Australian Biography

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - full interview transcript

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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.

How were they doing that?

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.

And what happened?

We stopped it of course. What else? [Laughs]

You were successful?

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.

So what did you do next?

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.

[end of tape]

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