Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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While you were nursing in India was there any particular thing that you did for a patient that stands out in your memory or any particular incident where you felt that you'd done a good job?

Well it was a delivery of a set of twins. And, in fact, to have a live birth was really wonderful and to, in fact, have a successful delivery of twins and, of course, I looked after them for many, many, many months, where in the evening - every hour throughout the day as well as the evening - I had to find these little twins under the clothing of the parents and the family because it was a big group there and they weren't in a little crib or anything. They were just there amongst the group, so I'd be stepping across the bodies at night, looking for them to feed them on the hour, and the interesting story about that was that there was an exhibition in the village at that time, and one was named Exhi and the other was named Bition.

Exhi and Bition, these were the twins?

Those were the twins, yes. So I must say I haven't heard of them or seen of them since, but it was certainly a delight to me to be able to rear them anyway, to ... up to about four months anyway.

Now travelling away from Australia and going to completely different people. Did that give you a different perspective on who you were?

Well it gave me a different perspective that, in fact, the Australian aborigines weren't ... weren't the only people that had been colonised and that they weren't the only people who were dispossessed. And so from that point of view, I think it gave me a broader perspective on indigenous cultures and, of course, it ... it made me of course much more determined ... [INTERRUPTION]

Travelling away from Australia, did that give you a different perspective on yourself, on your Aboriginality and so on?

Well it certainly did, but when I first got to India, of course, they were totally confused about ... about me and ... as to where I did come from and so on.

Why was that?

Well, I mean, obviously they knew ... they didn't know at that stage ... they knew I was an Australian, they would have known that, but they had no concept about Aboriginal people in Australia and they wanted to know more about that. In fact, if they could have ... if they could have got me to agree I would have had a ... I would have had a jewel in my nose, and I would have had rings on my ears and I'd have been in a sari, or one of the national dresses and so on. But I resisted that.

So in that area where you went to in Assam there were Mongolian people, there were other people. Who were the indigenous people for that area?

Well the indigenous people really were a group of people called the Santhali, and I didn't see them for a long time and they were very, very much like the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land. And ...

In appearance?

In appearance: tall, very dark, and were living very much a traditional way of life. So it was only when they were certainly in need of medicine that we saw them. And I was certainly very interested and excited about seeing the Santhali people, and ... but the people that I'd gone to actually work amongst were a people called the Boro people, and they were Mongolian featured people. However, in that area there were people who'd come from Bhutan, and from Nepal, as well as Indian people.

So did the Santhali people live in the mountains?

Well no, they were in the ... sort of in the jungle areas. They weren't mountain people at all, but I must say I didn't really get into ... into the village life of the Santhali people. I only saw them as they came as patients, to the clinic.

Now after all of this excitement and interest of going away and having all this responsibility in India for a year and then you had to come back to Australia, how did you feel about that?

Well, very quickly I got some publicity because I was the first ... the first evacuee, so the press was very interested in what had happened there, and, of course, the matron of the Royal Adelaide Hospital learnt very quickly that I was back in Australia and phoned me and asked me to come back to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which, of course, I agreed to do, because I needed a job and I went back, but I didn't stay very long, because everything seemed so small. The hospital being a very big hospital, but, of course, by this time I'd really been involved in something much bigger and I wanted to get involved in community nursing. And it was really at this time that I felt that I was ready to actually work amongst my own people, the Aboriginal people. I didn't join the Department immediately. I joined the Department ... I joined the Repatriation Hospital for a time, because I needed to save up some money, because I wasn't paid in India. And so it was then I started to turn my attention to putting my training into some good purpose in working for my people, because I'd always resolved that I would nurse amongst my own people, but earlier I'd not felt ready for it.

So you've now had the training. What was the vehicle? What did you find? Where did you go? And how did you do it?

Well I went to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which was a department, of course, that had been in touch with me quite regularly since I left the ... since I completed my training. And I'd continuously said, 'No, I wasn't ready for it', so I made the first contact and said I that I would like to take a position, but in the remote areas of Australia and, of course, my motive for joining the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was first to find my mother and second, to do a job in a community as close to Pitjantjara lands as I could find. So I was successful in getting a job as a nursing sister - welfare officer at Coober Pedy, which is the mining town right on the edge of Pitjantjara lands.

So over all these years that you'd been taken away from your mother and you had been really directed not to think about your origins, the thought of Lily had stayed with you?

Yes, all the time. And in fact if I was ever ... and I'm not an angry person, but if ever I was angry, I was angry about what had happened, not for my own sake but for my mother's sake, because I'd always thought about what my mother was feeling and whether in fact she cared, and whether in fact, she ever asked the question, where her children might be.

So did you find her?

Yes I did. I mean I arrived in the town of Coober Pedy. I went to the supermarket to get my stores to go out to what was known as the Aboriginal Reserve at that time, and of course I'm talking about the ... about the seventies - talking about the late sixties actually - and there was a group of Aboriginal people sitting outside the supermarket who said, 'That's Lily's daughter', and with that, of course, I'd known some of the language, so I went over and in the language said, , 'Yes, you're right, I am Lily's daughter'.

That was just from your appearance?

Just from the family resemblance, which of course was brought home to me when I finally did, but it was three months later, and I'd have to say, I mean the people were very upset and said, 'You should go now, your mother's at Oodnadatta and we want to take you there'. But obviously the bush telegraph conveyed to her very quickly that I was in Coober Pedy and I prepared to go there at a time when I could. And the people came regularly to my ... my nurses' quarters out on the Reserve and we talked about my mother and where she was and who they were and, in fact, two of them: one was my ... my mother's brother and one was my mother's sister. So there I'd found an aunt and uncle and many others, of course, were very closely related to me, but not as closely related as they were. So we talked about it and I decided that I'd bring my elder sister to Coober Pedy for the Christmas break. We'd have a Christmas party for the Aboriginal community there, and we'd make arrangements to go through to Oodnadatta, which we did.

Why did you wait so long?

Well I had a job to do and my job, of course, was the nursing sister and I had to really be careful because as I'd said before that my ... my whole motive was, of course, to find my ... find my mother. But once again, I suppose, I [was] brought up to be disciplined and to do things in a proper way, and so ... and I needed a job and I didn't want to risk that chance of losing my job, because I was leaving to go through to find my mother. So I took the opportunity to find out more, to make the contacts at Indolkina and they were the people who finally took me and my sister through to Oodnadatta, so we stayed and did what we had to do, had the Christmas party and then headed through to Oodnadatta to meet mum.

And what happened when you got there?

Well it was a bit of an anticlimax for me because I'd always believed that I was the youngest child, and I certainly was the youngest child that was taken away. And my mother, of course, had not received a message that Eileen was coming through, and Eileen was the eldest, and when finally we got to Oodnadatta it was dark and mum had returned to the camp and we'd indicated that we wanted to see her that night and they'd gone through and brought her and, of course, Eileen was the most important because she was the first child you see. And it had come as quite a surprise to my mother that Eileen was coming through as well. And so it was ... it was a ... a good ... a good feeling of meeting my mother, but my mother, of course, seemed to get very agitated and disinterested very quickly and I guess I read the signs and said, you know, 'What was the trouble?' and I gathered that she thought we'd come to stay and that she couldn't provide for us in the manner that we were accustomed to. So I said, 'Well it's okay mum, you know, we're staying at the hotel tonight and for the period we're here'. With that she smiled and disappeared into the night. And for that whole trip she made a point of coming to the hotel every morning, picking us up, escorting us around the town, very proud to introduce us to the people in the town and took us back to the hotel every night. And so ... and that was to steer us away from her conditions. And so, because I was working in the area and I did have responsibility for ... for the more remote areas later, after that Christmas break, because the nursing sister had rolled a vehicle and she'd gone south for treatment, so I took over the patrol as well as Coober Pedy. I took over that control and ... which took me back into Oodnadatta two to three weeks later and I arrived in the town and I said, 'Where's Mum?' and everybody, you know, pointed to it, and I went straight to the camp and you know, things were okay from then onwards.

Why didn't she want you to see the camp?

Well I mean she'd realised, of course, that after meeting us, that we ... well the main reason was she'd thought we'd come to stay and she couldn't provide for us.

Did she feel ashamed of where she ...

Yes, obviously she did, yes. And ... but once I you know, reached out to her, she was much more comfortable about that and it wasn't such a problem any more. It was a problem for me in so far as I felt a responsibility to provide for her in a better way. But given my obsession, I suppose, with not ... not exercising nepotism, something that I'd always preached and continued to do so, I, of course, had to practice what I preached and it was, of course, a long time before I was able to ... to provide better conditions for her, because I was responsible for the whole community and the whole area, in fact, and didn't have a particular responsibility that was to provide for better housing and so on, but I made it my ... my business to tell the authorities for which I was working that the conditions were totally unsatisfactory and that my mother was part of that community. But, of course, there were others who were provided for before she was.

You couldn't have provided for her out of your own resources?

No, I was not in a position to do so at that time. I mean if we were talking about, you know, today, it'd have been quite a different proposition but certainly I was not in a position to provide for her out of my resources at that time.

What were the conditions like?

Well the conditions were just a corrugated iron humpy and, of course, there were no benefits flowing to any of the people there and, of course, by this time my mother, as well as the rest of the community, were involved in all the things that happen in Aboriginal communities of people who are dispossessed in that sort of way, and she was, you know, sort of, hitting the grog, and you know, sort of ... very badly and so was my two sisters, because there were two other sisters that I'd met at that time as well. And so that was fairly painful as well, to have to deal with that particular problem.

They were the sisters that hadn't been taken away?

They were the sisters that hadn't been taken away and I'm not sure even really at this stage whether they're ... they were half. It wasn't really an issue with us at all, but I think that they, they weren't the children of Tom O'Donoghue. But by this time she was now living with a man by the name of Mr. Woodford. So she was referred to as Lily Woodford at that time and so was one of the girls. But the other one wasn't. By this time that other girl was married ... sister was married. And she was Bibi McCallum and she had two small children.

Was Mr. Woodford a white man?

Mr. Woodford was part Aboriginal person and he was very ill at that time. And that was the first and the last time I saw him.

How did you feel on that first night when you saw Lily? I know she was more interested in your sister than she was in you and ... but how did you feel when you saw her there that night?

Oh very happy, very happy and immediately, of course, the thing I thought, well, I can understand why the people in Coober Pedy knew, you know, that I was Lily's daughter because, you know, we're just so much like her. And she was a very, very happy person, in spite of her conditions and a real sense of humour. And in later years, of course, my husband came to know her and to love her and to ... in fact, he wanted for us regularly to travel in that area and we went to Oodnadatta many times. [INTERRUPTION]

The night that you actually met your mother in Oodnadatta, what sort of feelings did that bring up in you?

Well I was happy, very happy, but I was also sad in the sense of thinking, you know, that mother couldn't provide in the way she had obviously hoped she could. But it wouldn't have been until she met us, of course, that she would have realised, of course, that, you know, we were, I guess, as sophisticated as we were. And I don't know what she would have thought.

So you stood there really and saw the huge gap between you and your life, and this old woman who looked so like you, but whose life was so different.

Yes, you know, there were very, very mixed feelings. Never a feeling, of course, of rejection. Never a feeling of rejection. But a feeling of sadness, reaching out to her because of what had happened and thinking about what she must have been through for all those years and, of course, a feeling of inadequacy, I suppose, of how we were going to cope.

Was there an awkwardness there for you? I mean did you immediately embrace or did you ... the little girl who'd been brought up not to show too much feeling - how did you get on?

Oh no, no, we did embrace. But obviously it wasn't ... it wasn't returned in the same way because I think, you know, in the traditional way, Aboriginal people don't embrace in that manner so it was a bit of holding back, I suppose, as to whether we were doing the right thing. And ... but I guess it was spontaneous for us but a little bit of nervousness about how ... how it would all affect her.

She knew you were coming from the grapevine. Had she been waiting for you?

Yes, she had. She had waited three months. From the day that she heard that I was in the area, she had waited on the road from sun up until sun down and on the night that we came in of course, we'd come in very late, so she had sort of returned because I mean her ... her camp of course had no lighting so, I mean, once it was dark it was really time to settle down.

Even now, you feel emotional when you think about this.

Yes I do. I never ... I just can't cope with the ... you know, with the thoughts of what had happened and ... not for myself but for all those years that she, in fact, didn't know where her family ... where her family were.

... And what that had done to her life.

... And what that had done to her life. And I guess it had caused, in fact, some of the problems that we saw while we were there in terms of her ... her drinking, because she must have had to, in fact, you know, cover up many of the emotions, and so on, that she felt about that.

But given what happened to your two sisters who weren't taken away, did it ever ... did you ever think about the possibility that had you remained you might have ended up like that?

Well yes, it has and I've thought about that, but on the other hand I don't think one could ... could ever condone what ... what had happened to us and while I feel, not so much about ... I've not really thought too much about the fact that I could have ended up in the same way, but the thing that really, I guess, was impressed upon my mind, because I'd learnt also at the same time, that I had a promised husband. And I guess that was the thought, more than anything, that I had: I was glad that in fact that I'd not stayed. I mean while he was a very ... I met him, and he was a old man, a very mischievous old man, I might say, with a great sense of humour and so on, but I thought to myself, when I did meet him ... I met him actually many years later. I heard of him at that time, but I met him years later, because he was actually working for the Adelaide University, teaching them about Aboriginal music, and it was at that stage he used to tease me and say he was going to come to my camp and I would tell him, of course, also just as mischievously that I was now married to what we call a wadjila, which was a white man, and that, you know, he couldn't come to my camp.

But in tradition ... but in traditional life, he would have been your husband?

Yes, he would have been, yes.

So what did it do to your sense of your own identity to have re-met this whole life that you would have lived if you hadn't been taken away?

Well it brought on a whole new meaning and a whole new dimension in my life. One was to actually do more and to throw myself totally into Aboriginal affairs. And the second was, to know more about the traditions, but that I was going to do that by my involvement in the nursing and the welfare field. But on the other hand I didn't really look to get too heavily involved, I suppose, in the ... in the traditional way and I think some of that was as a result of knowing that I had a tribal husband, and what that might mean. But the strongest feeling was that new dimension that came into my life that I really was going to devote my whole life to the Aboriginal cause.

Did you feel a sense of great anger at the people and the whole attitude that had done this to your mother?

No, I didn't.

No blame?

There was no blame, no blame laid at all. But I think partly that was a ... there is a unwritten law, I suppose, amongst the Colebrook children, not to criticise the missionaries. And one hasn't done that either. Certainly not during their ... while they were living. Some have.

Why was that?

Out of sense of ... out of a sense of ... oh, what's the word?

Respect?

Respect.

Loyalty?

Loyalty for them. And so ... and that still continues really to many, to this day. And some won't be happy to hear me criticise, even ever so slightly, as I'm doing, at this time, to hear any criticism at all of the missionaries.

But it wasn't just the missionaries, was it? There was a policy, a government policy, that was doing this and if it wasn't the missionaries it would be the police and welfare. So it was a broader thing that said that it was okay to take babies away from a grieving mother and leave her with that devastation. I mean, if ... if something could politicise anybody, it might be that kind of realisation that that had been done. And it's interesting that you didn't feel a sense of wanting to take revenge or do anything like that.

Well I think it was just loyalty and the thought that what would the rest of the family think of me, and I mean the Colebrook family for ... for just doing that. And I just felt that there was another way. There was another way.

And what was that way?

And that way was to get totally involved and for us to fight for better conditions and to move forward. There really wasn't a great deal we could do about the past history. And so, you know, I wasn't to dwell on it, but it was at this time, of course, that we were getting heavily involved in the ... in the Aboriginal movement and the fight for the referendum, because I was involved with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander, which, of course, was the main organisation that was, you know, fighting for better conditions. But, of course, at this time also ... I was getting much more heavily involved in finding out more about my past and ... and the traditions, and so I guess I was ... I was really doing both.

How did you find out more about the traditions?

Well I did that because I was working, you see, as a ... as a nurse in the area and so I ... I visited on a regular basis to ... to, I guess, see for myself more than anything, because I wasn't fluent with the language and I was always mindful that I didn't want to delve too deeply in things that might be taboo for a woman.

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