Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

The name Lois O'Donoghue has become much more familiar to Australians since you've been head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission and you've also been Australian of the Year in 1984. That name Lois O'Donoghue has become much better known. Was it the name your mother gave you?

No, it wasn't a name my mother gave me. My name is Lowitja. The name Lois O'Donoghue, of course, comes from ... the missionaries gave me Lois, which, of course, is a biblical name, the mother of Timothy. And O'Donoghue, of course, is my father's name: my father Tom O'Donoghue, who I never met.

Who was he?

He was a ... an Irishman who ... who came to Australia and found himself as the station manager at Granite Downs in the north-west of South Australia, which is now Pitjantjara lands.

Is that where you were born?

I was born at Granite Downs and the Aboriginal name, of course, for the area is Indulkana.

And who was your mother?

My mother's name was Lily. When I met her later, much later, of course, in life, she was actually Lily Woodford, but she would have been Lily, and only Lily as far as we were concerned.

And how did your parents know each other?

Well, that's difficult really to know. By the time I met my mother, of course, it was far too emotional to talk about. We had language barriers to start with and it was too difficult to talk about the relationship, I guess, of my father and my mother, and I didn't really quite know how to broach the subject. But on the other hand, I'd felt that she'd been hurt enough over the years, that really the mysteries of those things was something that I really was going to have to live with.

So what do you know about your birth?

All I know about my birth is that I was actually born in the bush, like all Aboriginal children at those times. It's ... it was a ... a traditional birth attended by the grandmothers as, of course, is the traditional way. And the only other thing I know of course, is that I ... I never had a birth certificate. And, of course, I still don't have a birth certificate.

So do you know your birthday?

I can't be absolutely sure but it would be fairly close to the mark and my birthday is the 1 August, 1932, and I think it would be as close as possible to the date, but I guess the missionaries had a hand in that as well.

So how long were with your mother?

I was with my mother for two years and I was the youngest child at the time of being removed by the missionaries and the only thing I know about ... I can't remember any of it, but I was told, that it was the custom in those days for missionaries to go out on a fairly regular basis with the aim, of course, of collecting the half-caste children and taking them away to mission life, which was meant to be for our good.

Were they helped by the police to do this?

Well, yes, in some areas, in fact it was the police who ... who took the children away and the stories that are told of, course, I think that the police going out was much more fearful than the missionaries going out because the missionaries would stay around for some time, of course, with their scrolls of the stories of Jesus and, of course, the idea was that they would sit for weeks at a time and not only would they be there to collect up the so-called half-caste children, they were there also to Christianise the ... the Aboriginal people.

So they won the trust of the people?

Yes, yes they did, but it's difficult from my part to understand why in fact they would win trust from the people given the fact that their ... I guess their two aims were, one to Christianise the Aboriginal people who, of course, were living in traditional ways in the camps, and to take their children away. But I guess they probably took a few goodies as well, you know, which is I guess one way of getting Aboriginal people on side, so I guess they would have taken stores and that sort of thing as well.

So did they persuade the women to give their children up willingly?

Well, no, not willingly. I mean the stories that were told, of course ... one of the reasons that they stayed of course around as well as long as they did [was] because the mothers would hide the children. In ... in my case, of course, it wasn't only myself so they weren't coming to get one child. They hadn't been ... obviously hadn't been out for some time and if they had, my sister Amy, who was two years older than me, and my sister Violet, who was four years older than me, were still with with my mother. And so, I think what may have happened there was that she had been successful for that period of time to hide Violet and Amy but when they came out again, of course, when I was two, I guess it was more difficult to hide three children than it was to hide one or two.

So your older sisters would remember life in the Aboriginal camp better than you.

Well, no they don't actually. My sister Violet, of course, was six and she can't remember any of it at all. I had, of course, two older ... I had an older sister and brother that had been taken away quite a long time earlier and taken to the same home and they don't remember, either, anything of life with my mother.

Were your older sisters also the children of Tom O'Donoghue?

Yes, and I think if you were to look at us all, we are like ... we are very much alike and it was my arriving in Coober Pedy that ... that the people in the town said, 'That's Lily's daughter', when I arrived and, of course, if you were to look at us all, we are very much alike, and the indications are that my father had a long standing relationship with my mother and there were five children by that relationship.

And yet he did nothing to prevent you being taken away?

No, but ... because it's difficult for me to really confirm what the situation was but my understanding was that he had a ... a wife and family in Adelaide, so I guess one could understand that he really was living a double life and wouldn't want ... wouldn't have wanted for his family in the city to know that he had five half-caste children.

Is it possible also that he thought it was for the best?

Well, yes, it could have well have been. It could have been a combination of both really, because obviously he wasn't going to be staying around for that long and then, of course, the other mystery is, of course, whether in fact half-caste children were all that welcome in the ... in, you know, as ... within the traditions.

By what authority did the missionaries take these children away?

Well, I'm not absolutely sure because the mission authority really had no dealings with government as such, and, of course, the history was that it was government policy to remove the half-caste children. The thinking, of course, at that time was that they were actually soothing the dying pillow and that Aboriginal people would die out. And so by moving ... removing the half-caste child and bringing in the regime of the half-caste children eventually becoming so-called white people ...

This was the policy of assimilation?

This was a policy of assimilation, yes, and so during my, of course, early teenage years and so on, I was encouraged by the Protector of Aborigines to become exempt - that was the terminology that was used - and with that, you signed a document which meant that you were now exempt and you were a white person so you were eligible, of course, to drink in the pubs and to get married and so on. There were all sorts of penalties for cohabiting with white people if you weren't an exempt person. But I resisted that.

Back on Granite Downs station, where there was an Aboriginal group, part of the Pitjantjara tribe living, were you ... would you have been accepted in the same way as full blood Aboriginal children were, or was there a problem if you had European blood among the Aboriginal community?

Well, I can only really, I guess, guess at what might have been the situation because after ... after the children were taken away, in my case, at some stage my mother moved to Oodnadatta, which, of course, was the town closest to Pitjantjara lands. And my guess would be that to some extent she might have been outcast in the sense that she had, in fact, had a relationship with a white man. Now it's difficult to know that. I've been back and I've attempted to talk to ... to talk to the people about that era. They feel at this time, of course they are all very sad about what happened and those of us who do go back on a regular basis are, of course, are very welcome back in the tribal situation. But I think at that time, there might have been some tensions.

Did your sisters remember anything of the language?

Well, my understanding is that we were all ... we were certainly all fluent when we arrived, even myself at age two.

So you were talking young?

Yes, and that is something I see, of course, as I go back and go into Aboriginal communities, that the young children are fluent in the language. So we were fluent in the language and we noticed over the period of time when we were in the children's home that the new children that came in were very fluent with the language, but we had that knocked out of us fairly soon after our arrival because as far as the missionaries were concerned that to speak the language and to ask questions about our origins, was something that ... that was not ... not encouraged, and in fact, discouraged. So we weren't allowed to speak the language or ask of our origins, and so any of that, of course, had to be done in secret.

Do you remember any of it now?

Yes I do but because I returned to work amongst my people before I went as a welfare officer, nursing sister to Coober Pedy, which, of course, on the end ... edge of Pitjantjara lands.

So did you have to learn it all over again?

I went to the Adelaide University that taught the ... taught the language because education is taught. English, of course, is a second language and so the teachers and the nursing sisters are encouraged to actually have some knowledge of the language before going out, so I went out and I was able to. But you know, it came to me easier to me than those others on the course.

It did? So there was something there still from those early years?

Oh, yes, there was. And we did ... we did speak the language of course in secret but we ... we certainly were not fluent by any means by the time we left the home.

Now tell me, when you were taken, you have no memory of that but you think there probably would have been a struggle?

Yes, by what I hear. For those who do remember, there certainly wouldn't ... would have been a struggle on the part of my mother, but perhaps not on the part of my father.

And what missionary group took you and where did they take you?

Well it was the United Aborigines Mission, it was called. And they operated, of course, in South Australia and in Western Australia and in New South Wales. The head office was in New South Wales and there was a state office in South Australia and one in Melbourne, as far as I know. So I understand that the United Aborigines Mission was a collection of churches, and in fact it was the churches that were associated with the United Aborigines Mission from where ... where our support came from because the United Aborigines Mission was a ... was what they called a faith mission and so we ... we were constantly reminded that we lived by faith and that everything that came in the way of gifts to the mission for our sustenance came from the gifts from the churches.

So it was entirely supported by the churches?

Entirely, and we were brought up to ... not to in any way, have anything to do with government and that when we left the home that we should be totally independent of government and, so, not many of us, of course, believed that we'd live by faith, of course, when we left. So the missionaries weren't that successful I don't think in instilling in us that it was possible to ... to live by faith. But ...

But they were very concerned that you shouldn't think you should go into social services at any stage of your life?

Very concerned about that. It was [a] very, very strict upbringing and very Spartan.

Where were you taken? Where actually did they operate as far as you were concerned? What home were you taken to?

Well I was taken from Granite Downs, which is now, of course, referred to as Indolkina, across to Oodnadatta because the ... the United Aborigines Mission had a presence there for ... for a long time and in fact, the first children ... the first twelve children that went into the home were at Oodnadatta and in later years the mission was set up at Quorn in the Flinders Rangers and that is where I have my permanent home now.

What was the home called?

The home was called Colebrook Home for Half Caste Children.

Why was it called Colebrook Home?

It was named after one of the Council members. There was a Council for the ... the United Aborigines Mission Council that had the interests, of course, of the children of Colebrook Home at heart and Mr. Colebrook was the president and that's how Colebrook got it's name.

Now why were these missionaries only interested in half-caste children? I mean when they were rounding up children to Christianise them and take them away and have them integrated or assimilated into Australian society, why weren't they also trying to take full blood children?

Well, I think it was something to do with the policies of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and it seemed as if it was the half-caste children that was going to be easier, I suppose, to ... to assimilate, than it was for the half-caste children. Then, of course, there may have been even much greater resistance on the part of the ... the Aboriginal people to let the full Aboriginal child leave.

It's a funny term, half-caste, isn't it? I wonder where it comes from.

Well I mean the term half-caste wasn't the only term used of course in those days. I mean, all of our records would show how much Aboriginal blood you had and it's a term of course that is not used, of course, these days and hasn't used for a long time. So you were half-caste or you were full or you were half-caste or you were quarter-caste. I mean all those things appeared on your files, in a government department. I was surprised actually that I had a ... that I had a file because I later worked for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and had access to that file to find that there was ... about the only thing that was written on it was my name and that I was half-caste.

And it's the same with a term like full blood. I mean, given that, that blood has nothing to do with it really, that those terms were used. Did ... do Aboriginal people now find those terms offensive?

Yes they do. They do and I think we've worked very hard in a way, not to ... not to differentiate and even the terminology of being of Aboriginal descent is not a terminology that is used or that is liked because Aboriginal people like to be referred to as an Aboriginal person.

So what does your European side mean to you?

Nothing at all. Since ... since I've in fact became a little bit more prominent, I have had phone calls and letters from some members of the, my father's family and I've only ever made contact with one, a Brother O'Donoghue at Kununurra, who works for a Catholic order and I guess that was really mainly because he was involved in Aboriginal education and he was close to the areas and so on that I had dealings with, and I met him but I've not made any attempt to follow up the others. In fact some of the problems have been ... that they thought I might in fact be able to give them, you know, some ... some of the details of the family tree and, of course, you know, I'm not able to do that. So I've not really made any contact.

And you don't feel any kinship with the Irish people in the present government?

Well, I do I guess, in a way. When Mrs. Robinson was out here, the President of Ireland, there was a big contingent, of course, of press that came with her and ... and I had a meeting with her and was very much part of the functions, and so on, that were involved here and they were very interested in ... in my background. I wasn't able to tell them very much, but I guess I had a sneaking feeling at that time that they were very nice people and that I would like to get to know a bit more about it because I think the Aboriginal-Irish connection is fairly dynamic actually, and there are a lot of Aboriginal people who have Aboriginal ... have Irish background.

What do you mean by dynamic?

Well, I guess it's the combination of the Aboriginal, you know, fight for justice and, you know, what we know of the Irish and their fight.

Now this home that you were taken to - the Colebrook Home - who ran it and what was it like?

Well, it was run of course by ... by the missionaries and there were two maiden ladies, a Miss Hyde and Miss Rutter. Miss Hyde being the ... and we called them sisters and that being missionary sisters so that's where the term comes from. It's not got anything to do with the nursing profession. And Sister Hyde was the matron and the ... Sister Rutter, of course, was the deputy and from time to time, of course, there were younger missionaries who came but we can't ever remember a time when they were relieved for any length of time to go home. Sister Rutter came from England. Sister Hyde came from Melbourne and so there were times when she went to her family but they were constant in their ... in their caring and so on for us even though, of course, it was ... it wasn't such ... it was a large family and none of us were treated too much like individuals. We ... you know, we moved en masse, we answered to the bell for, you know to get up ...

They actually rang bells?

Bells rang all day every day. So we got up to the bell, we went to breakfast with the bell, marching in singing hymns. And we ... everything we did, we answered to the bell so it was very, very disciplined and very structured.

So there were activities laid out for every minute of the day?

Well activities were laid out and they were mostly of course rosters. So every child, of course, was rostered so that's how in fact the chores got done around and that could be either the peeling of the vegetables or setting of the tables and the washing up and the drying and ...

How many children were there at any one time?

Well, thirty-five at at Colebrook Home, Quorn, but in later years we moved to a ... a place, which of course became Colebrook Home at Eden Hills in the Adelaide Hills. Ah, and ah, the numbers, of course, went up to around fifty in those days but, of course, we got children from the southern reserves and so on, so the ... the home was no longer so called half-caste children from the remote areas of South Australia. They were a mixture of children from ... from the southern communities.

Now you were very tiny when you went there, really, still a baby, at two. Was there a lot of affection and love from these two maiden ladies for you?

No, I can't remember any affection of that kind. Any affection that we received was really from those older girls who were rostered to look after the babies, so the affection came from them. I can't remember any affection. In fact, I guess in later years, we shied away from that sort of affection because often there were church families and so on who wanted to take, you know, children in for the school holidays and that sort of thing, which was quite foreign to go into a nuclear family type atmosphere, where, of course, they wanted to hug and kiss you and tuck you in bed and kiss you good night and that sort of stuff. I just didn't like it at all. Shied away from it and didn't really want any part of that. And there were little things like clocks ticking and those sorts of things. I could never remember, you know, in the children's home, hearing a clock tick.

Why didn't you hear a clock tick? They didn't have clocks. It was the bells?

Well, it was the bells and so on and I can't even remember, I suppose, seeing a clock but we answered to the bells, not to a clock and we would never have had a clock, of course, in our dormitory or, or in the dining room and in fact the only time we ever went into the ... into the house was to perform the chores that we had or to go into the dining room for ... for our meals and into ... the dining room became the homework centre, at nights to do our homework. Apart from that, all our activities were out of doors.

So you were really brought up by the other children. Do you remember any particular girl, who looked after you, or you had a particularly close relationship with?

Well, no I don't actually remember that from my own childhood but I remember ... I certainly remember the baby that I was responsible for when I ... when I got older and so on and her name was Doris Kartinyeri. She's Doris Thompson now and she ... she'd refer to me as her mother in the home so I certainly remember the ... the child that I was responsible for but I think that at Colebrook Home, Quorn, probably all the older girls were responsible for the babies and there just wasn't just one.

So it was very much an institution?

Oh yes, very much.

Now a lot of thought now is that that is not a good environment for developing warm, loving human being and yet you seem to have come out of it all right. Why do you think that was?

Well, I think it was because, I guess, well, I actually put it down to the discipline. I ... I don't think the discipline hurt us one bit and it really stood us in very good stead I think for ... for life ahead. It might have taken us much longer I think to ... to grow up and to come to terms with with those ... those personal relationships, because many of the things of course we were taught in the Home were things like boy-girl relationships were, of course, were taboo. Colebrook Home, of course, wasn't only a home for girls, it was a home for girls and boys, but we were always watched, certainly after it got dark and so on, that ... that we weren't getting up to any, you know, hanky panky if you like. We never saw, of course ... All the children in the home, of course, we saw as our brothers and sisters. But anything to do with boy-girl relationships and other matters, like for instance, going to the pictures or wearing men's apparel, and ... we never wore shorts. Wearing make-up and all those things were things that we were taught were wrong. And in later years, of course, when we grew up and we were out in the world and we were going back to see the younger children in the home, we never arrived at Colebrook Home in slacks, with make-up. All the make-up would come off and we appeared like we were still the kids [laughs] that grew up in the home. So in a way, I guess, we had respect for Sister Hyde and Sister Rutter, even though life was tough and punishments were severe for doing ... for doing wrong.

Were you ever punished?

Oh, yes, I can remember being punished.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 2