Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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Will the tribunal that deals with Native Title claims have an Aboriginal chair do you think?

No, I don't think so. There will be ... it'll be a ... somebody from the legal profession, but, of course, there will be room for Aboriginal people and so on in the processes of assessing the claims and so on and, of course, we haven't go down to that sort of detail at the moment, but in relation to the negotiations, to assist the ... the head of the tribunal ... but all those details, of course, are not really worked out at this stage.

There is a large section of the white community in Australia who've been extremely distressed about the decision and full of fears and concerns about whether their own land or interests will be affected by these claims. What do you think about that and how have you dealt with it from this position?

Well I think we dealt with it throughout the process of the negotiations by trying to allay people's fears that there wouldn't be full scale claims over urban areas and so on, and tried to indicate to members of the public that Native Title had been extinguished in those areas. Of course it wasn't helped by the fact that there were some significant so-called ambit claims throughout the process, but I mean, one doesn't really have control over ... over those sorts of things, and ... but I think really people seem to have settled down and I think the indication now is, at this point in time, people seem to be fairly relaxed about it, so I guess I was indicating that. Our Minister of course, Robert Tickner, was indicating that people didn't need to worry about their own backyards and so on. But, of course, there's still lots of tensions and uncertainties in the area of ... of mining and the pastoral industry and those sorts of areas but, of course, we've got Rick Farley, who actually heads up the Farmers' Federation, who, of course is ... is a person that we're able to work with. He's a member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, so he's come to terms with the relationships with Aboriginal people and he's able to, in fact, tell his ... his constituency, if you like, that really so long people talk ... and I think, really, communication is a great medium whereby, in fact, we can put to rest many of the fears that ... that the non-Aboriginal community is facing at this time.

What sections of the pastoral industry might have a problem? I mean, are there areas in Australia where there are pastoral properties owned by white people, where there may be claims and how would you see that operating?

Well, of course, Aboriginal people have to prove Native Title, so I mean it's going to be a long process for them through the tribunal in the first instance, but I think one of the most important things for the pastoral industry, of course, is to ... in the first instance, work out some protocols between Aboriginal traditional owners, which is something that they could have been doing for a long time, of course, which would have in fact not brought about, I think, some of the claims we might see in the past. If there were proper protocols about the understanding of Aboriginal use of the land, and the fact that they would be able to travel through some of these pastoral country for tribal ceremonies and also for hunting, and some of those areas, so it's still a matter of those people who are close to the areas, where there could well be claims for Native Title ... if some of those protocols could be worked out, in fact there won't be massive claims. And those sorts of things are happening and where, in fact, there have been good communications, things have worked out fairly well and will continue to do so.

Some people have talked about the notion of Aborigines taking things over and there's been a lot of fear in the talk. Do you find it at all ironic when white people talk about being afraid of Aborigines taking things over?

Well, I mean, sometimes those are the things that do concern me and make me feel a bit angry from time to time, because I think that no one could doubt that we are the most, I think ... Well we're not people, in fact, who have gone out purposely to take over anything, and history ... history will bear me out on that, so we're not aggressive in any way and all we want is for ... for people to understand that we also have rights, and that those rights should be respected and that people should come to terms with the fact that we have rights and those rights have been eroded and this High Court decision enables us to actually get back some of those rights.

Now talking about the basic problem that faces Aboriginal communities of getting together the self respect and sense of responsibility for themselves that's needed to take the next step forward, you yourself have never had any difficulty with that. You've had a lot of strength about making choices and following them, even at times with pain and difficulty to yourself. What do you think makes you different from so many other Aborigines who find it difficult to keep to the path that they lay out for themselves?

Well it's ... I think mainly because I had some sense of direction, I think, from my very early days, as a result of the discipline and so on that was applied. Unfortunately for many Aboriginal people, of course, they've been in the situation of being herded on government reserves. Their own responsibility's been assumed by Protectors of Aborigines and by government officials and if you become part of that system, it's always difficult to break out of it and it's like those families whether they're Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, who get caught up in the welfare system, that welfare breeds welfare and it's difficult to break out of that sort of cycle. So, you know, I understand that. And I understand how much more difficult it is for people who have in fact been caught up in that particular cycle. But I think that because of my background and the foresight I had that I wouldn't get caught up in ... in any of that, and the fact that the mission authorities always warned us against seeking government ... government assistance, and that we were always encouraged to be in the ... to be in the workforce even though it was domestic employment ... We ourselves of course had to take the step to get out of that ourselves. But I must say that I'm, I guess ... I'm also part of a very ... a lucky era if you like. Being born in the thirties, having evaded, of course - I knew something about the war years - but having evaded the war years on the edge of the ... the, you know ... the difficult times and so on, and I've always been in a job. Even though ... even though it was difficult getting a job I've always, I've always been in a job and my husband always used to say - and not giving me any credit for having made some success - that I was born in a lucky era and, I mean, I agree with that too. That for us times have been ... have been quite good.

Some people who believe that Aborigines should be able to determine their own lives and who, like you, feel that protection or some sort of paternalism towards Aborigines is part of the problem, have a solution of just simply withdrawing welfare benefits and help to them in a financial sense in order for them to find their direction. What do you feel about that kind of approach?

No, I wouldn't support that approach at all. I mean people need all the help that they can get to assist them to find their way in the community and, of course, one of the things that Aboriginal people are talking about, of course, at the moment is the need of course for economic enterprise, so there certainly is a ... a lot of thought being given to the purchasers of properties and also getting involved in ... in joint ventures, into tourism, and into a whole range of things - of course running pastoral properties and so on. But many of the pastoral properties we have, of course, were in a bad condition and will take some time of course to get to being able to be a viable economic enterprise. But we need to do more than talk about it. We need, in fact, to be working towards economic enterprise and at some stage putting ourselves in the position that we will no longer be dependent upon governments for the kind of assistance that we're receiving now. I really look forward to that day when Aboriginal people are more able to control their own affairs. In fact the economic position will enable us to do it.

Now the instrument that ATSIC has used to try to make sure that Aborigines are setting the agenda and making sure that things happen in their areas is very dependent on the regional councils and those regional councils to work well, have to take a lot of responsibility and be very effective in what they do. Isn't there a problem of culture here, that in regions there are needs and perceptions of the Aboriginal communities, ways of doing things which aren't compatible with the white man's bureaucracy and the sort of administration that's required from Canberra. Is there a difficulty there?

Well there certainly is a difficulty. There's difficulty with this whole organisation, of course. It is a brave bold experiment by this government to introduce an organisation like this, and it is very unique. We have nothing to model on anywhere in the world, with this organisation. It's dependent upon a good partnership or relationship with the Minister, with the bureaucracy, and with the elected arm of this organisation. So it's not been ... it's not been an easy organisation to establish and the other matter that you raised and you alluded to is a problem because it gets back to the ... the traditional ways of doing things but we've got to understand here that, in fact, we're operating a 900 million dollar budget, which is funds that come from the taxpayer. We're under a great deal more scrutiny than any other organisation in the community, and so we're very mindful of being accountable to the ... to the Australian Government for the funds that are given to us and everybody's just learning, so you can see that it's been a big pressure on the organisation and we started and with sixty regional councils, 800 elected representatives, and we reviewed that within the first two years of the elected organisation. We've reduced that now to thirty-five, with 570, elected councils. But what's going to make it easier this ... this term is that the commissioners, the Board of Commissioners are now full time and the chairs of regional councils are full time. And so I can only go on I guess addressing to the board of directors and also to the regional councils that they need to take regional perspectives and national perspectives at this level, rather than take a family perspective, which, of course, gets back to the criticisms of nepotism and ... but I think people are understanding more and more that those ... that people are watching and ... but it's very difficult.

But isn't there a really basic problem that whitefella law and whitefella's ways of doing things has a word like nepotism, and is against it, and says that people in charge of regional administration have to do things very fairly, while at the same time Aboriginal obligations require you to take care of your own specific family, sometimes at the expense of other families in the region?

Well until governments can actually come to terms with that and appreciate and make some allowances for that ... Unfortunately we've got to understand that we're dealing with a white fella organisation here, and taxpayers' monies, and we've got to respond to that and all of us are hoping, of course, that the ceremonies and the culture will continue, but where we're dealing with whitefella governments and so on, we've also got to also change our style.

One of your deputy ... your former deputy ... [clears throat] Your former deputy, Sol Bellair, has criticised you and this organisation and said that basically it's still really run by whites. What do you say to that?

Well I must say that I was ... I was surprised by the comment and I did see the comment, because he actually sat on the board here for four years. He, in fact, saw the decision making processes that ... that actually went on. Admittedly this administration has to, in fact, produce the board papers and so on, but at the end of the day the decisions, the policy decisions, and the funding decisions that are made by this commission are made by the board of commissioners, at this level and they're made by the regional council at the regional level, and for my former deputy to say that is really not telling the truth about how things operate at this level. It is really up to this administration to carry out the policies and the decisions that are taken by the board of commissioners. One of the difficulties, of course, that both regional councils and the board of commissioners have problems coming to terms with is the fact that they have no responsibility for the administration of the commission. The commission administration is headed up by a chief executive officer who is a public servant and who is appointed by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Affairs, and I have no difficulty with that at all. I'm here in Canberra. I have meetings with the senior executive on a regular basis. They consult me regularly about ... about matters that they're unclear about. But the only way that we're ever going to be able to change that is if, in fact, ATSIC comes from outside of the Public Service. We are a statutory commission and for all intents and purpose, we operate as a department of state, which gives us, of course, powers that we wouldn't have if we went outside of the Public Service, and so, really, we're faced with either making it work as it is presently structured or making a decision, which, of course, has been discussed by the board over the ... the four year term and it was a recommendation of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody that the Aboriginal affairs administration, ATSIC, should come out from under the Public Service Act, which would mean, of course, that the commission would be an independent statutory commission that would hire and fire its own staff and be outside of it. But we would also lose something in so far as we are, at the moment, able to have access to Cabinet documents and are able to get close to the ... to the Prime Minister and to the Cabinet and give advice. So it is ... it is something that, in fact, this new board discussed once again at its first meeting. So it is something that we're considering.

Now apart from the structural things though, as far as you're concerned, this whole issue of the obligations that you have to your family in traditional Aboriginal ways of doing things and the sort of way that you're obliged to run things if you're looking at fitting in with a whitefella way of doing things, does that ... how do you feel about that yourself, personally? I mean, I detected that there was a sort of element of guilt in you over leaving your mother so carefully in line, in the queue, for assistance when you had the power to help her. And you resisted the temptation to do that but you didn't look entirely happy about it. Is there still a conflict for you inside yourself about these two ways of doing things?

Yes, it's uncomfortable. Uncomfortable. But I just can't see a way through it and the only way through it of course is a ... and a very radical suggestion of course and ... not so radical coming out from under the Public Service, but the fact that any appropriation from the government will be an appropriation that's ... that's given to Aboriginal people to administer in the way they feel appropriate. And that, of course, also opens itself to misuse. So it is uncomfortable, but I'm afraid I really just don't have a complete answer to how best it can be done.

What happened in the end with your mother? Did you eventually sort her situation out for her?

Oh yes. My mother finally came out of the humpy and into a house and, of course, she ... she travelled south and met the other three children and her grandchildren, but she was always in a hurry to return to Oodnadatta so she didn't really want to stay south and change her way of life. She was always anxious to return, but in later years, of course, after I married, we were able to travel on a very regular basis to Oodnadatta and also to Pitjantjara lands, and meet regularly and get to know better my people and so on in that area. So it was good and my mother, of course, has now passed away. She passed away in the same year as we married and ...

Did she see you get married?

No she didn't, she didn't. It was ... it was actually before she passed away but she didn't ... she wasn't there for the wedding because it was always difficult to manage the ... you know, the transport backwards and forwards. But I finally, of course, had the ... Because she passed away in the Port Augusta Hospital, and I finally had the task of actually transporting the casket back for a traditional funeral and we were on the road for days, and because of tribal ceremonies in the area, we didn't get back to Indolkina, but she found her final resting place in traditional ... traditional grounds outside of Oodnadatta.

And what was that like to attend the ceremony of a traditional funeral?

Oh well it was certainly was the first. While I'd had opportunities in the past, but because of my responsibilities in Aboriginal Affairs, I wasn't able to ... to spend much time in travelling back, but while it was interesting I experienced, of course, the ... the traditional mores and so on that had to be observed at the time and that was to provide for the extended family, over a week, while we waited for the traditional elders and so on to get across, well, to finalise the traditional ceremonies and to finally come across for the funeral, which was something, of course, that I had to learn as I went and I tell you, it can be a pretty expensive responsibility that you have, but one that I was happy to be part of.

Were the ceremonies themselves impressive to you?

Well yes they were, but it's a sort of traditional mores that one can't talk about and has to ...

Sop they're secret ceremony?

Yes, they are secret ceremonies, just to the extended family.

So that was a really big year in your life: the year that you married, the year that your mother died and yet you still kept on always disciplining yourself to go on with your work. Has that been the secret of your success in life, that you've always been able to give to the community, even though you were going through a lot personally?

Well, yes, but I mean I don't ever ... it doesn't ever appear a hardship to me, because it's just the way I guess I've ... I've operated from my very early years and I mean the same was, of course, only two years ago, I lost my husband, of course, and I was attending the opening of the Strehlow Foundation in Alice Springs and got a message to say my husband had been admitted to hospital with a massive heart attack. I'd hoped to get there. I hired ... I actually chartered a plane, but I didn't arrive in time and he'd passed away a half an hour before ... before I got there. But it was something that we'd always prepared ourselves for as well, because we talked about the possibilities that ... because I was working here and he was home, that there could be a possibility that I wouldn't be there and, once again, you know, we'd sort of prepared the way for any possibility like that, but my deputy was overseas and we weren't able to locate him to get him back. So once again I found myself involved in a family situation as well as carrying on the work, so I attended the funeral and came back to work days later.

In the years after you got to know your mother, did you ever feel that you got as close to her as you would have liked to? Or was she always ... I get the impression that she was always just sliding away from you. Why do you think that was? Do you think there was a sort of element of hopelessness in her about the fact that you'd been taken away and she had no power to prevent it, and that she never, ever was able to get over that and open up to you the way you would have liked her to.

Well I don't believe that I ever got as close to her as I would have liked, but I believe the main problem was the fact of the language barrier to start with. And the other was the ... I guess the questions I wanted to ask and the things I wanted to know I thought would have been perhaps a bit intrusive and a bit hurtful to her and I felt that she'd been hurt enough over the years, so I didn't pursue it.

Do you regret that now? Because there's a lot she could have told you about herself, her relationship with your father, and about the actual circumstances of your being taken that would have been valuable to you, wouldn't they? And yet you restrained yourself. Did you ever try to talk to her about it?

No I didn't. It would have been ... it would have been helpful but I accepted, of course, that the mysteries were never going to be revealed.

[end of tape]

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