Lowitja O’ Donoghue on injustice and growing up in a missionary home

Lowitja O'Donoghue

Honouring Dr Lowitja O’ Donoghue AC CBE DSG (1932-2024)

A member of the stolen generations, Lowitja O’ Donoghue, was taken from her mother and handed to missionaries of the United Aboriginal Mission by her father, Tom O’Donaghue, aged two. Noel Pearson described Donaghue, who overcame discrimination to train as a nurse, then rose through the public service and became the first chair of ATSIC, as the greatest Aboriginal leader of the modern era.

Her death was announced this afternoon by her family. “Yankunytjatjara woman, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, aged 91, died peacefully on 4 February 2024 in Kaurna Country in Adelaide, South Australia, with her immediate family by her side.

“Our Aunty and Nana was the Matriarch of our family, whom we have loved and looked up to our entire lives. We adored and admired her when we were young and have grown up full of never-ending pride as she became one of the most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders this country has ever known.

“Aunty Lowitja dedicated her entire lifetime of work to the rights, health, and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We thank and honour her for all that she has done – for all the pathways she created, for all the doors she opened, for all the issues she tackled head-on, for all the tables she sat at and for all the arguments she fought and won.”

In 2008 she gave this remarkable speech from the pulpit of St Peters Cathedral Adelaide, declaring it as her swansong from public speaking. Almost, not quite.

Thank you very much. 

It is a great honour to be here tonight to kickstart Reconciliation Week for 2008. 

I would like to thank, especially, the Very Reverend Dr Steven Ogden, Dean of St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, for inviting me to present this lecture. I’m sorry he is unable to be here tonight. 

I would also like to thank Reconciliation South Australia for their role in organising this evening and liaising with me about it. 

It is a pleasure to be here and to be able to speak to this ecumenical gathering from this beautiful pulpit. 

It’s been a good week for women in the Anglican Church…first, you ordained a female bishop, and now you allow me to address you from the pulpit! 

But don’t worry, it’s not going to be a sermon! 

I have decided to retire from public speaking and so tonight is my swansong. I think it is appropriate to include a special treat for you as part of it. 

But more about that later. For now, I will leave you to speculate about that tantalizing thought! 

Before I go any further, I would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people and thank them for their welcome. 

Reconciliation Week is always, in part, a celebration. It celebrates the belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings. And stemming from this belief is a worldview about how human beings should be treated. 

Reconciliation celebrates our intentions to connect and reconnect in ways that honour our understanding of human equality and worth.

For me, this is the most simple and yet most profound message of Christianity. And I am at a time of my life where I reflect a lot. I reflect about what holding this belief means for daily living and action. 

I reflect about the consequences when this belief is abandoned. And, of course, it has been abandoned in the treatment of Aboriginal people. 

While Reconciliation Week offers the hope of what we can become, it also reminds us of what we have been. It is, therefore, an occasion of great sadness as well. 

For me, Reconciliation Week has always been a busy time of speaking out and speaking up. As a public figure, I am usually called upon at this time to explain things and to motivate people. 

Yet as I said earlier, it is also a time when my own heart is very heavy. Heavy with the sadness of how little has been achieved. 

And heavy with thoughts, memories and feelings from my own past. 

I want to tell you just a little about that tonight. 

When I was just two years oldI was taken (along with my sisters, Amy and Vi) from my mother.  My older sister Eileen and my brother Geoffrey had already been taken. 

I was taken to the Colebrook Home, an institution established by the United Aboriginal Mission, first in Oodnadatta, then Quorn and later at Eden Hills. 

I did not meet my mother, Lily, again until I was in my early thirties and working as a nurse in the outback. 

Apparently, when she heard that I was going to visit her, she waited in the dust by the side of the road for days in anticipation. 

And then of course, when I arrived, she discovered that we did not share a common language to communicate with. We could not speak to each other – except through our eyes. 

And what I saw was a woman who had been undone by her grief. She spent a lot of that visit looking at the floor. 

I cannot imagine what the whole experience of separation must have been like for her. She must have felt totally powerless. And she was.

Try to imagine it! Five of her precious children taken from her, and… 

  • There was no informed consent. 
  • She would have had no legal recourse. 
  • She would have had no moral support.
  • And no understanding that she might never see her children again. 

For myself and countless other children, these so-called ‘child protection’ policies and practices established a vicious cycle of damage that has continued from generation to generation. 

And let us be very clear here, children were not taken because of policies about childhood neglect. They were taken on the basis of race. 

Because so many of our children were stolen from our families, we were robbed of the opportunity to learn our own ways of bringing up children. 

You do not learn about love and care from books – you learn that by experience. 

What could be more fundamental than the knowledge of how to raise the next generation? 

In fact, we were robbed of any chance to learn about our cultural ways at all. 

This history is important in understanding how a whole generation was denied the chance to pass on cultural knowledge. 

It was, of course, government policy of the time to take ‘half caste’ children – which is what we were known as – and ‘civilize us, to be acceptable in white society. 

In a book written in Adelaide in 1937 called Pearls from the Deep, we were seen as [and I quote]: 

“waste material”…”rescued from the degradation of camp life”…”brought up from the depths of ignorance, superstition and vice”…”to be fashioned as gems to adorn God’s crown”.1

[End quote]. 

The thinking in those days was that ‘full-blood’ Aboriginals would die out in time. 

And, that although ‘half caste’ children could never be fully integrated, we could learn the skills to serve our white superiors. 

For the girls, that mostly meant becoming a domestic in a white household. And for the boys, it meant labouring work. 

At the Colebrook home, we tji tji tjuta – Colebrook kids – were expected to be grateful for being saved. 

My own personal memory of Colebrook is that it was a time of rigid discipline, joyless religious observance, lack of privacy and a stultifying denial of autonomy. 

I remember endless hymn singing and continual praising of the Lord for pretty awful food! 

Boiled cabbage was their specialty. Our little hearts would sink when we saw more cabbages being delivered! 

I especially remember the trouble we got into if we spoke in our own language. It was absolutely forbidden to do so – or to mention anything of our former lives and families. 

I am sometimes identified as one of the ‘success stories’ of the policies of removal of Aboriginal children. 

But for much of my childhood, I was deeply unhappy. I felt I had been deprived of love and the ability to love in return. Like Lily, my mother, I felt totally powerless.

And I think this was where the seeds of my commitment to human rights and social justice were sown. 

Naturally, I can become very sad when I think about that particular history. And it is a history experienced by many Aboriginal families. 

As a result, many of my people have deep-seated fears about being removed from their communities by white fellas. It is a real issue in relation to welfare interventions and imprisonment. 

It is partly why a code of silence surrounds abuse in Aboriginal communities because people do not want to see the fracturing of families and communities yet again.

I want you tonight to understand the tragic depth of this history – but also to feel uplifted and optimistic to act for a better future. 

And with this in mind, I come to the moment of your special treat for this evening! 

I told you earlier that this speech is my swansong, and so I thought it would be fitting to give you a song! 

One of the hymns we would sing at Colebrook was “whiter than snow”. 

When many of us tji tji tjuta get together now we sing these songs and have a great laugh about it. 

I have never sung solo in public before. So you are especially privileged! 

[Sing:….. Whiter than snow.….. Yes, whiter than snow….Now wash me in the blood of the lamb and I shall be whiter than snow….] 

And as you can see, it really worked. Just look at me!

I might even treat you to another song later…. 

2008 has been a momentous year in Australian history. 

I was in Canberra on February 13th when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the Apology. 

Rudd’s Apology speech was magnificent. He got it so right. 

What was so good about it was that he achieved that perfect balance between apologising for past wrongs and looking forward to a future built on healing and mutual respect. 

His words were so eloquent. They deserve to be quoted at some length: 

He expressed perfectly the theme of Reconciliation, which we will be focusing on tonight and during this coming week. 

I can barely describe the mix of emotions that I felt on that momentous day last February. 

There was overwhelming joy. There was a sense of gratitude (yes!) and relief that something which Aboriginal people were entitled to, had finally happened after all these years. 

A weight was lifted from my shoulders. 

There was a tangible sense of real hope and optimism for the future. 

I felt proud to be an Aboriginal woman, and for the first time in a long time, I felt proud to be an Australian. 

There was an amazing feeling of solidarity and connectedness with my own people…as well as with all the non-Indigenous people who were there to witness this historic occasion. 

Tears flowed freely. People embraced each other. 

There was such generosity of spirit. 

Differences were forgotten…at least until the Leader of the Opposition spoke in reply. 

Nelson misjudged the occasion terribly, resorting to blaming the victims and self-righteously trying to justify the stance adopted by his former leader. 

You could see he was trying to be all things to all people… to both placate the conservatives within his party and to appeal to those who are more progressive. 

And, of course, he inevitably failed. His speech was given with one hand and taken with the other. It was small-minded. It diminished him as a person and it diminished his party. 

I was reminded of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1998, who said: 

It is not small people who ask for forgiveness. It is large hearted, magnanimous, courageous people who are ready to say what are some of the most difficult words in any language: “I am sorry”. But once uttered, they open the way to a new opportunity, the possibility of a new beginning, the chance to start again, having learnt a lesson from the past’.

There is no question that many Christian churches were complicit in the removal of children. Most of them formally apologised over a decade ago. 

In their submissions to the Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (the Bringing Them Home Inquiry), most of the Christian churches acknowledge their role. 

For example, the Catholic Church wrote of their sincere regret [and I quote] 

‘that some of the Church’s child welfare services and organisations that provided residential services and institutional care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children … assisted governments to implement assimilationist policies and practices’. 

Other submissions freely admitted and regretted their mistakes in this area – however well-intentioned they may have been at the time. 

The Anglican Church offered an unreserved apology for the involvement of Anglicans, commenting that while they may have acted as part of existing networks of welfare arrangements and that individuals may have believed they were acting in the best interests of the children concerned, nonetheless… and I quote: 

No amount of explanation can detract from the now observable consequences of those misguided policies and practices. A great wrong has been done to the Indigenous people of Australia. It is for participation in that wrong that this apology is offered’. 

The Perth Diocese of the Anglican Church acknowledged that their complicity had contributed to the dislocation of Aboriginal people and to their loss of land, language and identity. Significantly, they also acknowledged that they had, therefore also contributed to the present high rate of continuing social dislocation and Aboriginal imprisonment.

The Uniting Church admitted they were ‘blind to the racist assumptions that underlay the policy and practice. They mentioned that while many children were provided with a loving, secure environment, there were also times when children were met with violence and abuse at the hands of some of the very staff whom they should have been able to trust’.

The Churches of Christ also acknowledged their complicity in a ‘destructive system’.

These are just some examples. There are many more. 

Of course, the Australian Churches have done much more than just apologise. 

They have been active partners in the Reconciliation movement. Their contributions are evident in a whole range of areas: 

  • Employment (for example, affirmative action to reach targets set for Indigenous employment)
  • Empowerment (gradually handing over responsibility for welfare agency work to Indigenous people and establishing structures to progress self-determination)
  • Welfare services (emergency aid, accommodation, family support, financial counselling)
  • Education – Culturally inclusive curricula, fee relief for Aboriginal students, Indigenous schools, dedicated positions for facilitating Indigenous education in church schools
  • Cultural awareness training through things like Learning Circles in parishes
  • Mentoring programs
  • Advocacy work – through your associations, speaking out against injustice and speaking up for the rights of Indigenous people.

Then there is the involvement of organizations such as the National Council of Churches of Australia in the big global initiatives like the Make Indigenous Poverty History campaign. 

This has a focus on ensuring that the Millennium Development Goals do not overlook the poverty suffered by Indigenous Peoples around the world, including Australia. 

Poverty is a very real and debilitating experience for many of my people. Addressing it is absolutely fundamental for genuine reconciliation. 

As Nelson Mandela said in 2006: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice’. 

So, through work like this, the Churches and other agencies have recognized that it is now time to move on beyond Sorry and to focus on the journey of healing and justice. 

This involves putting ideals into practice. 

So what does moving on involve? 

First, it involves a genuine mindset that sees the rights of Aboriginal people as being as important as the rights of anyone else.

This means that where rights have been taken away and where damage has been done, reparations need to be made.

This is a basic principle of law, and yet largely, it has not applied to Aboriginal people generally or to the Stolen Generations in particular. 

The 1997 Bringing Them Home Report made extensive recommendations about what was necessary, but very few of these have been enacted. Of the 54 recommendations of this report, 35 – that’s right, two-thirds of them – have been ignored. 

That is not good enough. 

The bulk of Federal funds have gone to ‘Link Up’ family reunion services and counselling (both excellent services, by the way). 

But the Government’s response was directed essentially to just 17 recommendations – mainly those dealing with rehabilitation, mental health and family reunion, with a few small gestures towards records, storytelling and languages. 

And the funds that were allocated to these 17 recommendations were grossly inadequate to meet the need. 

Significantly, the Report recommended that where Aboriginal people had suffered as a result of removal, that compensation be made. This was to compensate for:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Deprivation of liberty
  • Abuse
  • Loss of Native Title rights
  • Loss of cultural rights and fulfilment
  • Economic loss.

This is an issue that still needs to be put on the table and dealt with. And the wider community needs to understand that this is an issue that goes to the heart of equality under the law.

In other words, it is not so much about ‘fixing the Aboriginal problem’, as it is about fixing the white justice system – and recognizing that it works in the interests of some groups at the expense of others. 

Very few Aboriginal people have received any compensation, and many who have tried have been re-traumatized in their experiences of the court system. 

It is interesting to note here that the Bringing Them Home Report recognised this as a likely scenario – and recommended that in claims for compensation, there should be particular principles in play. These included, for instance:

  • Free legal advice and representation
  • Cultural appropriateness
  • Independent decision-making, and
  • The inclusion of Indigenous people as decision-makers.

Another recommendation was about training of all relevant professional groups so that they learnt about the effects of removal on Aboriginal people – and would therefore be better equipped to respond appropriately. 

Another important recommendation tackled the huge over-representation of Aboriginal people in gaol and its connection to their social and historical experiences. And so, it was recommended that there be relevant programs in prisons for Aboriginal prisoners and to advise prison health services. 

These are just some examples of outstanding issues that need to be addressed. 

The plight of Aboriginal communities in the APY Lands has been given a high profile in the media recently. 

Again I stress that the way forward must be driven by a human rights perspective. 

As I have said for many years, it is not about short-term programs and quick fixes. It is about sustainable ongoing solutions that are negotiated with each community. 

And it is about putting in appropriate people and resources for the long haul.

There is no point in talking about the fundamental equality of all people if we are content to stand by and look the other way as one group within our community falls apart. 

Highlighting the problems of people in rural and remote areas is important. But it is also important to recognise that there are many urban Aboriginal people who struggle with the disadvantages that have been socially imposed upon them. 

The journey of healing will not have succeeded until the profile of Aboriginal people matches that of other Australians on all measurable criteria of well-being. That must be our benchmark. 

And it means that there is work to be done in all areas of Aboriginal health and spiritual and emotional wellbeing. 

The role of the Christian church in the history of Aboriginal people is clearly a significant one. I ask that you think about that role for the future ongoing journey of reconciliation. 

I ask you to imagine what you would want history to be reporting about your actions and achievements in ten years’ time. 

What would you want people to see that you had done? And how will you monitor your progress? 

I ask you to keep these questions alive on your agendas. 

And I hope that you have the courage and stamina to consistently work to achieve your vision. 

In conclusion, I want to return to the Colebrook days for a moment and sing you a verse of another song that we were taught. The song called upon us to be prepared to go and do whatever the Lord required. It went like this: 

If the Lord wants you to go to Oodnadatta, will you go? Will you go?
If the Lord wants you to go to Nepabunna, will you go? Will you go?
If the Lord wants you to go to APY Lands, will you go? Will you go?
If the Lord wants you to go to India, will you go? Will you go?

And I went! 

I did go to India many years ago…and worked as a relief nurse among people living in poverty. They, too, were suffering from all the negative effects of an imposed colonial culture. 

So, after all these years, I put the question back to you: 

You are invited to join the Reconciliation Journey of Healing and Justice. Will you go? 

Finally, before you answer that question, I’d like you to consider the words of Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist in Queensland in the 1970s, who said, and I quote: 

If you are coming to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Thank you

Source: https://church-mouse.net/?p=695

Image: Lowitja O’Donoghue at a ceremony to unveil a mural at the site of the former Colebrook Children’s Home at Eden Hills, South Australia, 6 November 2013. Credit Bahudhara Wikimedia