Australian Biography

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks - full interview transcript

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When you go into Alice Springs and you see your people there, what are some of the things that you see that distress you?

Well I think the most obvious thing is the drunkenness. But, just to go back on that, when I left in '57, 1957 ... when I left the Aboriginal life was apart ... almost apart from the town. When I came back almost twenty years later in 1977, I noticed a tremendous difference. The Aboriginal culture had disintegrated. Young Aboriginal girls were just running free. Young Aboriginal men were just running free. This is in Alice Springs. So I really did get a cultural shock when I came back to run the Aboriginal hostel in Alice Springs. That was one of the things that I felt very, very strongly about: the fact that young Aboriginal people were coming into Alice Springs, removing themselves from the traditional lore, which holds you as a cohesive strong community on your land. You're not allowed to do anything wrong within that. Like here - 600 people - no individuals are allowed to get out of that and do their own thing to the detriment of the rest of the members of that particular community, or that traditional clan work. In Alice Springs it's a melting pot. There's no lore there, only the white man's law. So this is all very, very apparent to me. Actually it hit me like a tonne of bricks when I got home and I was horrified. And a group of women and myself actually did something about it. We marched through Alice Springs, a few years back, and we called on the Aboriginal people, not the white people, the Aboriginal people, to take control of their lives, to go back to their homelands, and to take up their responsibilities wherever they come from around Alice. So that's been done. So that's ... that, I think to me, is the biggest shock that I got: the lore-lessness, the drunkenness. And it's not a nice picture for anyone - for ourselves or for any visitors anywhere.

And you feel the solution is for people to go back to their own lands and start living more Aboriginal lives?

I don't say it's the solution, I'm saying that they've left those responsibilities, and the freedom in the white man's society, it's ... it's degrading, because it is free. You're allowed to go out with who you want to. You're allowed to sleep around with who you want to, especially young girls. You can sleep with a white man for a flagon if you want. If you feel like it. That kind of attitude. That's wrong. They no longer ... they become mothers of children somebody else has fathered and then another one ... there's a lot of that in Alice Springs. You don't have to be ... I mean you have to be blind not to see it. [INTERRUPTION]

After Jedda was finished, Bob Tudawali had a big problem with alcoholism and so on. Did you ... were you aware of that? Were you aware of his problem?

Well I couldn't have been really aware, it's just what I've heard, you know, from people who knew him. But as I said before, Bob was not of my people. He was a different person. And a lot of people probably feel that Bob and I formed a relationship of some kind. We didn't. Bob and I worked almost for a fleeting time, in my lifetime and in his lifetime too, in a film. But that's as far as it went. So I was not Bob's keeper, nor was he my keeper. Nor did he belong to my tribal group and I didn't belong to his tribal group. Just because our skins were black doesn't mean that, you know, we had a responsibility to each other. Not in those days.

He died tragically early didn't he?


How did you hear about that?

Well I was still a nun then and a newspaper rang and said, 'Oh, did you hear about Tudawali's death?' Well it was just tasteless. I had no comments to make. I still haven't got much comment to make because I don't know the circumstances.

Did making that film make you feel that you had any particular responsibility because the spotlight was on you to behave in any particular way?

Not at that stage. I was a fifteen-year old kid going into sixteen, and I mean a kid. We were not sophisticated like today's young people. But I felt ... after I came out of the convent, I felt perhaps ... especially the media felt it was about time I took a nose-dive and, you know, did something outrageous like go into drugs or go on the street and, you know, do whatever other people do. That I felt and that people were expecting me, because I had a taste of the good-life, so-called good-life, for the success or whatever to go to my head, and because I was a black woman, for me to lose control and go stupid. I don't know what it is, but I certainly felt it, yeah.

What do you feel ... Sorry, I'll ask that again. Looking into the future, looking at your beloved little grand-daughter and all the other honorary sons and daughters that you have, what's the best hope you have for them as Aboriginal people? How would you like to see their life form and what's your vision for how things could be then?

It's very hard, that question. I believe the seeds that I sow today, I, along with the rest of the people that are responsible for my grand-daughter, and my grand-daughters and my other young ones, it's collectively what we put into those children. And I think the most important thing there, is to make sure those children feel that they're loved, that they're worth loving and that they accept their Aboriginality with no pressure. That's part of their heritage. And most of the children today, quite a few of them anyway, are of mixed blood. The other part, like in my grand-daughter, is that she would be, or she is, she's got Irish background. She also, through her father, have Gurindji, which is another tribal group a long way from here. She should know the history of the Gurindji people and they're the ones that marched off because they wanted equal pay. So Amelia's got a lot to be proud of. She is already bi-lingual. It is my duty to teach her her great-grandmother's language on this area. Although it's not her great-grandmother. In our way, that's her daughter's life and her daughter's culture and heritage. These are the things. You don't have to be a great child psychologist or anything, it's a matter of giving, but that giving must be quality rather than quantity. So these are the things you learn, I guess, when you have the time to sit still, meditate, have meaningful relationship with those around you. Those are the things you're able to give. Rather than Rose Kunoth-Monks remembering she's got a hairdresser's appointment on such and such a day. I've got to have a massage on such and such a day. Or I've got to throw my car into the garage on such and such a day. Those things are probably things that people need, but they're not my priorities. My priorities at the moment are having a dialogue and relationships with those around me, and I'm lucky enough those that are around me are the people I love.

You feel that Aboriginal education is very important for people, for your people. Aboriginal education is very important for the young people, what about European education? Do you think that's important and valuable for people now?

Yes I do.


Because as I said before, Amelia, my grandchild, is of mixed blood. But by the other ... even if my grandchildren, the other ones, are traditional Aboriginal people, the world is very small. If you're going to be empowered to live your life - empowered means having the skills to discriminate against what's right and wrong - you must have the knowledge of the world around you. The world is very small now, the global world. So instead of just having, like I did when I was growing up prior to Jedda, that there was only Alice Springs in the 1940s, prior to that there was only Utopia, instead of having that limited space to function in, to be empowered to make the right decisions, to make meaningful decisions, you must have access to what is out there in the wide world. But by the same token, the thing that makes you special, and Aboriginal, Amarjera-Aboriginal, you must also have that, because that's part of your foundation. And with the traditional Aboriginal people they're not ... they weren't inter-married everywhere else. They were here. And when you follow our lineage it's there, there and there. It's very neat and tidy and under control.

Even in your lifetime, some of the things that might have been insisted upon in your mother's life were relaxed a little for you, like for example, the marriage arrangements and so on. Some of the details were adapted or altered a little bit. Do you think that that has any real effect on spirit of Aboriginality? I suppose what I'm asking is that in the long-term, if certain adaptions have to be made, do you think that matters?

Well in my own personal life, the reason that there was dispensation made for me was I'm mixed blood. My white grandfather was here. My mixed blood grandmother was here, and on the other side the wise, most wise people are the Aboriginal people. And they take into consideration the feelings, not only of themselves, but of their off-springs, of those that are involved with that particular situation. They take all that into consideration. I think somewhere along the line I said some of the most learned Aboriginal, learned persons that I've known are the Aboriginal people here. They look at every angle prior to making a decision and then that decision must be unanimous. It's not majority rules, it's unanimous agreement. And that's what they did with the likes of me because I'm ... because I'm mixed-breed. They did that. Not through animosity, not through hatred, but for the convenience and the well-being of those particular individuals that were under discussion. My mother: my mother's life is preordained, and then something happened. My father came along who was of mixed-blood. So my mother in this area was probably one of the first women to go outside of her traditional bounds, and me, I was second-generation. Old news.

So you do think it is possible for some adaptation and accommodation to occur with the impact of other things happening around the Aboriginal people, and for them to still keep their core values?

Of course. Actually they're in the throes of that now. We're in the throes of trying to see now, because the funding body have got these conditions, which might exclude the very fundamental basis of our faith and our rituals, we have to come to some accommodation and agreement whereby we can say to the funding bodies, 'Okay, we will go along that line and follow that, but we will not go further than that. This is where we call halt'. And not that long ago they said, 'Oh, well if that's the way they feel we might as well burn the administration office and all the accommodation around the store there'. It's still not of the fundamental importance, not to have a house. It's still not our first priority.

What ... what are you having to make an adjustment for? What kinds of conditions are being laid on you now?

The conditions are now that you've got to have certain accounting things in place, you've got to have qualified administrator.

In order to receive money?

To receive funds. There are conditions of grant. Those conditions of grants have been set-up by bureaucracies and bureaucrats without consultation to the traditional Aboriginal people upon whom they are enforcing those rules. So you know, nothing makes sense. And if you're not thinking straight yourself, you could easily follow ... like a lot of sheep, follow along those lines that the bureaucrats set-up for you. The bureaucrats ... I mean we've got ATSIC in place now, all Aboriginal people elected by the blacks and, you know, they say that's the way you've got to go along because it's the black people. But I feel it's like Pontius Pilate washing his hands and saying, 'I'm no longer responsible to the blacks of Australia. The blacks can do it themselves now'. But really they've already, through the bureaucratic system set-up the ... set-up the way that's got to exist. [INTERRUPTION]

What do you think is going to happen to you when you die?

Well I don't really know but I have enough faith to know that there is a continuance of some spiritual form.

And what form do you think that might take?

I'm not sure, nor am I inquisitive enough to ask that question. It sounds naive, but I believe it's more faith than questioning.

And so you do believe that there will be a life that will continue on?

Well both in the Aboriginal mythology, in my area, and in my Christian faith, yes.

And will that be you, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks?

Not necessarily. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, to me, is just a body. It's a body that's here for a small time. Actually it's a twinkling of a time, and I don't really base too much importance on myself, quite sincerely. I think I'm just somebody that's passing through life like the rest of us. I'm not here to build a monument for myself.

Looking back over your life now, what do you think is the best thing you've ever done?

I've given, and in that giving I've had returned to me a hundred-fold, that has met the needs in me. In other words I have forgotten about myself in giving, but other people have remembered me and have given to me.

Do you have any regrets?

Regrets. I wish I could think of one. I really can't think of a regret. I probably will.

Nothing you would have had [happen] differently, nothing you wish you hadn't done?

[shakes head]

Are you a happy person?

A happy person in having my needs met. An unhappy person in seeing a lot of my relatives, and humanity too, suffering needlessly because we haven't taken time off for each other.

[end of interview]