Australian Biography

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

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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.

With an Aboriginal midwife?


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.

And who was your mother?

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.

Why can't you say her name?

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?


And who was your father?

My father's name was Allan Kunoth. He was from Alice Springs of a German, part-Aboriginal parentage.

Right, so his father was German?


And his mother?

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.

He became reconciled?

Yes, indeed.

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.

Did they name it Utopia?

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.

Why weren't you taken away?

Good fortune.

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.

Who actually ran the school?

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.

But not very much?

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.

[end of tape]

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