Australian Biography

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - full interview transcript

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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.

Killing himself in prison?

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.

[end of tape]

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