing this and that. I have always said, 'If somebody needs something of me, if I am able to give of myself, in whatever small way it can be, I do it'. And in doing so, it is true that you receive much more than you give. And that's what ... that's what made me the type of person that I hope I am today because that is the attitude of everyone that's in the convent. If you're not of that attitude you're not meant to be there anyway.
You took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Did you have trouble with any of them, particularly the obedience?
No, because I was an adult by then. Because you've been disciplined in a congregation living at St. Mary's, and also because I had had discipline at home, along with my siblings. The obedience would have been probably the least thing that worries one. But no, I didn't have any - none of them. Poverty: I've always been in it. Didn't have any problem with that. And chastity of course, I hadn't started an active sexual life, so that doesn't worry you either.
So when you left, what sort of work did you go to?
Well prior to leaving, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, which is the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, was in existence in Victoria, and Reg Worthy, who was the director of that particular department, had been a social worker in the Northern Territory. So I rang him and asked in what capacity they could, you know, have me, or whether, indeed, they could use me. And certainly he said, 'Yes'. So it was very easy. It wasn't really easy, I was terrified. Because first time for a long time you come out and all of a sudden your arms were exposed. Your legs haven't got the black stockings. Your hair's showing and, you know, you feel naked. You really do. So for about a month I stayed with very close friends, Mr. and Mrs. Urita, at East Malvern, and Bill's sister actually was a very close friend of mine from our convent days. She wasn't a Sister, she was one of our staff.
Bill, your husband, your now husband?
Did you know him before you left the convent?
No. No I didn't.
He wasn't an influence in you going?
I don't think so, because, you know, that's a stupid question actually. No man was an influence in my leaving the convent. The reason I left was because that part of my life I believed was finished. I needed to be involved in another way, and I've explained that.
So when you left, you lived with this family and you got work with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. What were you doing?
I worked as a liaison officer in establishing where the pockets of Aboriginal people were - in and around Victoria.
And what did that involve for you day to day?
It involved getting out and about, meeting Aboriginal people, assessing what needs they had and just getting to know them, and getting to know, perhaps, how many school children were in their family, and whether they were getting adequate education, and what type of education - things like that. Probably establishing files on where the family were, what their needs were. That type of thing.
Were there any great surprises for you when you were doing this work? Had you appreciated how things were for your people?
No, I think, actually my culture shock began then, because when I came out of the convent, although I had been involved in the streets and lanes of Melbourne, it was still under the protection of the community, that's the religious community. And coming out and seeing ... seeing people just foraging in the bins that are on the ... on the street, looking for food; people with really old, dirty clothes. Didn't really take much notice of the colour or anything, it was human beings that were doing what I felt that homeless dogs do. And I hadn't realised that there were people of that ... I don't know, of great need, of not having anybody to feed them or even put them to bed. So that kind of horrified me. To think in a city that appeared to be, how can I say, well off, rich, and there's ... there's people kind of foraging in refuge bins. That shook me, you know. And then to read in papers that not everybody's pure and holy and whatever. That kind of shook me too. I never ever thought that police could do anything wrong. I didn't think that lawyers could do anything wrong because I believed in my ... I suppose I was really naive. I believed that those people were elected to uphold the law of the land, exactly the same as what I've grown up with, out in the scrubs amongst my people. The men, Aboriginal men, of high degree were not allowed to do anything wrong and they didn't do anything wrong. If they did anything wrong it was punishable by death in the 1950s. So for me to realise, like on the news and so forth, that the other side - what I believed was just as pure, were not. Indeed, a lot of the actions that they were doing, to me, appeared to be bordering [on] and indeed, was corruption. So, you know, that ... that's my culture shock when I come out of the convent.
So you had been brought up with real faith in authority and you discovered that authority couldn't be relied upon?
No. And it was shattering. Truly was.
So, what ... how did you react to that? What did you do?
What can you do? What can one miserable little being do? You can't do anything. You learn to live with it.
So in your daily work, what did you do for your people?
Well as I said before, I went out and established where they were and did files and things to see where the families were. And then shifting on from that, you help them in setting up programmes. I did the tutorial scheme, where I got young white university students from both Monash, Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. I got those young people to help Aboriginal youngsters with their homework, with their comprehension of their work. So that was a full-time job, I moved into ... because I had an interest in childcare anyway, so I went into ... automatically into-child care and took over the Aboriginal children's section within the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. I set up the first Aboriginal, exclusively Aboriginal, family group home in Victoria, at Essendon. That was after I got married. Oh, you know, just the ... the whole thing.
How did you meet your husband?
Oh, well through his sister. I'd met his family first and Bill had been up in the Northern Territory so we had that in common. And ...
What drew you to him? What was it about him that you liked?
I think his honesty and his openness. There is no pretence about Bill and I can quite clearly say after almost twenty-six years of marriage. Fortunately I wasn't fooled. Bill is what he is and I still love him today. So, you know, I don't know: chemistry, charisma. I'm not one for flowery romances and things like that. Bill is a good human being and I still love him today.
Did it affect you at all that he was white?
Oh. Honest? [Laughs] To me quite, it's not a person's colour, it's a person's action. That makes me wild. Bill's not white. Bill is a human being. Ngarla is not a half-bred, she's a human being. The sooner people get that out of their thinking, the better the world will be.
What do you think Bill saw in you that drew him to you?
I think you might have to ask him that question.
But I know he loves me very deeply.
And that has been a really happy marriage for you?
Indeed, it has been one of closeness of heart, mind, certainly we've had our physical love, but that's been over for a long time. I'm not a very physical person. But we're still as close as ever.
When you set up the home for Aboriginal children, did Bill help you with that?
Yes, indeed. He was involved. Actually we were married maybe three or four months and we got this instant family before we had ours, so Bill was involved right throughout.
How many children did you take care of?
At times it would swell maybe to about seven. But I tried to keep it a small unit so that children that needed that individual attention got that. So up to seven, sometimes down to five, sometimes swelling maybe to eight.
Do you still keep in contact with these children?
Ah, only the four that we permanently fostered. Probably, if I knew where the other children were, I'd be happy to receive any news from them.
And what made you stop doing that?
I think what made us stop was that we were invited to come home and run the transient hostel, which was the Hole In One, it was then, now, Ayiparinya Hostel in Alice Springs. And I felt perhaps we needed to do a stint in central Australia, so we packed up and came here.
So what led you to stop taking care of the children in the household? What happened to you next in your life that made you move away from that?
I think the urge to come home. It was a twenty-year absence, '57 to '77, so when the opportunity arose to come home to central Australia, we took it.
And what was that opportunity?
To run a hostel, Ayiparinya Aboriginal Hostel, in Alice Springs.
And, so what was the hostel for? Who was there?
It was Aboriginal hostel for Aboriginal people that were coming into town, into Alice Springs, for whatever reasons. Some might be medical, some just to do their shopping, but it was an itinerant hostel. It wasn't permanent residency.
And so there were a variety of people. Were they ... were they people who had particular needs that you had to be concerned about?
No, not really. Just people using accommodation. So we just ran that hostel as accommodation for people that were passing through, people who were just coming into Alice Springs, maybe to do their shopping as a family, or maybe just to stay close whilst their parents or a loved one is seeking medical attention. [INTERRUPTION]
So what was it like running the hostel?
Hard, I think. Certainly not one of my best jobs. Running a hostel is just making sure the building's are clean, making sure the foods on the table, running about four staff. Not my cup of tea, but, you know, I think we were there for about two years, that's about it.
And so after the two years you quit, to do what?
Well, then I became involved again in social work. I helped ... actually I was the acting social worker, setting up the social work section of the hospital, Alice Springs Hospital. That was good. I stayed there for, I think, another two years, and then I slowly got involved with politics.
Now why did that happen? Why did you get involved in politics?
Aboriginal Affairs. To me, having left Alice Springs twenty years prior, at quite a young age, and everything was in place at that time when I left, in the Aboriginal traditional customs. I slowly became aware: I don't know whether it's rorts, or something is wrong in Aboriginal care, or ... or people that had put themselves in charge of Aboriginal people. I felt it was really wrong. And I also became aware that Aboriginal ... Aboriginal people were a political football to be kicked around here, and there and everywhere. So somewhere along the line, I think I started talking to Senator Bernie Kilgariff, and because he was a good Catholic person, therefore I looked on him as a spiritual person rather than a politician, both him and his wife. And I started having cups of teas, and having ... what we call in the Territory, having a yarn about my concerns and what I was seeing, and slowly got in with the Country Liberal Party. But by this time, too, I'd started speaking out in my own right as an Aboriginal person, saying I didn't think the things that were happening to us, to us Aboriginal people, were the right things as far as I could see.
What things that were happening, that hadn't been happening twenty years before, concerned you most?
What concerned me most was the lawlessness, the consumption of alcohol, which was just running down Todd Street. Todd Street's our main street in Alice Springs. The neglect of children while the parents were drunk. The children would be running around at 2, 3 am in the morning. By this time too I'd become involved in Aboriginal Legal Aid, and seeing the band aid jobs that were being done. We weren't really, really getting down to the real problems of the Aboriginal people. We were kind of, 'Oh, yes. We've got statistics to show Aboriginal Legal Aid dealt with two, three thousand people in the month of such and such', you know. We were just becoming statistics, numbers. But the real pain and the horror of what was happening there in front of us, we weren't really addressing that as a community. I mean, as a community - the whole lot of us in Alice Springs.
And what did you think you could do about it?
It wasn't Superwoman doing something on her own, or anything like that. It's just that we weren't facing the real social problems that was tragically being played out in front of us every day in Alice Springs.
What do you feel was at the heart of the problem?
People were losing their culture, they were losing their country, and most of all, I guess they were ... as a family, they were disintegrating. And of course the biggest thing that played that was racism, aided and abetted by alcohol. So we had to address that problem instead of making money off the backs of the poor blacks, that was in misery. It wasn't only white people that were making money, or making it a career, it was our own people as well, Aboriginal people.
Well they climbed the ladder of success, maybe in Aboriginal Affairs, maybe in some Aboriginal related things, put themselves up as experts overnight, and not really giving a stuff about the real Aboriginal people.
Did they make their success from being on secure salaries or were there other things that went on among the bureaucrats who took care of Aboriginal matters?
Believe you me, it's a power-ride. It's heady powers. I mean, one of our most well-known people is Charlie Perkins. He rode, not rode, he rose, sorry ... he rose to being the permanent head, permanent secretary of Aboriginal Affairs. He was one of the highest paid Aboriginal people in Australia. It is heady. It is powerful. Aboriginal Affairs is a current topic. You can make a name for yourself in a short time. But, you lose sight of why you are involved. And this is the thing that we had to watch. I mean we're not the first indigenous people to play out that role. I think American Indians played out that role. I'm sure the Canadian Inuit people did too. And I think Americans had the name 'running dogs' for their own people who sold them out to a foreign culture. And we've come close to that. We're still going through it. There's some very useless people holding position in Aboriginal Affairs, but I wouldn't have my dog be analysed by them. So, you know.
So what drew you to the Liberal Country Party?
Oh, I think ... I think the same thing as many Aboriginal people feel, because you're black, you have to vote for Labor! Where did the hell did they get this from? Definitely not from us blacks. So, you just look around. If you feel you've got an affinity, or you've got close good relationship with some of the people in that particular party, with their philosophies - even if it is just lip-service - are the same as maybe yours, you analyse it yourself regardless of your colour or your religion. You say, 'Oh, I think I'll give that a go'. That's what I did. Plain and simple. But I think out of that too, like I said before, Bernie Kilgaroth played a large part in it. He's a beautiful person.
And when you got involved with them, what did you feel about the policies that they had for Aboriginal people? Did you feel wholeheartedly in support of them?
No. No. Not completely. But, Paul Everingham did say if I did get in, Gatjil Djerkurra and I would have a large part in making up that policy on Aboriginal Affairs in the Northern Territory. And we both believed that, and I believe that we would have carried it out if we had been elected.
So you actually ran for a seat?
Yeah, I ran twice.
Which was that, for Northern Territory Government?
And which seat did you run for?
The seat of McDonald, which is in the southern part. It's an Aboriginal-held seat in the southern part of Alice Springs.
And what did that involve? What did you have to do?
Campaigning? Oh, well everyone knows what campaigning's all about. You get out there and hustle for votes, so that's exactly what I did. Because I'm black I didn't do it any different. I went out and said, 'These are the policies of my party'. Because people knew me and 'This is the type of person that I am and this is what I'd like to do'. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I wasn't successful.
Did you work hard campaigning in among Aboriginal communities?
It's no different to hustling for votes in any other place. You say who you are and what your policies are, and it's left to the people to make their own decision.
Did you enjoy that? Did you enjoy the process of going about?
I don't think I enjoyed it to the extent where I said, 'Wow. This is my life. This is what I'm going to do. I'm on stage', because I would imagine it being a similar feeling to being on stage. The whole trouble with me is I don't know how to enjoy any bloody thing at all. The thing that I do is I work hard and believe in myself as much as I believe in my actions and that's what I did.
Now when you weren't successful in getting in, did that bring you ... your relationship with the political side of things to an end, or what did you do then to be active?
No. As I said, I ran twice. What brought my relationship to ... it didn't really bring it to an end. What made me stop working for the Country Liberal Party was my fallout with Paul Everingham over the issue of the building of a dam for Alice Springs. That was right on sacred, or place of real significance, to my Arrernte family's culture. That's what brought that to an end.
So what were you doing in relation to Paul Everingham at the time? Did you have a particular job?
Yes. I was Everingham's ministerial officer in the southern part of the Northern Territory.
So you had an official role with him?
I had a job with him, yeah.
And ... and you also had your relationship with your own people to deal with?
Well, I'm sure if a white person is a ministerial officer to a particular politician, it does not stop his relationship with the rest of the community. And, it goes to say without even mentioning it that mine is exactly the same. It didn't ... I didn't cease being a black woman because I was working for a politician, any more than it stops a white person from falling out and becoming an alien because he works for a politician. It's exactly the same process.
So could you describe the conflict that occurred for you there?
The conflict that ... that arose was that I was the special adviser to the Northern Territory Chief Minister in relation to the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs. I was to bring to his attention, and therefore to the Party's attention too, anything that was of concern to Aboriginal people. In this instance I did say, 'That particular piece of land had a real strong significance in the mythology of the local people of Alice Springs, and I happen to belong to that local group as well through my father and his mother. They're my people'. And he felt perhaps there might be a conflict of interest with him and I on the same position. And I felt that wasn't being completely honest, because I felt I was there to advise him, because that was my job description. If I couldn't honestly say things to him, I too felt I couldn't continue in that role. So I finished. It's as simple as that. [INTERRUPTION]
How did you know about the significance? Who explained it to you?
Well, it's there. It's been there always. Nobody had to really explain to me but we did have dances to show you what the significance entailed and what the story, what the mythology entailed. So you know I was aware of it all the time. But during the time of the threat of that site we had dances to show, especially the younger people, what that site signified.
How did your grandmother feel about the dam?
My grandmother, in her late-eighties, was one of the foremost ladies in the battles against that being turned into a pleasure place for a small minority of white people in Alice Springs. So she was very strong.
We stopped it of course. What else? [Laughs]
Yes, but I see it's rearing its head again lately, but I think they've gone to the sewerage ponds now. But I think the sooner the white people realise because you want, want, want, doesn't mean you come out and destroy the natural lay of the land or the natural ground where it's been there years before. If you want, want, want water, there's plenty around the coast of Australia so go back there. No worries.
But although you won the battle, you actually lost your job. You left your job as a result of it.
Mmm. I left my job as a result of it. A job's not everything.
What did I do next? You'll need my husband I think. What did I do next after the Chief Minister? Look you'll have to ask me that again and I'm sure if I come back to it ... [INTERRUPTION]
You were working ... after you'd been ... after you decided to do that, you actually left politics then, didn't you? You stopped working in a political environment, did you? Am I right? Because in this accounts that I've read ... can we stop actually? [INTERRUPTION]
So what do you remember about the fight to save the area, the sacred area from being dammed in Alice Springs?
I think the crunch came, because, if you can imagine there's the Aboriginal people down here, there's the Labor party and there's the Country Liberal Party, and in between that, say the Land Council, all our Aboriginal spokespeople - they are doing their battle up here, right. The Aboriginal people down there. These people down here, their concerns are very real. They have an emotional attachment to that piece of land. That piece of land is part of their legend that makes up their very being. That was about to be chopped in halves and it no longer exists. It's gone forever, never to be returned. The anthropologist, that were the advisers to this party or that party or the Land Council, they were grabbing Aboriginal people left, right and centre and taking them down to this particular spot. Some of the people, the Aboriginal people, were not even aware there was threat to this big site of significance to the Aboriginal women. One of the persons that was grabbed was my grandmother, who by this time was over eighty years old. An anthropologist came along and said, 'Amelia', because she was the oldest woman from that area, 'come and see this'. And Nanna walked with me. I didn't let Nanna be kind of just grabbed here and there. By that time I was very protective towards her, so I went with her. At that stage, I was the Ministerial Adviser ... [INTERRUPTION]
What happened when the anthropologist took your grandmother to this spot?
Well I can vividly remember Nanna walking down there. All her family were gathered down the creek, and in that particular place there is a rock. It looks like a woman standing there. And as we walked down, because it is quite a way to walk to the women's sacred site, she looked and the anthropologist was explaining to Nanna that all this had to come out, the graders and so forth had to come in and move all the earth and all the rocks and everything else. And Nanna, it always took us a day to pick up a toothbrush, because everybody knew her, and she walked, cuddled this person, that person, talking to them and listening, and Nanna said, 'Are they going to move this one?' And the anthropologist said, 'Yes, the whole lot. They're going to dig right around so this can be filled up with water'. They said ... She went to that rock and put her arm around it. She said, 'This is my mother. If they 're going to move this one they have to kill me', and that's when it really hit me then. Nanna was in her eighties. She had nothing to gain, but everything to lose. She was the first person on that site who felt, really felt, emotionally, that if they destroyed this site it would destroy her. And because Nanna lived well over her nineties, she still had all those years to come. And she was still was very much - oh, I don't know - in command of herself and in command of her situation and here she was, this beautiful old lady, who'd first seen the impact of white people into Alice Springs. Here was one of her things that made her the type of person she was about to be destroyed. And that's when I knew that I had no choice. I had to stand for my grandmother, and her people, and her beliefs, which I believe she had the right to have in a so-called democratic country. So that's ... you know, that's what made me. I mean the job, with Everingham or anyone else, was secondary to what was going on - the drama that was being played out right before my eyes by my own people.
The people, the Aboriginal officials, the people who were involved in Aboriginal Affairs at that time, the Aboriginal people, do you think that they understood what it was all about?
No. Here was a ... here was a situation that kind of grabbed national media. There were media people running around all over the place: snap, snap, 'Can I have a comment from you?' Those people that were on the ... on the take, were there in full-force. They were there doing little things, like little Aboriginal kids being taken for helicopter rides right where it is a place that is forbidden for men to go. There were men who were, indeed, Aboriginal, and Aboriginal spokesmen - two responsibilities. First of all, Aboriginal man. Secondly, they had a big role in being an Aboriginal leader. They were just doing ... they thought it was a picnic.
So it was a political stunt for them you feel?
I believe so. I believe so. Indeed I can say yes, it was.
Did you find that deeply offensive?
I found it very, very offensive. And that's when I started realising that people were not ... they were not committed to the improvement of the lot of Aboriginal people, our people. In central Australia the families are bonded together through their dreamings. Well I don't really like 'dreaming'. It's our Altyerra, our legends, which join us all together. And then you have to let go. When that dreaming goes say from Amarjera, from my mother's country, my mother and them have to let go, about, oh, 100 ks from here, in what we know is Atula, bushy park area. From there the Eastern Arrernte's take over and then goes into Mparntwe, which is Alice Springs. I know this history because that is my lineage. And you have to let go. You don't say, 'Wow, I'm an Aboriginal person. I'm an Aboriginal spokesperson. I am responsible for the Aborigines of Australia'. You're playing with yourself. That's not so. In the Aboriginal traditional life, you are only responsible as far as your dreaming, or your Altyerra goes. I am responsible in my preordained role, before my birth, I am responsible for certain things within the Anmatjerre, Eastern Arrernte, and the Mparntwe. I can't go any further than that. However if I'm in Melbourne, in Sydney, and I see a brother human-being being pounded or starved or caged - note, that I said a fellow human-being - as a human-being I have a responsibility to that person. Therefore if I am able to help that person I do so. But for my law, Aboriginal laws, and so forth, I am way out of my responsibility if I speak, say for David Gulpilil or someone, or Ernie Dingo or anyone. That is none of my business. Unless I am invited to be a speaker I do not have a say in their part of the country.
So, when it comes to the business of Aboriginal Affairs, generally, you try to get together to find a voice that everyone can speak with, but when it comes to something specific, like a site that's being violated, you feel concerned that some of the Aboriginal people in positions of authority join in that violation by taking charge.
I think the biggest violation that I see is that certain Aboriginal leaders have usurped the power that has been in place for 40,000 years or more of the traditional elders of a particular place. You have no right to speak on their behalf, without prior consultation and approval. If, say, for instance, a person may be from Broome says to me, 'Rose Kunoth-Monks, I like the way you speak. I want you to come over to meet my people and we give you this message stick to take to Canberra, because you're better off able to get across to Canberra what we want to say', I would feel honoured that that group of people has said that to me. But it is also my responsibility that I listen to their true words and their true desires before I go sprouting off to Canberra and getting attention for myself. And that's what's been happening all along. We have transgressed against our own people.
When you went with the story of how important this site was to your people, to Paul Everingham, what did he say to you?
Well he felt, because I was his personal staff, there might be a conflict of interest. I immediately agreed with him and handed back his car - it was a nice car too - at the airport, and promptly went and rang my husband and said, 'I've just finished. Can you come and pick me up?' But to me that wasn't a big deal. I don't know whether it was dramatic or what, but Paul and I remained friends after that. Paul Everingham, to me, was a good man. He understood how I felt. Probably there's not too many people who would leave a, well, moderately rewarding job just like that and go, but I had to. I had different agendas. I still have got different agendas. I'm still poor in the white man sense, but I think I'm the richest woman in the Aboriginal sense.
So after this incident, and what you saw even with your own people who were involved in politics, where did that leave you?
Where did it leave me?
What was your position mentally? What did you start thinking about political activity?
I knew it was wrong. The road that I was on was wrong.
After a period of trying to work with the political situation as it was set-up here, here in the Northern Territory and around your people, you got fed-up with it. I would like to ask you a question that would explain just exactly how you felt now. If you could sort of sum-up that period of your life from what you emerged from. That's the question I'm going to start with. When you left political life how did you feel about what you'd done while you were there?
I'm not sure how I felt. I guess I felt defeated, betrayed, and that I was in the wrong direction ... going in the wrong direction. I also felt, once again, that I was getting alienated from my Aboriginal roots and I think that was the main reason that I didn't want to be involved in the Aboriginal bureaucracy. And I felt the best place to come back and find my true Aboriginal-being was to come back to the place of my birth and to my ... my elders and my keepers, my true keepers. And Bill and I talked about it - my husband and I, and also my daughter. By this time I had a grandchild on the scene. Just prior to ... two days, actually, prior to my grandchild being born I was very, very ill. I had a burst appendix and whilst I was in hospital heavily dosed with drugs I almost had a vision of all these black hands going like this [HAND GESTURES], 'Come back', more or less. And when I came out of that state I had no doubts whatsoever in wanting to come back and being what I am, or what I was. And so we sold our house, to make sure we wouldn't change our minds once we came back, and more or less severed our ties with Alice Springs, Aboriginal Affairs and all other things that I felt were not essential to our struggle to be our own persons or people. And ... once we'd made up our minds it was like a relief and we had to put it into practice and came home to Utopia, to my home, and I must say, at this stage, it was the right thing to do.
Is that a feeling shared by Bill and your daughter?
Yes, indeed. More than if I'd ever wished. They ... they object to going in to Alice Springs, which we do periodically, maybe once a fortnight or every three weeks. I haven't been in for about six weeks, but I don't miss it at all. So it certainly is the right thing.
Now tell me about your little family unit. Can we go back to when your daughter was born?
When Ngarla was born, yes. Well I really didn't know what to expect. I was terrified. What can I say? It was a very beautiful and fulfilling experience having Ngarla.
After your ... you had seen your mother die in childbirth you'd been afraid of having children yourself. What persuaded you to go ahead with having a baby?
I don't think it was persuasion. I think if a man and a woman have a physical relationship it should be the natural happy outcome of that relationship, and Bill and I had been married for two years and Ngarla was the result, and we're very happy with that result.
Were you at all afraid when you were pregnant? Did you think of your mother?
No. I had a very happy pregnancy surrounded by my foster children. You don't really analyse. An Aboriginal person somehow doesn't analyse the event. They are not as critical as say being on the Pill, having control, doing this, doing that. We're not really like that, it's different.
Yes, Indeed. [INTERRUPTION]
Well that ... that is her. She's a Ngarla. My foster children, because they're in my care, they're Ngarlas. All the Ngarlas out here, that are a certain generation, they are my sons and daughters and I'm responsible for them in a way that a mother is.
And your little grand-daughter, her name is?
And did that come through the family as well?
Amelia is the name of my grandmother, my father's mother.
And what does this family mean to you?
Oh, God, how can I put it into words? Well they're everything to me. Amelia is me. Ngarla, my daughter, is my mother. So, you know, it's generations that go on after you. And once ... once yours been born and from yours another one's been born, that more or less the Aboriginal way [is] the reincarnation of yourself. So your responsibility as a role-model is very, very real. I am responsible to Amelia, who is my grand-daughter, and I must pass on to her the very best that I hope for my next lot, my next generation. I am not really responsible to, or for Ngarla, who is my daughter. That is the responsibility of my mother. I give birth to her and love her and feed her but my grand ... her grandmother is the one that passes on all the legends, all the very meaningful things, all the things that should be the very best that she hopes for that generation.
Now with your biological mother dead, who takes care of Ngarla?
The other Ngarlas, who are my mother's sisters. They're not ... they do not have to be my biological aunts or mothers. They are the Ngarla women. And that one legend, or mythology, or whatever people like to call it, they're responsible for that line. All the Ngarlas ... so Ngarla leaves me because she is a Ngarla. She is with her grandmother and her sisters. I on the other hand leave my mother and I am with the Apunaga women, which includes my grandchild, grandchildren.
So in deciding to leave the Aboriginal bureaucracy and to come back here to your own people, are you in some ways taking full-time the role of teacher and passer on of the traditions of your people? Is that part of the reason for it?
Well it's forced me to be that way. Because, what the old people out here say, is that we were all chasing the money-line. They call it money-line. In other words we were chasing the funding from Aboriginal Affairs or from the Federal Government and the State Government to the exclusion of our traditional lore. That's L-O-R-E. That lore, which makes us truly unique, special people in Australia. We are not belonging to the mainstream of all the rest of the Australians. The rest of the Australians could be of Jewish descent carrying on their rituals; Greek people carrying on their rituals; Italian people carrying on theirs. We are Aboriginal indigenous Australian people and we too have the right to carry on our tradition, our lore. We have that freedom I hope, to do that, exactly the same as other people that have either migrated here, or have been born here. They're still free to carry on their tradition.
So do you feel that the problems that you're dealing with as Aboriginal people are problems more to do with the loss of your culture than to do with financial difficulties?
Well our people did not look at themselves and say they were naked, because nakedness was a part of us. It was nothing to be ashamed of with the body. What happened was, people from other parts of the world came and they were covered from head to toe, and all of a sudden they looked at the Aboriginal person, 'Ye gods, this person's naked. He is exposed'. And because they have different concept of breasts - our breasts are not sexual objects at all in our legend as you'll see Ngarla feeding my two-and-half years old grandchild and it doesn't matter if there are other people around she is free to give that breast to that child, because that breast belongs to that child. That child has absolute right to it. And I notice with my own grandchild, if she feels she wants to fondle one breast while she's suckling on the other, my daughter, because she's got this natural way about her, is able to do that. When she's sitting around with her Aboriginal family, Ngarla lets both her breasts hang out because Amelia likes to fiddle with the other while she's suckling on the other. But that's part of bonding, part of this security that Amelia feels. And it's beautiful to watch. You wouldn't be able to do that in Alice Springs because somebody will say, 'Oh look at the boobs hanging out of that woman. She's got no shame exposing herself'. It's not a matter of exposing. It's a matter of having, on demand, what is the right of that child. And that's what my daughter's doing. And I believe we are blessed to be able to do it out here amongst our people.
Do you have any other teaching responsibilities out here?
Yes, indeed I have. I've had the very, very great pleasure and joy and privilege of being part of one of my brother's ceremonies. He came back when he was about thirty-seven. This is a young man who had gone to school. His secondary schooling was done in Sydney. He'd worked in mining companies, and like myself, my brother questioned the meaning of his existence. And he came back here, to this country and asked his uncles if he could go through the ceremony of his grandfathers. And he did, and to us ... although I cannot discuss that in detail, to us that was the turning point in our lives, both of us, I think: to see what is meaningful and what isn't, it reconfirmed the suspicion that we had that money is not all about getting yourself a Rolls Royce, getting yourself a six-bedroom, four-bathroom house. It's not that at all. Existing is being of service and real, real service, and being of assistance to your fellow human beings. And we're doing that now, but Kenny's ceremonies was one of the things that reinforced that. It was there already, but it really brought it home.
And what's your role in taking care of Kenny's learning about Aboriginal ways?
Because Kenny was a young child, very young child when my mother died, he did not grow up bi-lingual like my older siblings and myself. He grew up with only English. Part of my responsibility has been interpreting to Kenny some of the very deep significance of parts of our ceremonial rites, R-I-T-E-S, because he did not understand, because he did not have that language. But he is more than willing. So myself, my mother, my mother's sister, our step-mother, and our aunt, and some other relations of his - there's a group of women that were involved during the ceremonies - that are responsible for his ongoing involvement and in-depth learning of the cultural responsibilities that he has.
And to become a proper Aboriginal man, how many ceremonies does that take? How long does that go on for?
It's ongoing. It's an ongoing ceremony. I mean most of the men here, they take off from where the group of people are and they travel through our sacred lands, and they sing and hunt and make sure everything is in place, exactly the way their forefathers did it. Our ancestors, our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers. So that still goes on here and my brother is a part of that because he is responsible for a tract of land, and in that tract of land is sites of significance, sometimes with objects in those places, and he has to go and make sure the songs are still sung, the waterholes are clean or whatever. And he goes through and does that, along with the rest of the men that are responsible for those areas.
These ways of doing things, are they the same in all the Aboriginal groups, or similar?
I would imagine they would be, yes. If you're ... if you're living a traditional life, this is part of your responsibility and it's part of the continuance of your religion, your existence as an Aboriginal person. So it is I should imagine, throughout the Territory anyway, and probably in other parts of Australia.
Now as you're an articulate, well-educated Aboriginal woman, who also understands the significance of tribal ways, there must be a lot of pressure on you to take a public role in a more formal way, in a more bureaucratic way. How do you work out that tension that exists between the private and the personal, and the public and the more ... the more, sort of, professional role of an Aboriginal person?
Well I suppose I can't really do it at this stage. Every now and then I do. I've got to be very careful that I'm not involved in any ... in any commercial venture. What is at stake is far more important than monetary issues. I believe what we're trying to do in our small way at Utopia is to have people that are genuinely interested in not only the Aboriginal cultural existence, but also in all humanity throughout. If they feel they've got something to share, and something to give, in a small way we're trying to start a eco-cultural tours out here, in small groups. Rather than perhaps me going from here, and being on stage or whatever elsewhere in Australia, it is better for me to do it here, at my home and in my environment and in my cultural group. And it won't be just Rose Kunoth-Monks, it will be a group of us, a group of people that are like-minded, that feels perhaps we need assistance, for other people to see what we're trying to hang on to, and why we're trying to hang onto it. Otherwise I might as well go like I did before and become just a carbon copy of the mainstream Australia, only my colour being different. And speak English, be exactly the same as anyone else, and try and fit in to other people, whereas I don't have to try and fit in, I am who I am here at home.
I get the impression that during the time that you were involved with Aboriginal politics, Aboriginal bureaucracy, you were always uneasy and disturbed, that you didn't like it much. Could you tell me what it was about it that you particularly didn't like?
It was a niggling thing that was in me. I felt people were giving us lip-service, saying, you know, 'There's the Aboriginal people. We're going to give them a little bit of a hand so they can take charge of their own destiny, do their own thing', within reason. We weren't going to become antisocial or anything like that. But the fact that we were being given an opportunity to retain our identity, our cultural laws, that, and I thought a little bit of money in maybe in environmental health, because we were having a lot of trouble with not enough food on the land as it was when our great-grandparents were alive. All that kind of thing, we're just going to make it a bit easier. But we were still going to make our own self-management, self-determination and all that. They're pretty words, they're nice. And that's why I was involved, I thought, 'This is real'. But in actual fact, it's not. What's happening in Aboriginal Affairs today, is that we have to learn to be accountants, we have to learn to be lawyers, we have to learn to be, what else? oh, name it, doctors. We have to be that way before we are accepted as human-beings in our own right. We have got our own doctors. They call our doctors witch-doctors. They're not witch-doctors. They are doctors. We have got our own lawyers. Some of the most learned persons that I know are full-blood - they call it full-blood but I don't like that - but are traditional Aboriginal people on our land. I've seen them take on a very difficult issue out here and there is not one raised voice. They have come to a consensus through intellectually dissected questioned format. They have come to an agreement. The whole lot must agree. It must be unanimous before whatever is put into place. These things you don't see in Aboriginal Affairs, in ATSIC or anywhere else, it's majority rules. Whereas out here it's unanimous. It's got to be before it's passed. Everyone must be happy with the topic in question being implemented. So what we're doing over there is foreign to what the traditional people are doing on their own lands and that's been so marked in this last two years. And the other marked thing is, the courtesy, the self-discipline, the conduct of the elders, whether it be women's groups, or men's group, or together, is above reproach. There's no swearing, there's no cursing, whereas in ... when I was in ATSIC the men got up there and they swore and they stomped and they called themselves Aboriginal men. Bulldust. They're not Aboriginal men. They are aggressive, political, almost anti-Aboriginal people. They're different. They're entirely different to the traditional Aboriginal person. I was getting to be a loud-mouth, half-witted idiot in that field. And I believed in my self-worth in there, and somewhere, somewhere along the line, something was saying to me, 'No, you're going away from your ... your Aboriginal roots. You're travelling a different line'. And that's the reason I came back. And I'm a better person for it. And I can say that without even feeling any doubts about it. I'm a better person because I've learnt to listen, I've learnt to control myself, I've learnt to say, 'No', to myself rather than saying, 'Give me. Give me the stage. Give me the money. Give me that'. I don't do that any more. The greatest pleasure out here ... [INTERRUPTION]
So what does that mean for you, day to day, now that you feel that you're sharing everything?
Oh, wait a minute, sorry. [INTERRUPTION]
This is so you can tell about your goanna hunting.
Oh, God, I've gone off.
I'll ask it again. So, getting back to what really matters in a traditional way, what did that mean for you every day in your life? What kind of things mean most to you?
Well it certainly isn't hunting for a bigger pay, pay packet, getting the latest model in cars. It's not that at all. It's being able to walk ... say, me, for instance, personally, being able to walk with my mother, my aunt. We might be gathering wild potatoes, or we might be looking for goannas, porcupines, anything like that, and once you're able to catch one, there might be twelve in that group, you share that. You don't say, 'I got this. I dug this out. I am eating the larger portion of this'. It's not that at all. Life's not about that. It's probably saying, 'No', to yourself even if you are really hungry, and looking around to all the rest of the family and saying, 'Well Amelia, my grand-daughter, is smaller than me. She needs maybe a little fraction more than me. My mother is older than myself, I will give her a bit more, and I will have what's left over'. That's what life is all about out here. It's not romanticising the whole thing at all. It's the fact that I'm living it. The fact that I am privileged, indeed, to be sharing it, in 1995, with my people, my own people, that care for me, not because I've got beautiful golden locks, or I've got brown eyes or I've got a red nose, because I am who I am, warts and all. They don't look at me to see what possessions I have, they look at me to see what kind of a human-being I am and what use I am to the group as a whole, whether I'm good for that group, or whether I'm a bad, bad apple. In the olden days if you were a bad apple you were pruned and cut and thrown away. So that's what I'm living now.
But in 1995 you're able to live this, and you say how privileged you feel that you can do that at this stage of the world. For the future, with the whole world changing around you, what hope do you have in your heart that this life can continue?
Well, I know my brothers and I, in our small way, are trying to make a stand to plead to the rest of the world that we have the right to live as long as we can, in the way which we choose to live as indigenous people of Australia. Not as a showpiece for the Australian government to say, 'Look, we've got these wretched people from the dirt and look what we've done to them'. It's not that at all. They've tried that in the assimilation process. They've tried it. They went out full-force and put up schools and everything else and did it. We gave them the chance, but we're still indigenous Australian Aboriginal people. And after being, myself, you know, for forty-odd years being in the white system ... and without hatred of that white system, I don't hate it. I love some of things in that white system. I love going to the supermarket, being able to pick up fresh fruit, yoghurt or whatever that my grandchild might need, and at this stage having the luxury to go and supplement that with bush food, like our wild honey and that, I love that. What I'm ... what I'm saying is, 'We do not want to be assimilated. We want to be helped in choosing the way we want to live. We do not want materialism to overcome and destroy our very, very existence, that of an Aboriginal person with his own rights to his land, with his own ceremonial rights'. That's R-I-G-H-T-S now - the rights that every individual human being should have to their customary law. We don't want that destroy in the ... you know, in the goodwill, maybe, of the Australian people trying to do something for us. It would be nice to say, once in a while, to say, 'What are your priorities? What do you want to do on your community?' Not send in a grant's controller or administrator or someone to say, 'You shall do this because it makes administration easier'. For heaven's sake, we're human-beings. And at the moment that's what upsetting me on this community that the departments can send in hit-men to do the bidding of those departments. That's wrong. Absolutely wrong.
Because of the great changes that have occurred say in your mother's lifetime to the amount of game and food that there is on this land, you can't really live off this land now, can you, alone? It can't support the community entirely without some supplement. How do you manage financially out here then?
Well, the majority, almost the whole lot - there's 684 here in my tribal group - we live off unemployment or job search, isn't it? I don't know where you can find jobs out here, however, there are members of families that are involved, say, in the health. We have health workers. There are people, or a person involved in the delivery of essential services. There are people involved in Aboriginal sport. And there is an Aboriginal liaison officer, one member of our family. So there are a few that have got jobs here but we live from fortnight to fortnight on unemployment. We are trying to find ways of creating an economic base on this particular community. We have a small mini-cattle company at Mosquito Bore. We have the Aboriginal artists who do their art and they're quite well-known throughout the world. We have the women's centre with our batik. And we have the community store where several Aboriginal people are employed. We're trying to start off, as I think I mentioned before, eco-tourism whereby a group of people could be involved, because to tell the Aboriginal story, there's no better person than the Aboriginal person, himself or herself. And particularly from that area, if we have people come to this part and share in our culture. We cannot and do not expect that the land can sustain us. However we're looking at maybe starting off small market gardens, not so much for profit but for sharing with each other. My husband and I did start this process before the floods and before the wild pig came in and ate it all up. And we did share. We shared melons of all descriptions, such as watermelons, rock-melons, pumpkins, squash, all that. We've had it and we shared it. And people said to us, 'Oh, we want a small garden like that', so that it can sustain at least with fresh greens in our own back yard. Goodness knows we've got enough land to do that. So all these are starting. Aboriginal Affairs, the bureaucratic Aboriginal Affairs, went around saying, 'We will do this for you, and that for you, as long as you behave'. That's not the way to nurture anyone. I mean you only have to look at child-rearing: you don't bring that child up to be dependent on you. You bring that child up to be independent of you. And this is probably the new direction. All people that are involved in Aboriginal Affairs, however rewarding it might be for them, but that's what they need to look at: to make the Aboriginal person independent of the bureaucratic system and bureaucratic individuals.
So that you look forward to the day when administrators won't be sent in to see how you are spending money that's given to you because you won't need it?
Yes, indeed I am. And I hope it won't be too far in the future. I mean we can look at probably a five-year community plan that says, 'We are working towards these goals'. And we can do that. We can work as a group and say, 'We are working towards independence of social welfare in the year dot, dot, dot'. And you can reassess at intervals to see how you're going. [INTERRUPTION]
Rosalie, you're a conservative person in the sense that you would like to keep some of the old things the way they've always been. But you're trying to do this in a world in which all young people are constantly being tugged in another direction, where we're surrounded by change, white and black, the world is changing. Do you feel that you're going to succeed in this battle that you've got to try to keep some of the old ways going?
Well I think my ... my belief and my faith is in the young people. People around my age-group, and maybe a bit younger, have really gone out and gone out for themselves in such a manner that it excluded other human beings benefiting from that particular individual. The excesses of sixties, seventies, eighties - I think ... I think all human beings should look at that and be ashamed of it. We went out and said, 'I want to be satisfied'. In the, the self-satisfaction or the immediate consumption of what you wanted, you forgot the need of the whole, a whole people, including your own children. And if we look at our history in the last thirty years, it's nothing to be proud of. I'm talking about generally. And in that of course Aboriginal people were dragged along. But I believe in talking and working and being easily accessible to young people. I like them. My faith is in them. I don't blame them from running away from self-centred parents, who's furniture meant more to them than the child. Or the shine in their car meant more to them than a young youth wanting to have a drive of dad's car. They put all their possessions in front of their kids. It's wrong. And then they say, 'Whatever did I do to my children, for them to turn against me?' Those children, they need something to touch their heart and to feel that they're worthwhile. But all we demanded from our children was good education, get up at such and such time, and get back, don't wander around the street, get back to look after the house until I get back from work. Because both parents have been working. And then we'd throw our hands up in horror and we say, 'Oh, my goodness. My kids are wild. What happened to them?' It's just plain to see we've neglected our kids. So ... so when you ask me the question, I believe our children are not going to put materialism first. They're going to put humanity first and they're going to put their earth and the globe before their wants and needs, whether it be imaginary or the excess, which their parents have had.
Among your own young people have you seen some of them struggling between the two worlds?
Yes. I have. I've seen our children with very little role-models. I've also seen our children being drawn in by the bright lights of Alice Springs and the immediate satisfaction that grog gives you to let all your inhibitions go. When you're drunk you don't care what you do or how you act. I've seen that, yeah. I've seen it too plainly. But I've also made my ... myself available and I've been helped and aided by a group that's been my daughter's friends and they're really beautiful people, the young ones. [INTERRUPTION]
So have ... have you got any examples of the young people wanting to learn something of the old ways? Do they come back and ask for teaching?
Well I think people like my brother Ken. I've had several young nephews that have gone through our lore. That's young people that have not grown up in the traditional Aboriginal villages. They've gone to Alice Springs or to Darwin or Sydney or Adelaide or wherever. Australia is a small country. Kids have gone away and they've grown up elsewhere. They've done their thing out in the wide world and they've come back and said, 'We want to go through our lore', I don't know whether because there has been concerted effort to highlight the other culture, which is the Aboriginal culture. Whether it's been glamorised, I'm not sure. But once people come back, young people come back, and they've lived here, they've seen that the Aboriginal cultural life is almost diametrically opposed to the materialistic European society, which is the other society or culture, here in Australia.
And do they sometimes find that difficult? Do the demands of the Aboriginal laws sometimes create difficulty for them?
Yes, it does. It might be a bit painful for me, but I had a beautiful nephew who went through the lore here and because of the potency of our ... our ceremonies and that, he committed suicide last year. That was a bit hard, but we overcame ... you know, we acknowledge that. But this ... this is a danger: to belong fully to the Aboriginal culture means that you've got to give your mind, your heart, and your whole body to that particular lore. You cannot skim along and be untouched once you've entered into that fully. So these ... these are tragedies that have happened. I guess tragedies of that type is happening all around Australia. One of the things that I was involved with, whilst president of Aboriginal Legal Aid, was looking into black deaths in custody. I also lost a first cousin in that ... in that type of circumstance.
Yeah, at Long Bay in Sydney. He hung himself. Well that's the story that we get. We don't know what really happened. But whilst being involved with that particular topic, I am aware of all the trag ... tragedies that happen day-to-day. I am aware of drugs that touch the young people. Not only black young people, white young people as well. My own daughter went through, two years ago, when in her own group a young girl was murdered by that particular group. And it wasn't a pretty murder. It was just senseless frenzy. So that kind of thing, yeah, I'm aware of it. I'm aware of alcohol killing some of our future leaders. Some of our young people that we know are responsible for the ongoing functions of our traditional lores are this day, drinking, and could be the alcoholics of tomorrow and will not be able to function as a leader and keeper of that priceless heritage. I'm aware of all that. But if I just threw up my hands in horror and said, 'I give up' ... I can't do that. I have to do my little bit, to be in there. There is always hope if we pull together, and two or three are together of like-minded people. [INTERRUPTION]
Now that you're living an Aboriginal life back in your own land, and concentrating so much on the Aboriginal ceremonies and the spiritual meanings of the Aboriginal world, what does the Christianity, that you've spent so many years of your life in, mean to you now?
Christianity. I've actually brought it into this life, physically. I have involved the Anglican church out here in Utopia. The context of the services, which we have once a month out here, are a true blending of the Aboriginal spiritualism and the Anglican doctrine or the Catholic doctrine, which I came to terms with years ago. So we have a beautiful service once a month. The priest from Alice Springs comes out. My son drives him out and my son assists during the formal ceremonies of the Anglican faith and my family, Atapulalanga [?], come together as an Aboriginal-Anglican, universal almost, group and we have our service.
Do some Aboriginal groups criticise you for this? Do they say this is a sort of corruption of what's going on out here?
Well you know I'm not interested in what other Aboriginal people do. I am interested in the well-being - emotionally, physically, and any other way - of my group.
And what do you think your group draws from this service?
We draw from it a relationship that is so deep and so meaningful that I can scream from the top of mountains and say, 'I've almost found the sacred way of life that fulfils not only me, but those around me'.
You have only one actual biological daughter. How many children do you have?
Oh, umpteen. I can't say. Like, at Mulga Bore, which is not far from us, about 40 ks away, the children that my sister, my first cousin in the white terminology, gave birth to are from my traditional promised husband. Aida is the surrogate mother of those kids. Oh, they're adults now. But the first responsible person for those particular people is me. They're my sons, and my daughters, as surely as if I'd given birth to them because by our lore I am the first mother to those particular young adults there. And their children are my grandchildren, exactly the same as my biological grandchild, which is Amelia. I think this is ... this is the beauty that kind of astounds me that I don't have to be the real mother for me to be actually a mother. It's like you being unable to have children and your sister carrying your children for you. It's exactly the same. So with Aida and I, we are two sisters. We are biologically first cousins. But she married my husband, my promised husband, therefore I am ... if she hurts, like she did, she did hurt one of our daughters, I go against her and say don't you touch my child and I take that child away from her. And this is permissible and my right to do so within the traditional context.
There's a certain pattern in your life ... [INTERRUPTION]
Have your ever felt, like some Aborigines feel, tempted to deny the white lineage that comes to you from your father's side? What does it mean to you, the white side?
Well my white side, I'm very, very lucky in that I've been able to trace it to my great-great-grandfather, who came out on a ship in 1845. I have never felt they are apart from me. I carry their colour along with that of the predominantly Aboriginal part of me. But I knew my grandfather. I loved my grandfather. I have cousins who are green-eyed blondes. Because their colour is different to myself makes them no less Aboriginal or human to me. They are my relations. It's exactly the same as having friends who are white. I don't remember their colour when I get on with them. It's exactly the same as having a husband who is white. I've forgotten what racial background he comes from. He's Bill. He's my husband. So it's exactly the same. If I feel that I've got time for negative hatred, I'm a failure. So therefore I haven't got the time to hate on the basis of colour because that's what I'm trying to break down. Colour is nothing. We are exactly the same underneath - with different languages and different beliefs maybe, but we're still human-beings.
There's a been a sort of pattern in your life, that, starting I suppose when you were taken away to film Jedda, that you've gone out into the world and then retreated afterwards. You retreated into the convent and then you felt you had to go out and take responsibility for the public work, and then you pulled back again. Do you see this pattern and is there a need in you for periods of sanctuary?
I think if every human-being's quite honest and truthful to their human frailties, no man can be self-sufficient as far as I'm concerned. If you feel you are going to be of meaningful assistance to your fellow human-beings, you must first of all feel that you have got something to offer. If I am lacking in the capacity to love, to understand, to have the patience to be able to help a fellow human-being, I cannot do that at half stream. Meaning, that I cannot have an existence that is full of turmoil and lies. and all that, in me and pretend to help somebody because you're not being truthful. To be able to cope and be of assistance to other people around you, you must first of all make sure you're healthy - body, mind and spirit. I believe that the charges I get, like a battery being charged, is back here on my land. After all, my first impressionable recollections are that of being a certain type of person: an Aboriginal girl speaking Aboriginal language, eating Aboriginal food, sometimes supplemented by grandfather with white food - that's the white grandfather. But that's my background, that's where I function. That's where I best express myself. When I'm talking in my language it all falls into place and makes sense. If I was talking to you now in my language I wouldn't have some of the frustrations I might be feeling now in trying to express myself in my second language, which is the English. I only learned that when I was about nine, when dad said I was a dummy because I couldn't speak English. But that is my second language. Therefore it makes sense whenever I feel threatened or swamped or drowning, I've got to come back to the place of my origins, and think about it and have those people that hold me in their hands, with no conditions or strings attached to it - come back there and renew my spirit and my soul. Because you are buffeted out there, especially in Aboriginal Affairs. You are buffeted, because there is so much greed, graft and everything else, that's really against caring and sharing, which is the most profound lesson you learn in the traditional Aboriginal life. So I've got to come back. I've got to renew myself and then I'm fit again to go back out and help whoever I can reach. [INTERRUPTION]
How important do you think security and certainty are to human beings?
I think it's fundamental to the way we function. If we're functioning ... functioning at half ... half-steam, if you feel inadequate, if you feel self-conscious about yourself, you're not going to be functioning at all for yourself, for the good of your self, for the good of your children, for the good of your husband, for the good of your relations, and for the good of your group of people around you. Not worthwhile.
You joined a political conservative party. Do you think this is because you are a conservative person?
Oh, I don't know whether I'm conservative. I think I'm out on a limb most of the time because I've got these ideals. They're not really ambitions. I've got these high ideals of what the human spirit is capable of achieving, with a little bit of self-sacrifice. I don't think that's being a conservative. I believe it's being an idiot in today's world. I don't mind wearing that tag because I don't really care about Rose Kunoth-Monks to the exclusion of other people. I am one cog in the wheel that kind of keeps us all going. Each human being is responsible to the other.
There is a strong belief that it was the missionaries and the Christian religion that really did a lot of the harm to Aboriginal people when this area was first settled. What do you feel about that?
I believe this could have happened if our Aboriginal people were idiots or fools. I know from my extended family at Hermannsburg, that when the missionaries said to them, 'Cover yourself up with clothes. Give me all your idols so that I may burn them', idols meaning, you know, objects that were ceremonial and things, yeah, they did it to them. They brought all the things to old Strehlow or whoever was there. And they burnt those things. But they weren't the real things. [Laughs] Our people are not idiots. All the meaningful real things that attached them to the land, and to the ceremonies of their forefathers, white men didn't see that. They hid those away. If later on, when people were under the influence of alcohol - this is the stories that I get back from certain members of family - if during that time those people gave the real things while they were under the influence, that was the tragedy. Not the fact that any invader can come in and say to us, 'Give me your objects and I will burn them'. That didn't happen. That didn't happen here either, because white man's not allowed to see those things. They're under the blanket. You can't see them.
How do you feel now when you go into Alice Springs?
Alice Springs to me is the other part of my background. It's a background of my grandmother, my father's mother. I go back to her grandfather. His name was Yearabla. [?] When the white man came to Alice Springs they called him King Charlie, because he was the obvious person in charge of that traditional group. So Alice Springs, the features of the land and the surrounding sacred sites, to me, is just as dear and beloved as the place of my birth, which is here and which is my mother's side. And then on the other hand Alice Springs is a place that has destroyed a lot of those things that are near and dear to me. And it's also a place where members of my family have lost their identity. Members of my family have lost their direction, the direction of being an Aboriginal person. So Alice Springs to me is a heartache. But when I see those ranges it can lift me too. But living with a heartache, I'm not the only one that's going through it. My daughter's going through it. My adopted son - I shouldn't say adopted, my son is going through it. And my cousins are going through it. As a matter of fact, my cousins from Alice Springs, and their off-springs, in the first week of August are coming out here so they can sit down and listen to some of the elders out here, and once again find their directions. So we're going through that exercise. We're trying to combat the assaults that have besetted us in the last fifty years or so. So there is hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and if there's a way, we will find it.
What sort of things, when you go into Alice Springs, that you see, sadden and distress you most?
You know what, I'm going to sound like a parrot: Aboriginal Affairs distresses me. When the stations were formed, like cattle stations out here, the white man lived in a certain area, but they didn't touch us. In this area, when I grew up my grandfather, my German grandfather, lived here but he didn't touch me, although he fed me all right, but he didn't destroy me. He didn't say, 'I don't want you to be a little black, black girl. I want you to be my grand-daughter'. He accepted me in the context of my Aboriginality. And he lived in the house. I lived in the camp with my people. And he didn't do me any harm. So I respected him and he respected me. So there is room, as long as you give that space and respect to each other. When grandfather was dying in Alice Springs, I went and saw him. I've got white relations in Alice Springs. I go and have a cup of tea with them. The next station from here is my father's second cousin. So there's no big deal. Nobody's discriminated against me in that way. There ... I'm aware there is dreadful discrimination and actions that have taken place. But the person that I am today, I can't apologise for that. I am what I am. And nor can I make up stories because it might be the done thing today to say, 'I hate all white people because Captain Cook came and destroyed my people'. I can't do that, and I don't think anyone has the right to tell me to do that.
When you go into Alice Springs and you see your people there, what are some of the things that you see that distress you?
Well I think the most obvious thing is the drunkenness. But, just to go back on that, when I left in '57, 1957 ... when I left the Aboriginal life was apart ... almost apart from the town. When I came back almost twenty years later in 1977, I noticed a tremendous difference. The Aboriginal culture had disintegrated. Young Aboriginal girls were just running free. Young Aboriginal men were just running free. This is in Alice Springs. So I really did get a cultural shock when I came back to run the Aboriginal hostel in Alice Springs. That was one of the things that I felt very, very strongly about: the fact that young Aboriginal people were coming into Alice Springs, removing themselves from the traditional lore, which holds you as a cohesive strong community on your land. You're not allowed to do anything wrong within that. Like here - 600 people - no individuals are allowed to get out of that and do their own thing to the detriment of the rest of the members of that particular community, or that traditional clan work. In Alice Springs it's a melting pot. There's no lore there, only the white man's law. So this is all very, very apparent to me. Actually it hit me like a tonne of bricks when I got home and I was horrified. And a group of women and myself actually did something about it. We marched through Alice Springs, a few years back, and we called on the Aboriginal people, not the white people, the Aboriginal people, to take control of their lives, to go back to their homelands, and to take up their responsibilities wherever they come from around Alice. So that's been done. So that's ... that, I think to me, is the biggest shock that I got: the lore-lessness, the drunkenness. And it's not a nice picture for anyone - for ourselves or for any visitors anywhere.
And you feel the solution is for people to go back to their own lands and start living more Aboriginal lives?
I don't say it's the solution, I'm saying that they've left those responsibilities, and the freedom in the white man's society, it's ... it's degrading, because it is free. You're allowed to go out with who you want to. You're allowed to sleep around with who you want to, especially young girls. You can sleep with a white man for a flagon if you want. If you feel like it. That kind of attitude. That's wrong. They no longer ... they become mothers of children somebody else has fathered and then another one ... there's a lot of that in Alice Springs. You don't have to be ... I mean you have to be blind not to see it. [INTERRUPTION]
After Jedda was finished, Bob Tudawali had a big problem with alcoholism and so on. Did you ... were you aware of that? Were you aware of his problem?
Well I couldn't have been really aware, it's just what I've heard, you know, from people who knew him. But as I said before, Bob was not of my people. He was a different person. And a lot of people probably feel that Bob and I formed a relationship of some kind. We didn't. Bob and I worked almost for a fleeting time, in my lifetime and in his lifetime too, in a film. But that's as far as it went. So I was not Bob's keeper, nor was he my keeper. Nor did he belong to my tribal group and I didn't belong to his tribal group. Just because our skins were black doesn't mean that, you know, we had a responsibility to each other. Not in those days.
He died tragically early didn't he?
Well I was still a nun then and a newspaper rang and said, 'Oh, did you hear about Tudawali's death?' Well it was just tasteless. I had no comments to make. I still haven't got much comment to make because I don't know the circumstances.
Did making that film make you feel that you had any particular responsibility because the spotlight was on you to behave in any particular way?
Not at that stage. I was a fifteen-year old kid going into sixteen, and I mean a kid. We were not sophisticated like today's young people. But I felt ... after I came out of the convent, I felt perhaps ... especially the media felt it was about time I took a nose-dive and, you know, did something outrageous like go into drugs or go on the street and, you know, do whatever other people do. That I felt and that people were expecting me, because I had a taste of the good-life, so-called good-life, for the success or whatever to go to my head, and because I was a black woman, for me to lose control and go stupid. I don't know what it is, but I certainly felt it, yeah.
What do you feel ... Sorry, I'll ask that again. Looking into the future, looking at your beloved little grand-daughter and all the other honorary sons and daughters that you have, what's the best hope you have for them as Aboriginal people? How would you like to see their life form and what's your vision for how things could be then?
It's very hard, that question. I believe the seeds that I sow today, I, along with the rest of the people that are responsible for my grand-daughter, and my grand-daughters and my other young ones, it's collectively what we put into those children. And I think the most important thing there, is to make sure those children feel that they're loved, that they're worth loving and that they accept their Aboriginality with no pressure. That's part of their heritage. And most of the children today, quite a few of them anyway, are of mixed blood. The other part, like in my grand-daughter, is that she would be, or she is, she's got Irish background. She also, through her father, have Gurindji, which is another tribal group a long way from here. She should know the history of the Gurindji people and they're the ones that marched off because they wanted equal pay. So Amelia's got a lot to be proud of. She is already bi-lingual. It is my duty to teach her her great-grandmother's language on this area. Although it's not her great-grandmother. In our way, that's her daughter's life and her daughter's culture and heritage. These are the things. You don't have to be a great child psychologist or anything, it's a matter of giving, but that giving must be quality rather than quantity. So these are the things you learn, I guess, when you have the time to sit still, meditate, have meaningful relationship with those around you. Those are the things you're able to give. Rather than Rose Kunoth-Monks remembering she's got a hairdresser's appointment on such and such a day. I've got to have a massage on such and such a day. Or I've got to throw my car into the garage on such and such a day. Those things are probably things that people need, but they're not my priorities. My priorities at the moment are having a dialogue and relationships with those around me, and I'm lucky enough those that are around me are the people I love.
You feel that Aboriginal education is very important for people, for your people. Aboriginal education is very important for the young people, what about European education? Do you think that's important and valuable for people now?
Yes I do.
Because as I said before, Amelia, my grandchild, is of mixed blood. But by the other ... even if my grandchildren, the other ones, are traditional Aboriginal people, the world is very small. If you're going to be empowered to live your life - empowered means having the skills to discriminate against what's right and wrong - you must have the knowledge of the world around you. The world is very small now, the global world. So instead of just having, like I did when I was growing up prior to Jedda, that there was only Alice Springs in the 1940s, prior to that there was only Utopia, instead of having that limited space to function in, to be empowered to make the right decisions, to make meaningful decisions, you must have access to what is out there in the wide world. But by the same token, the thing that makes you special, and Aboriginal, Amarjera-Aboriginal, you must also have that, because that's part of your foundation. And with the traditional Aboriginal people they're not ... they weren't inter-married everywhere else. They were here. And when you follow our lineage it's there, there and there. It's very neat and tidy and under control.
Even in your lifetime, some of the things that might have been insisted upon in your mother's life were relaxed a little for you, like for example, the marriage arrangements and so on. Some of the details were adapted or altered a little bit. Do you think that that has any real effect on spirit of Aboriginality? I suppose what I'm asking is that in the long-term, if certain adaptions have to be made, do you think that matters?
Well in my own personal life, the reason that there was dispensation made for me was I'm mixed blood. My white grandfather was here. My mixed blood grandmother was here, and on the other side the wise, most wise people are the Aboriginal people. And they take into consideration the feelings, not only of themselves, but of their off-springs, of those that are involved with that particular situation. They take all that into consideration. I think somewhere along the line I said some of the most learned Aboriginal, learned persons that I've known are the Aboriginal people here. They look at every angle prior to making a decision and then that decision must be unanimous. It's not majority rules, it's unanimous agreement. And that's what they did with the likes of me because I'm ... because I'm mixed-breed. They did that. Not through animosity, not through hatred, but for the convenience and the well-being of those particular individuals that were under discussion. My mother: my mother's life is preordained, and then something happened. My father came along who was of mixed-blood. So my mother in this area was probably one of the first women to go outside of her traditional bounds, and me, I was second-generation. Old news.
So you do think it is possible for some adaptation and accommodation to occur with the impact of other things happening around the Aboriginal people, and for them to still keep their core values?
Of course. Actually they're in the throes of that now. We're in the throes of trying to see now, because the funding body have got these conditions, which might exclude the very fundamental basis of our faith and our rituals, we have to come to some accommodation and agreement whereby we can say to the funding bodies, 'Okay, we will go along that line and follow that, but we will not go further than that. This is where we call halt'. And not that long ago they said, 'Oh, well if that's the way they feel we might as well burn the administration office and all the accommodation around the store there'. It's still not of the fundamental importance, not to have a house. It's still not our first priority.
What ... what are you having to make an adjustment for? What kinds of conditions are being laid on you now?
The conditions are now that you've got to have certain accounting things in place, you've got to have qualified administrator.
To receive funds. There are conditions of grant. Those conditions of grants have been set-up by bureaucracies and bureaucrats without consultation to the traditional Aboriginal people upon whom they are enforcing those rules. So you know, nothing makes sense. And if you're not thinking straight yourself, you could easily follow ... like a lot of sheep, follow along those lines that the bureaucrats set-up for you. The bureaucrats ... I mean we've got ATSIC in place now, all Aboriginal people elected by the blacks and, you know, they say that's the way you've got to go along because it's the black people. But I feel it's like Pontius Pilate washing his hands and saying, 'I'm no longer responsible to the blacks of Australia. The blacks can do it themselves now'. But really they've already, through the bureaucratic system set-up the ... set-up the way that's got to exist. [INTERRUPTION]
What do you think is going to happen to you when you die?
Well I don't really know but I have enough faith to know that there is a continuance of some spiritual form.
And what form do you think that might take?
I'm not sure, nor am I inquisitive enough to ask that question. It sounds naive, but I believe it's more faith than questioning.
And so you do believe that there will be a life that will continue on?
Well both in the Aboriginal mythology, in my area, and in my Christian faith, yes.
And will that be you, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks?
Not necessarily. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, to me, is just a body. It's a body that's here for a small time. Actually it's a twinkling of a time, and I don't really base too much importance on myself, quite sincerely. I think I'm just somebody that's passing through life like the rest of us. I'm not here to build a monument for myself.
Looking back over your life now, what do you think is the best thing you've ever done?
I've given, and in that giving I've had returned to me a hundred-fold, that has met the needs in me. In other words I have forgotten about myself in giving, but other people have remembered me and have given to me.
Regrets. I wish I could think of one. I really can't think of a regret. I probably will.
Nothing you would have had [happen] differently, nothing you wish you hadn't done?
A happy person in having my needs met. An unhappy person in seeing a lot of my relatives, and humanity too, suffering needlessly because we haven't taken time off for each other.