Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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Did you ever meet your father?

No, I didn't but I had reason to believe that he might have wanted to make contact with me. When I was at the Royal Adelaide Hospital I was working in the outpatients department and I saw a man that answered to his description on a number of occasions, being a redheaded Irishman. But that's all I ... that's all I observed, but when I raised it with a couple of Roman Catholic fathers who used to attend the hospital, they indicated to me that they thought that it could have well been him.

You didn't know the name of this man. Did he just watch you?

Oh he was just watching, yes. Just appeared on a number of occasions in outpatients when I was working there.

Did you feel any curiosity about him?

No, I must say I didn't. I've never, ever really wanted to know my father or any members of his family.

Did you feel resentment?

No, I'm not aware of a feeling of resentment as such, but I'd been brought up as an Aboriginal child and I related to ... to that community and so I just decided that for me it was my mother that I wanted to find and to get to know, and I was satisfied having done that.

Do you feel any resentment at all?

No, I don't.

You don't resent the white community, you don't resent an Australia that didn't give Aborigines a proper place, an Australia that hasn't been able to get much right for Aborigines? You don't feel resentment?

No I don't, and I don't think it's a ... a very hurt ... a very healthy feeling to have, because to be resentful I think is ... just stands in the way of ... of moving forward.

What about feeling angry?

I find it very difficult to get angry. There really have only ever been a couple of times that I was certainly angry about and have been angry about what happened, not so much to me, but what happened to my mother in not being able to keep her children and more angry about the fact that the missionaries didn't have the foresight to inform my mother that we were all right and to make contact with her, to let her know that we were all right.

Now, the women in the Aboriginal communities around the country play a particular role. Do you think that the contribution that women have made has been particularly important for keeping Aboriginal people and communities functioning?

Yes, they're by certainly the most active in community life, in organisational life, and they are certainly the backbone to the Aboriginal movement. But unfortunately when it comes to the electoral process and also to the leadership roles and so on, women haven't emerged in the way that they ought to have, but I think that's out of a sense of responsibility of not leaving their post, so to speak, at the community in the organisational level.

You don't think it has anything to do with the Aboriginal men keeping them out?

Well I don't think the Aboriginal women would tolerate that and certainly their strength of character would indicate that they wouldn't tolerate that and there are many women, of course, who are now taking leadership roles around the country, but on the other hand I think they still feel a sense of responsibility to ... to be at the coal face, as it were, in the communities and also at the organisational levels, within the organisation, but we do have the ability, of course, to appoint women on national boards as well as on ... in the state departments and that's being done more and more.

You're, of course, a great exception to the absence of women on a lot of the councils and so on, and you've always been there. Why is that, do you think, that you've been able to do that?

Well I think it was mainly because I served my apprenticeship and having done that at an early age and come through the organisations as I did. I mean there are many Aboriginal people who say to me, and have said to me over the years, 'How do we ... how do we become a national leader?' and I've had to tell them, of course, that they need to ... they need to come through the process and they have to first, you know, go through the apprenticeship stage and that's the only way. But I think that people today have the ability to come through a little bit more quicker than I did. However I think that the ... the apprenticeships that I had in community organisations and so on, stood me in very good stead for those national responsibilities that I've taken on over the years.

What's the particular contribution that you think that women have made in Aboriginal communities?

Well, of course, they've always been concerned about the ... the rearing of the children and ... and so that is particularly important and helpful because I mean they're the ones who are coming through of course as leaders of the future. So that's been the greatest contribution, of course, they've made and the other contribution, of course, as I've said, [is] in the organisations. But the ... the very fact that, you know, they ... they stay in the organisations for a long time, and they're just not in and out of the organisations. So it's their ability to stay with the ... with the job and their stick ability, of course, in the face of tremendous odds at times. And it's becoming much more difficult, of course, with the problems of alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence.

Once upon a time the women were less involved with alcohol than the men. Is that changing?

Well yes that is certainly changing and I guess it's a matter of ...

It's changing the community at large, of course, as well.

Yes, yes, and I guess it becomes such a battle, you know, and if you can't beat it join them, you know. And so, I guess, it lessens the pain in some ways for them as well, but it's a very unfortunate fact of life.

What's happening in relation to the domestic violence issue in the Aboriginal community?

Well, of course, we have ... we have quite a number of programmes and so on in place. In ATSIC itself here as we have the Office of Indigenous Women and we have women's issues officers operating at all the regional office levels. And then funding to community organisations and, of course, we have some very strong traditional women in communities and the most well known one, of course, is the women who operate at Papunya, who, every night, of course, watch out for these ... those members of the community and so on who ... who are abusing alcohol. And they have formed night patrols and they just take control and deal with the problems, but I guess again it's, it's really a band aid kind of operation, but they're those strong women, once again, trying to indicate that this is destroying a culture and people are really wanting to do something about it.

You yourself have never had children. Is that something you regret?

No I don't. It was a ... it was also a definite decision on my part.

Why was that?

Well because I was totally involved in Aboriginal Affairs and then, of course, I made the decision to not get involved, of course, with that relationship and so I guess I was waiting, of course, for my husband to discharge his responsibilities and we finally married, of course, but life just went on for me and ...

How old were you when you got married?

Now you're asking me. Well I was certainly in my thirties. No, no, no I was in my ... I was forty-five I think when I married. So no I mean I have a ... I guess I've always had responsibility for others and I have a huge extended family, many nieces and nephews and so on, so that's been family enough for me.

Do you ever see the little girl that was your special responsibility in the home?

Yes I do. I see her on a regular basis. We have an organisation, of course, that we call Colebrook Community Centre and one of the things I haven't said, of course, is that we have ... we have the old Colebrook Children's Home now back and we operate that now as a community centre. And we're going to also provide retirement units there for those of our members who ... who have reached retirement age and who need some caring for in their ... you know, in their retiring years. So we have the opportunity to get together, of course, certainly once a year with our Annual General Meeting and Doris is inevitably there and we ... For any of the family reunions and festivals and so on that we have, I'm able to see her and, of course, she ... she certainly still sees me as her ... her mother and the one who cared for her throughout those years.

Seeing as you worked for so long as a nurse and your background was medical, do you find it sort of particularly difficult when ATSIC, as its recently been, under attack, for not doing more in the area of health.

Well I don't think there are many people out there who ... who are necessarily mindful of the fact that ... that I am qualified nurse because it's a long time since I ... since I nursed and many more years, of course, in Aboriginal Affairs administration. And I don't feel a particular responsibility for health only. And I have a responsibility across the whole area of our programmes. While I have, over the years, taken a special interest in health, it really doesn't occupy my special attention these days, over and above that. While I'm unhappy about the ... the situation that exists out there, it is really now the responsibility of the community controlled health organisations who receive funding to do that as well as the Commonwealth and state governments.

So it's not ... you don't see health as really a specifically ATSIC responsibility?

No, it's not. I mean we receive a budget of fifty million dollars and we ... we certainly fund the administration of the Aboriginal Medical Services and the reasons why we've had to do that is to pick up the responsibilities of the state and territory governments. So that in no way relieves them of their prime responsibility to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health matters.

But they think it does?

Yes, they certainly do and we've had the opportunity throughout this period of time, since about October last year, when the former Senator now - Richardson - all of a sudden found out that the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people was ... was in a bad situation. Something that we have know about, of course, for a long time and have been attempting to get state governments to accept their responsibilities for it and also to do what we could to fund the Aboriginal Medical Services. The Aboriginal Medical Services have brought about this situation themselves, of course, where they had made a decision that they felt that ... that it would be better if they came under the ... the responsibility of the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health. The main reason for that, of course, is the need for ... for more funds to do the job that they have to do. But this commission, of course, doesn't support that position. We believe, of course, that the Commonwealth Government could, in fact, provide funds over and above the ATSIC allocation to Aboriginal Medical Services without the medical services actually becoming a responsibility of the Commonwealth Department of Health. Now the real problem I have with the transfer of that responsibility to the Commonwealth Government is really a matter of principle and that principle is that it is a return to mainstreaming and if, in fact, the programme - our programme - for health returned to the Department of Health, why shouldn't housing and why shouldn't all the other responsibilities we have go mainstream and it really is a principle that we've fought for, for many years.

So you feel that in all of those areas, Aborigines should be looked after in the normal way by mainstream departments and that you should be a special topping up, targeted sort of organisation.

Yes I certainly do and that ... and that ... that's what our responsibility is.

You're a woman who sits very much between two worlds, between two different cultures. You do it in your genes, you did it in your upbringing, and now you're doing it sitting, managing an Aboriginal world through a white bureaucracy. How do you feel about that? How do you handle it and how do you see yourself in terms of your identity?

Well my identity quite clearly is that I'm first an Aboriginal person and I'm second ... I'm an Australian. That's the way I see it and I have no difficulty with that. The only difficulty I have when I receive criticism and I do receive criticism from my Aboriginal ... from Aboriginal people, of course, that I've sold out or that I, you know, for all intents and purposes, am not an Aboriginal person. Of course I think I've proved that by the way I've conducted my life over the years, that that really can't be said of me. But I also feel at times that there are problems with my own family and one of the difficulties is being here in Canberra in this so called ivory tower here, when my family feel that they can't have access to me and that's by virtue, of course, of the fact that I head a large organisation like ATSIC and that there are many times of course when I can't always speak to them, or see them. So when you go home at times, people say, 'Who do you think you are?' you know. Well I mean that hurts. But it is just a problem that I have heading an organisation like this where I'm just not always freely available. But I attempt to see community people here in my office. I make myself available when I go round the ... around the countryside. My office here has great difficulty, in the early days of my appointment, of knowing who my immediate family was, because I'm auntie to many people and so very early in the peace I had to tell my staff here the names of my sisters and my brother and of my nearest relatives, my nieces and my nephews, so that, in fact, if there was a family matter that needed to be dealt with, that they should be put through to me. So we're attempting to deal with it and I'm still attempting to keep my feet on the ground and be available to people, as well do the job that I have to do.

Do you feel at all cheated that you missed out on being introduced to traditional ways?

Well, I suppose, to some extent I feel ... I feel that way, but I've actually come to terms with that now. And it ... it is a problem I think when you've been cheated to be able to get back into ... into the traditional ways, because you have to be very careful about ... about those mores that you have to observe, and that you don't get yourself into serious trouble, so I've been very careful not to ... not to do that to the extent that, I guess, I've stayed more outside of it than I've actually got ... got into it. But by virtue of still maintaining my links, you know, with my traditions ...

Do you do a bit of picking and choosing between the two ways of doing things to work out what kinds of methods or styles or approaches, that are from the Aboriginal background and what from the European that make sense and works in practical life? I mean a lot of people who have access to two cultures create a sort of hybrid of the two in terms of what they do. Are you conscious at all of doing that?

No, I don't think I am conscious of doing it.

Do you think you have done it a bit?

Oh yes I think I have done it but I'm not conscious of it. But I know I feel good when in fact I have, for instance on my ... on my new board, I have Commissioner Yami Lester, who is a very close relative of mine, who ... who is now on the board and who comes here and from time to time I have people who come here who speak the language and who accept me as one of the ... one of the tribe and I'm able to converse with them. And I think that, in a way, reinforces to the other commissioners, to the staff in this commission, to Prime Ministers and to Ministers and so on, that I ... that, you know, I do belong to the ... to an Aboriginal community, to a rich culture and that in fact I ... I speak the language and I feel really good when I'm able to display that in ... to those people that I'm closely associated with and they're really the only times, I suppose, that you can do that.

Now you've also had high office, you've also been given high honours as Australian of the Year, Order of Australia, British Empire Awards and so on. You've have a very dazzling array of achievements there. When you go home and people say, 'Who do you think you are?' and you have to sort of keep your feet on the ground, is that a problem at all? Have you ever sort of thought, when you think of your beginnings out there in the bush and you think of where you've come to, does it ever strike you as being something that you've had to cope with or deal with?

No, perhaps the only one was the acceptance of the Australian of the Year, by virtue of that being Australia Day and Aboriginal people, of course, don't celebrate Australia Day. It's now being celebrated as a ... as survival, or in the past it's been a day of mourning because it represents colonisation. So I've been told since that I was the only person that took a fortnight to make a decision about whether, in fact, I would accept that ... that award.

Were you the first Aboriginal to be given it?

No, I wasn't the first Aboriginal. I mean, Yvonne Gooloogong Cawley, of course, had received it before and Mark Ella as a young Australian. But for me, it ... it was something that I really had to think about, and having thought about it, I decided that it would ... it would give me a platform on which to further the interest of Aboriginal affairs and, of course, in those days we didn't have the tour of honour that we have these days, but I set up my own little committee and did some tours of honour myself, and so, and that was ... while it was a high honour, it was also a stressful time for me because I was referred to as a Judas, and so some of my people, of course, weren't happy about the fact that I accepted the award, but later on, people, I think, got quite used to the idea and there have been other Aboriginal people, of course - Mandawuy Yunupingu - who have accepted the award. But I think it's still a very difficult decision that an Aboriginal person needs to make and it's an individual decision one makes, and one has to make it on the basis of the achievements that you know, you might ... you might be able to advance.

One of the things that's striking about you and that others have commented on, is that you meet all sorts of world leaders, and you appear on international forums, you've spoken at the UN, you deal at a very high level with many people and you do it with great confidence. What's the secret of your confidence?

I don't know really. I guess it's ... you've got to have some confidence in yourself. You've got to understand your ... your subject and you have to have a vision, you know, for the future. And, I guess, it's all those things, but it's not to say that I don't get nervous about doing these things, so I'm just human like everyone else, but getting the opportunity to do it, of course, is certainly a privilege and having had the opportunity obviously I've got ... I've had to prepare myself in the best possible way to bring about the sort of result that I think is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

What is your vision for the future? What would be your ideal for the Aboriginal community in the future in Australia?

Well the vision, of course, that I would have for my people, of course, is that we would be able to get involved in economic development that would put us in a position of being able to manage our own enterprises, so that, in fact, we were not dependent upon government.

[end of tape]

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