Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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You've had some extraordinary experiences in you life, many I'm sure that you didn't ever expect to have. Which of them are highlights for you, big moments that you'll always remember?

Well I'll try and give them in order they happened, not in order of, you know, the highlight or the experience. But the first, of course, would have been my graduation as a nurse. That was by far the first. The next would have been, of course, which was very short lived, was to become the first Regional Director of a Commonwealth Department, and I guess the ... the next big highlight, of course, would have been being elected representative of the National Aboriginal Conference and becoming its first chairperson, given the fact, of course, that there were few women elected at that stage, and to become the first chairperson of that. And I guess, Australian of the Year, 1984, and the appointment as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, even though that this appointment, of course, has been one that ... has been one, I guess, that I wondered whether, in fact, I could achieve bringing about an organisation of this kind. But the other highlights, of course, during my term here was having an audience with the Dalai Lama. [It] was ... was really a wonderful experience and difficult to really articulate what that ... what that really meant and meeting Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela ... I must say the visit of Bishop Desmond Tutu last year was during the negotiations for the High Court decision and those of us, who were involved in that process, gained a great deal of strength from Bishop Tutu at that time because we felt that we were rather drained of having, for a long period of time, sustained a lot of output, a lot of giving, and he was able to, in fact, renew our strength, if you like, and give us something to carry on with and we indicated that to him when he was here. So that certainly was ... was something that I felt as a strength in a time of really great pressure.

You were brought up very strictly in the Protestant religion, attended a Methodist Church, was it?


And brought up by the missionaries. Did you ... how does religion ... what part does religion play in your life today?

Well certainly not religion in the way it was taught to us: hellfire and brimstone I called it and so ... but I believe that I have a great deal of spirituality, which I draw from my own traditions and I prefer to call it a deep spirituality that I have, that gives me the strength to carry on and it's certainly not in the sense [of the] fundamentalist Christian religion that I was brought up with.

What do you in fact believe about God and a spiritual life?

Well I don't believe in God in the way it was taught to me. I believe in mythology and the ... the attachment to the land and the ... the Dreamtime, and the spiritual beings of the Aboriginal traditional culture. That is where I draw my spirituality from.

And how does that come through in your daily life?

Well it just comes through in that I appreciate nature and I appreciate everything around me that is born of nature. And so, I guess, that's the way I ... it comes to me in my day to day living.

And how did the Dalai Lama fit in with that?

Well, I mean, I think it's very difficult to explain because he had certainly an aura about him of spirituality which I really can't articulate and he seemed to understand the sort of spirituality that I feel and more than that I think would be difficult for me to explain.

What kinds of things did he say to you?

Well he certainly talked about language and the ... the power of speaking your own language and he understood, of course, the position here in terms of the number of languages and he attempted to give me advice about that we ought to adopt one language, which, of course, I indicated to him would be a very difficult thing to do, but the other thing, of course, that he wanted to know was whether I had an Aboriginal name and I indicated to him that my name was Lowitja and he appealed to me to use it on a regular basis and there were some people, of course, from this office who were ... who were witness to what actually happened on that day, who insisted that I do that, but we just didn't continue with it.

Why not? Right inside you are you Lowitja or are you Lois?

Well deep inside of me I'm Lowitja and not Lois, but I guess it ... it just seems too difficult to make the change.

Do you think you ever will?

Well it's difficult to say. Sometimes I think when I leave this high office I may. I never took on my husband's name either and I often think I could do that and the other thing I might do is I have a number of honorary doctorates and those who bestow them upon you want you to, in fact, use the doctorate and I think I might do that as well. But not for the time being.

Why would you do that?

I don't really know. It's only because I think there's been pressure on me to do so. I don't have a very strong feeling about that, of course, and I'm not sure that I would but last week, of course, my nephew was in town and he has an honorary doctorate, but he also is a doctor anyway in his own right and he indicated, of course, very strongly that I ... that I ought to and tried to convey to me that the universities feel aggrieved when you don't. And, I suppose, I've thought about it a little bit, but not a lot.

Do you feel a weight of responsibility, having been the woman Aboriginal to do so many things, to set some sort of an example to the younger women coming on, the younger Aborigines coming on? Does it mean a lot to you to think about how you behave and what you do with them in mind?

Well I certainly feel a sense of responsibility but I don't have any great difficulty about how I conduct myself on a day to day basis, and I have reason to believe that there are Aboriginal women who model on me and I'm pleased about that. But on the other hand I conduct myself in the way I believe I should and as a result of it, I guess, I am a role model to ... to Aboriginal women.

What do you think's going to happen after you die?

Well, I mean the earth is our mother and that's where we came from and that's where we will return.

Do you imagine any kind of consciousness?

No I don't.

So you think this life is the one we've got to live and that's it?

Yes and that's why it's important that I live every day in case there's not a tomorrow. So I think it's important that every day we live it, and we do what we can to contribute in whatever way we can, and, of course, my job, of course, is to advance the cause of Aboriginal rights.

Looking back over your life, the one life, what are you proudest of, of what you've done?

Well the thing, and I didn't say it before, the biggest highlight, of course, was actually finding and meeting my mother, which, of course ... and I think I'm proudest of having done that, because it was a difficult thing to do. It was difficult times, transport was difficult and it wasn't easy to get about and so on, so I ... That was certainly one of the ... one of the highlights and one of the proudest things I've done because I was able to also ... to ... to introduce my mother, of course, to the other members of the family and give her a better life than the life she had lived previously.

Was meeting her also a big emotional breakthrough for you?

Well yes it was, because I mean previously I ... I was in a position of really ... of not knowing and it ... it really opened up a ... a part of my life that I didn't know anything about. So it certainly was important and it set me on the road I think to ... to a life of ... of helping others.

It gave you a greater sense of security in your Aboriginal identity?

Oh yes. It certainly did that for me and there's no doubt about that and I think if all of a sudden you find your roots and you understand who you are, it's certainly going to help you and it certainly did for me.

The major word that's used in relation to Aboriginal affairs is reconciliation, and that is about the reconciliation of the two parts of your life: the white part and the Aboriginal part. Looking back over your life, what do you think is the major barrier to that reconciliation working?

Well, of course, the biggest barrier is acceptance, understanding and for Australians, generally, to accept that Aboriginal people have rights, and to appreciate, in fact, that we have a ... a living culture and one that they can be part of in terms of making in fact ... working towards our own identity as Australians and part of that, of course, is I guess moving towards a republic, where we become our ... our own people, as Australians, and understand who we are.

So being a republic is important for you?

Well it's becoming more important. I mean, I guess, I hadn't thought a great deal about it until I was invited to be part of the Prime Minister's Advisory Council and while I'd not given a great deal of thought to it before and I certainly had to quickly come to terms with it and make some decisions myself as to ... but having also been involved, as I have, for some time on the National Australia Day Council, and thinking about the preparations for Australia Day and so on, I often think that Australians really don't have much idea of what they're celebrating and don't appear to have a national identity as such, and moving towards a republic would probably help us to do that.

How do you feel about the fact that Australians have been ready, been very ready, to take certain aspects of Aboriginal culture and appropriate it to themselves. I mean, there's been talk of adopting the Aboriginal flag, that's right behind you now, as the national flag, that that could be a possibility. And then there's also great willingness for Australians in promoting Australia as a tourist destination in developing a notion of Australian art to appropriate aspects of Aboriginal culture for Australia. How do you feel about that?

Well look I'm very excited about that but at this point in time I think it's only a means to an end. It's very superficial at this time. If Australia were to get very serious about that, as we work towards reconciliation, I think I'd be much more excited about it than I am at the moment because it's superficial and, at this stage, it's not a reality and I think those Aboriginal icons, if you like to call it that, are just being used, at this point in time, to attract the tourist trade, and I don't really think that Australia really is serious enough about it.

Could you envisage a time in which white Australia might actually look more closely at the way in which Aboriginal culture manages social groups and so on and uses some of that to learn from?

Yes. Well, I think, I wouldn't be all that optimistic about that, at all. But ... because ... and also the matter that you raised about the flag, and so on, I've already expressed an opinion about that in my National Club speech when I was asked whether the Aboriginal flag ... would I support the Aboriginal flag becoming the Australian flag, and my view is ... is that I wouldn't because I believe it's our flag and it's our unifying force and we would ... we would ... even if there was a change of flag, we would still need our own flag I believe.

Looking back, way back to your beginnings, those formative years in Colebrook Home, do you ... what are the things that come mostly to your mind when you think about that period?

Well it's a mixture of feelings really. There's a feeling that it was too strict, it was Spartan, and the other feeling's that it was a happy time because we were all children together, all [having] been taken away. We had lots of good happy times together. So there's a mixture of feelings about those times and so there are good and bad feelings about it.

Who or what do you blame for the fact that you were torn from your mother?

Well I .. I lay the blame, of course, at the feet of the mission authorities because the mission authorities, while adopting the similar policies of course to government, but their ... their prime aim, of course, was to Christianise the Aboriginal people. So it really is the ... the mission authorities that I blame entirely for the removal of the children and also for their attitude towards the Aboriginal culture as being pagan and to be routed out at all ... at all costs. So while I think I have said before that it is, amongst the Aboriginal children that were brought up ... we have an unwritten law, I suppose, if you like, not to criticise the missionaries, I've always been unhappy about ... about that and I guess I have been careful also not to be too critical.

You're obviously a person who feels things very deeply. You show emotion and it's clear that you feel emotion and yet you're also very disciplined. When you're feeling strong emotion about things, how do you handle it?

Well, I mean, I guess, I don't really try to ... I don't try to control it or hide it. I think it's ... it's a very difficult thing to do and I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of either. So I don't try and ... and try and hide emotions that I feel strongly about.

If you had something to say to a young Aboriginal girl who was rather like the young Lois leaving ... leaving to set out and face the world aged sixteen, what would it be the best kind of advice that you could feel you could give her these days?

Well look, all I say that I'm glad I haven't got a sixteen year old that I have to give advice to, because I think really it'd be very, very difficult to give that sort of advice. And because I've had no real experience of it, I ... I don't know what I'd say, apart from to be careful and to do your very best and I think that's ... that's really all you can do. But having chosen not to have a family and to ... I don't really want to be put in that position where, in fact, I have to even think about what sort of advice I'd give to a sixteen year old.

But sixteen year olds would be watching you and thinking about your success and, I suppose, I'd like to know ... you've always had to behave in very strong ways, often in very difficult situations, what do you rely on, do you think? What's been of most use to you in your make up and in your attitude that's helped you get through the tough times?

Well I just think it's an inner strength that I've ... that I've built up, you know, over the years as a result of course of the ... the strict discipline and so on that was applied in the early days, and that's why I say that I ... I don't regret the discipline that was applied but I didn't support the punishment as such. I think you can apply discipline without punishment and so I guess I have a reservoir of inner strength. I ... I ... I also am not afraid of my own company and so I have many times when I'm alone, I suppose, and I'm able to think about the sorts of things that I ... that I do and I'm always careful, of course, to ... to actually have time to myself so that I can do the job that I'm expected to do.

You seem to have been able to maintain quite a deal of optimism, whereas a lot of people in Aboriginal communities become very pessimistic and depressed. Why are you still optimistic after all the setbacks that you've had?

Well because I think that I've ... I've chipped away at it and I've ... I've made some achievements I think by ... by keeping going and always coming out and trying again. You just can't give up. And I've learnt to do that.

What's your vision for the future of Aboriginal people?

Well my vision for the future is that ... that Aboriginal people will come to terms with the fact that they need, in fact, to work very hard at strengthening the traditional ways of life. And so we really have to work at that. That's very important for us. So we must maintain our Dreaming, we must maintain our traditional ways in every way, and to enable us to do that, of course, we need to become less dependent upon the government. And so I think that we ought to be working towards economic enterprise so that we can take control of our lives and work to a greater degree of self-determination.

What makes you angry?

Well I guess it's attitudes ... would be the thing that would cause me to be angry and I can't understand often why non-Aboriginal people get ... always feel, in fact, that they are superior to Aboriginal people and so I guess really, while I say I'm not a ... not an angry person, that would bring out anger in me and there have been many times, of course, when I've felt angry just standing in a ... in a line waiting, when in fact non-Aboriginal people feel that they ... they ought to be served ahead of you, and there've been many of those experiences over the years.

Does that still happen?

Well it certainly doesn't happen here in Canberra, and I'm not sure that it would happen in many places now, but it certainly happened before I came here and took up this job. But because I now have a much higher profile there's not many places that I go to now when I'm not recognised.

Have you ever been discriminated against because you're a woman?

No I can't remember that I have actually. From a very young woman, of course, I've been involved on boards of ... of committees and I've been at the national level for a long time now and I seriously can't remember having ever been discriminated against as a woman.

What's the most unpleasant thing you've ever had to deal with as an Aborigine being treated badly?

Well I think it was in my early nursing days when there were a number of patients who refused my presence and I had to indicate that to the ... to the sister and encourage the sister, of course, to find someone else to take over that particular duty. But, of course, I was young and starting out in those days and that ... that hurt me but, I guess, I got over that fairly quickly.

What was the most recent time that anybody did anything to you that made you feel that you were being treated differently because you were Aboriginal? [Pause] You can't think of an incident? There hasn't been one for a long time?

No there hasn't been, no.

Can you remember ... do you feel ... Sorry. If you are feeling angry about attitudes that you feel are foolish or annoy you, do you feel able to show that anger? For example, in discussions or negotiations, when people are not treating the Aboriginal position with the respect you feel it deserves, do you feel that it will hurt your cause if you show that you're annoyed?

No, I don't do that. I think I can show annoyance when I'm ... when I'm dealing with heads of government and in negotiating situations and I've done that, and people know by the tone of my voice.

[end of interview]