Australian Biography

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - full interview transcript

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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.

How old was she?

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.

And so what did you do?

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?

Mmm. Yeah.

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.

You don't know?

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.

[end of tape]

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