|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: July 12, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
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.
You accept what comes?
Yes, Indeed. [INTERRUPTION]
And you named her Ngarla?
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.
[end of tape]