Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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In your early years, as you were fighting to be accepted as a nurse, you were offered the chance to be made exempt from being an Aboriginal. What did that mean, to be exempt?

Well what that meant, of course, that I would sign a document that I would ... I was now prepared to give up my Aboriginality to become a white person and, of course, we referred to that as a dog medal. I, of course, resisted that all throughout my nursing career and, of course, by the end of that time, it was coming to the end, I guess, of that particular protection era but it was rather a lot of pressure, a weekly pressure from the Protector of Aborigines to come and sign the necessary documents for that to happen. But by that time I felt that I was ... I'd been accepted at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and while things were difficult, I had confidence that I was going to make it on my own.

When you were trying to get entrance as a nurse and you first became active as an Aboriginal, was it suggested to you that you should apply to become an exempt Aboriginal. What exactly did being exempt mean? What were you exempt from?

Well, I guess, all it meant was that I would become a white person and that meant, of course, that I would have the ... the opportunity to actually associate with white people, and above all it seemed as if I would have the right to enter a hotel and, of course, I wasn't interested in really ... I didn't think any of those things were all that important to me at the time.

So you were actually exempt from being protected under the Act, were you? Was it because of the notion of Aboriginal protection?

That's right. And, of course, what it meant was that I had to go to the office of the Protector of Aborigines, sign a document wherein I received a certificate, which meant, of course, I was no longer an Aboriginal person.

And what was this called among Aborigines?

Well it was called the dog medal.

And why was it called that?

Well I think because it was distasteful and we felt that, in fact, we were being tagged and it was resisted by many but, of course, the ... those of our men who joined the armed forces for the most part signed an exemption form because they didn't want to be treated any differently from others and we understood that, that for them they felt they didn't want to be seen to be treated differently and didn't want to be outside the hotels when their mates were actually celebrating.

So even though you had been brought up in a system that was meant ... designed to make you reject and resist your Aboriginality, you still valued it sufficiently not to want to give it up.

Oh yes, very definitely.

Why do you think that was?

Well I think it was because all our life, of course, we'd been ... we'd been treated like we were Aborigines and we always knew, of course, that we were ... we were different and so we really ... we really cherished that. And the other aspect of it, of course, we weren't all that accepted in the white man's world and there was always a difference made. So I think we ... we hung on to what we felt comfortable with.

Now having got that out of the way, we'll leap ahead now to where we were yesterday. Working as a nurse welfare officer, in Central Australia, what actually did you have to do?

Well I was responsible for the ... the welfare of the Aboriginal people, particularly in the Coober Pedy area at the time when I went there and what that meant, of course, was ... one of the big things of course was collecting all the children up from the camp areas around Coober Pedy, bringing them in to the Aboriginal Reserve and putting them through the showers. Because the Aboriginal people had no facilities and the children were required ... it was compulsory for the children to be at school. So that was one of the jobs that ... that I had and that was putting them through the shower and putting them into their school clothes and then taking them off to school, as well as preparing their lunches to go there. But at the same time of course I was responsible, if in fact they were ill, the children as well as the Aboriginal people in the camp situation, that I would tend to that. I had a small clinic at the Reserve and the hospital was close by. So I attended to those matters as well. But in the time I was there, I wasn't really happy with the ... with the situation that it was my total responsibility to be responsible for the children, to pick them up. So I began to involve the parents in that exercise to come themselves to the Reserve and shower their own children and begin to take some responsibility for that. However they couldn't take total responsibility because they didn't have the facilities themselves and we moved, of course, fairly quickly, towards improving the housing conditions and getting Aboriginal people into houses either on the Reserve or in the township of Coober Pedy themselves, which made them much more responsible for their own family.

What were the worst problems you dealt with during this time?

Well alcohol of course was a major problem and so it was difficult to get the Aboriginal people - that is the families - to be responsible for their children. But I must say I was really pleased with the ... with the ... the efforts that I made and the results that were forthcoming because I think really governments in the past had taken total responsibility and Aboriginal people really didn't feel that they were responsible any more because governments had come in and taken responsibility for them, so they were losing a sense of responsibility for their family and pride in themselves and their family and I was able to see in a very short while some results from that and, in fact, some Aboriginal people getting off the alcohol. There were some families who did that in the short time I was there and who wanted to be much more responsible for their families.

So the strategy of offering responsibility for their own lives, you saw working in a quite practical way.

Oh yes, I did and, in fact, it wasn't done by governments before. But I felt that because I was close to the people and they were all in one way or another related to me in the extended family, that they responded to my presence and I ... I think that they realised, of course, that ... and to some extent I think I might have been a model as well for them in seeing what was possible.

Were you the first nurse welfare officer to be Aboriginal in that area, operating in the community?

Yes, well I was in the Coober Pedy area, but before me there was Faith Thomas, who actually grew up in Colebrook Home, who trained as a nurse as well at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and she was on nursing patrol in the further north, in the Pitjantjara lands proper, but by this time she'd left the area and I'd also done several patrols throughout that area.

Now what was happening in your personal life? By this time you were over thirty-five. Had you had anything to do with prospective husbands? With boyfriends? Did you ... what part were men playing in your life at this stage?

Well I had actually. When I went to the ... after I came back from India, I met a ... a man by the name of Gordon Plumer Smart, who was a medical orderly at the hospital that I was working at, and he, of course, had indicated to me how he felt about me, and I was actually quite, I suppose, surprised about that, but the difficulty with that was that he was a married man with a family and I'd been brought up, of course, quite strictly in relation to those sorts of matters and he was also a man that knew my ... my brother-in-law. He's served in the Second Tenth Battalion and had broached the subject by saying that, 'I ... you know I was in the army with an Aboriginal man', and I said to him, 'Yes, well ...', when he told me who it was, I said, 'Well he's my brother-in-law', and he was married to my elder sister. So really at that time I indicated to him - and we're talking about 1962 at this time - that I couldn't in any way continue a relationship with him.

It was only because he was married? I mean were you attracted to him yourself?

Yes I was. But it was because he was married and so I indicated to him that he should discharge his responsibilities to his young family and that if, in fact, I was still around and available when his children were off his hands, well then obviously I'd ... I'd be interested. So, I guess, throughout the whole period ... We finally married of course in 1979. By that time his children were, of course, all married. And we'd kept some contact, writing letters and that sort of thing.

But it didn't go any further than that?

No, it went no further than that, until such ... until I later, of course, left Adelaide and went back to Quorn to live in the country and at that stage he was retiring and he joined me at Quorn.

So really you stayed faithful to that idea over twenty years.

Yes, I did.

And you really cared for him.

I cared for him very much. And ... and we did, you know ... we wrote letters and we saw each other on a number of occasions when I visited the city. But all throughout this time, of course, I was moving from country hospital to country hospital and then, of course, to Coober Pedy, the remote areas and part of the reason, of course, was to make it a bit easier for myself as well. But, so, yes, that happened.

Was it easier for you if you didn't have to see him all the time?

Oh yes it was much easier for me if I didn't have to see him all the time. But the sad thing about it all, of course, was that his wife felt that I'd broken up the marriage, when I consider what I'd gone through, you know, through all of that time. But anyway, finally we married and we had thirteen good years together. He was a very supportive husband, supported ... in fact I think we had a virtual marriage contract that I would want to continue my involvement in Aboriginal affairs and he didn't stand in the way of that and he supported me through all that time and ... not that he always supported Aboriginal ... all of Aboriginal policy. I mean we had quite ... some quite heated arguments from time to time about the way Aboriginal affairs was going and he always had a view about, about everything, as I think over those times ... I think that was because he didn't want to always feel that he was dominated by the woman and that he did have a view on almost everything.

The fact that he was white and you were Aboriginal, did that create any difficulties?

No, none whatsoever. He was very, very well received. He was better received of course by ... by my people than I was accepted by his family. I wasn't accepted by his family at all and the ... I had had contact with his son a little bit earlier, but really the main contact that I had with his family was after his passing, when I notified them and they came to the funeral and so we do have contact now, but not a lot of contact. But at least we were able to say that it was a pity that it had to be left so long before, you know, we got to know each other.

How long ago did he die?

In 1992.

You miss him?

Yes I do.

During the years that you were waiting to get married, did you have any difficulty persuading him to your view that ... that it was important for him to stay and rear his family?

Oh well, yes, he certainly would have liked to have eloped and got married and so on, but I guess he knew that ... that I was serious about it and he got on, of course, with his life, hoping that every now and again he'd receive a letter or he'd get a note in the letterbox to say that I was in town or something to that effect so he did accept that what I'd said was what would happen.

Now after meeting your mother, you've said that you really decided then that you had to commit yourself to the Aboriginal cause and become quite political in your activities there. What form did this take? What did you actually do over the next years of your life to advance the Aboriginal cause?

Well, while I was working in the ... the state Department of Aboriginal Affairs, I also ... outside of the workplace, I was involved in every Aboriginal movement that there was. And there was the National ... there was what we call NADOC, which is the national celebration of Aboriginal people, and at that time, of course, there were many non-Aboriginal people involved in that, but we quickly took that over. And I was involved in the other movements, like setting up the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal medical services, the Aboriginal Women's Council, education and also in the housing area. This was a time of course when there wasn't any federal funding for Aboriginal affairs, but we still formed them, these organisations, working on a ... on a weekly basis, having meetings and working towards improving the conditions for Aboriginal people in all those areas. But, of course, it wasn't until 1973 that ... and that was in the Whitlam government, when funds began to flow in to Aboriginal affairs from ... from the federal area. So we were relying, of course, on the ... on the goodwill and donations of non-Aboriginal people during those years and also by fundraising ourselves, and whenever we wanted to go to ... to state and international conferences, we ... we paid for that ourselves. We hitchhiked, we stayed in caravan parks and if somebody was fortunate enough to have enough money to pay for a room, we virtually all camped in there. So they were interesting and they were exciting times. They were hard times. But often ... but they were times of real ... real unity amongst Aboriginal people and sometimes I look back and think that they were ... they were the times that I really ... I really enjoyed and sometimes wish we were back there in terms of ... because I think we had greater unity then, than we have now.

So you had an optimistic spirit, and a sense that you were all going in the same direction, but you didn't have much money to do it with.

No, that's right. And ... and we seemed to have a lot of solidarity in those days and we appreciated each others commitment and particular experience and expertise in particular areas and we ... we relied on each other very much in those days and it was really a very good feeling to work ... working towards together ... towards a cause.

Did you take a leadership role right from the beginning?

No, I don't say that I did. I did, I guess, in the ... in the women's movement, but I only saw myself as really part of the team, and to some extent, I guess, I had a bit more education than the others that were involved. And also, you know, I was single. I wasn't tied in any way and so ... and many of the others of course were ... had married young and they had families, so they had other commitments. So from that point of view I guess I gave a lot of time and effort to it, but I didn't see myself necessarily as the ... as the leader of the group. I was just one of a group.

What difference did it make in 1973 when the Commonwealth became involved? What difference did that make to you and to what you were doing and to the Aboriginal movement generally?

Well the difference it made to me personally was that I was employed in the ... in the state Department of Aboriginal Affairs and it was really that state office of Aboriginal Affairs, it was dealing with Aboriginal policy issues that became the first office - the federal ... the first federal office of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. So that's the difference it made to me and it was as at that stage I was the most senior Aboriginal person who was actually transferred across to the ... to the Commonwealth Government and it was there that I saw an opportunity for me, of course, to reach the goal of being the head of that ... that department in a short while and I had an ambition to do that.

Why?

Well because I just felt that really I'd ... I'd worked long and hard in the interest of my own people and I felt that taking up the senior post in South Australia would enable me, of course, to have greater input into Aboriginal policies and be able to push for greater self-determination for Aboriginal people, but it didn't. It didn't work out quite the way I wanted it to. I did become the Regional Director of the ... and the first Aboriginal person in Australia to head a ... a department - state or federal - of Aboriginal Affairs, and I was really very keen to consult with Aboriginal people and it was the early days of funding of Aboriginal community organisations, and I began early to consult Aboriginal people and the organisations and brought them in annually to talk about the budget that we would put as a state to the Federal Government and, of course, the budget was always far in excess of what was available to us and so I had to get Aboriginal people to see that ... that our expectations, of course, weren't going to be realised. And the thing, of course, that frustrated me most, [was] that because I'd put in so much effort to consult and to set ... get Aboriginal people themselves to set what they saw as the high priorities in Aboriginal Affairs in South Australia, and then to find that the efforts that we'd made when it came here to central office, you know, a red line was drawn through all of that, and the bureaucrats decided they knew what was better for us. So I didn't stay very long. I stayed ... I was twelve months in that, that office. There was much effort, of course, by the secretary of the department, here in Canberra, to get me to change my mind and to stay, but I decided that I could do better outside. I left, of course, without any prospects of a job, and that was then when I decided to return to Quorn in the Flinders Ranges and work outside of the Department.

And how did you do that?

Well I did that first of all by moving to Quorn and found a small cottage that ... that I bought, but together with my ... with my husband. He wasn't my husband at that stage, but he was to be my husband within twelve months of going to Quorn and we bought this house together and I quickly found a job with the Education Department as a Aboriginal Liaison Officer and that was helping the Education Department to deal with the Aboriginal children in school and the ... the racism, of course, in the ... and that was in Port Augusta, which is a town at the top of Spencer's Gulf, just a small distance from where I lived to deal with the problems in the town and the problems within the school. But within a very short time - space of time - the National Aboriginal Conference elections were to be held, and I'd had some dealings with the former elected body, which was the NAC - the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee - and while I was in the Department, I'd worked towards the elections for the NACC, and ... but by this time I was outside and I nominated for the, for the election and got ... and was elected, was successfully elected, and became the first chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference. So therein, I suppose, really started my ... my political career, outside of the Department.

So here you were having left the Department out of sheer frustration that you couldn't get done what needed to be done, but now you were catapulted back into a situation where that department was going to be a department you'd have to deal with.

Yes, but I was dealing with it from outside and so while we weren't the formal ... we were really a political lobby, and we ... it wasn't ... the NAC wasn't established under legislation, so it was a loose coalition, I suppose, of elected representatives acting as a ... as a political lobby, always wanting, of course, to be the formal advice to government and hope the government would seek our advice. And so we became a force to reckon with, even though we weren't the formal advice to government. The government, of course, had changed by this time. We now had a Liberal Government in power, who had ... who still supported, of course, the elected representatives and so, of course, that body went to two elections and then it ... it was abolished, and mainly because it, I guess, was acting as a political lobby and not giving ... giving advice to government and towards the end, of course, of the time that it was abolished, it was ... it was then recognised as a formal advice to government. But government interpreted that it wasn't giving the advice, either the advice that it wanted ... that it was abolished.

And what happened to you then? What did you do next?

Well then I was invited to ... by Clyde Holding, who was the Minister by this time, to give advice to the Government on a replacement body for the NAC and so with that I came once again to Canberra. I'd been here on a number of occasions to take up my consultancy and I advised the Government on a structure ... the structure that we now have as ATSIC. Now while it ... it probably went a bit further than my advice to government, certainly in terms of the number of elected regional councils, because Minister Jerry Hand did widespread consultation in relation to the boundaries for the elected representatives, and I've said to him and I've said to others, he agreed with every ... every boundary that was drawn on the maps and we ended up with sixty regional councils and 800 elected representatives. And of course ...

That's a bit unwieldy?

Very. It ... and so I was really responsible for ... for three years of an organisation that I believed was unwieldy and really too difficult to sustain. But perhaps I should go back a little bit further to say that at the end of my consultancy, of course, I went back home and there were other matters, of course, that I was involved with, like the Aboriginal Development Commission, and there's a long history, of course, to what happened there. I came in. I was on the Aboriginal Development Commission as a first ... one of the first commissioners. Charles Perkins was the chairperson of the Commission at that time but towards the end of the ... the Commission, of course, the Minister ... the then Minister, Jerry Hand, sacked eight Aboriginal commissioners of the Development Commission for not accepting a direction and I, once, again found myself a commissioner on the Aboriginal Development Commission and the last chairperson of the ADC. And I had hoped, of course, at the end of that time that I was going back to Quorn, because my husband was retired and we had hoped to spend some time together.

[end of tape]

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