Lowitja – The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue by Stuart Rintoul

‘I’ll show you.’

In September 1934, two-year-old Lowitja O’Donoghue was taken by her white father Tom O’Donoghue from her ‘full-blood’ Pitjantjatjara mother, Lily, and deposited in the Colebrook ‘half-caste’ mission. In 1945, Lily travelled hundreds of kilometres from Oodnadatta to Port Augusta where she thought that she might find her five removed children.  They were not there.

The Colebrook home moved, over time, from central Australia to the outskirts of Adelaide.  Each move took the children further away from their communities.  Family ties were destroyed as the mission set out to turn ‘savages’ into Christians.  Lowitja (then called Lois) was told, as she left the mission to take up a position as a domestic servant on a sheep station, that she soon be pregnant and amount to nothing.  Well, she certainly proved that statement be wrong!

In this thoughtful biography, Mr Rintoul takes us through Ms O’Donoghue’s life.  Despite initial opposition, Ms O’Donoghue trained as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and in 1959 she became South Australia’s first Aboriginal nursing sister.  She then spent some time in India but returned to Australia and became involved in Aboriginal politics leading up to the 1967 referendum. She joined the public service and rose through the ranks.  In 1989, she was chosen to the Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.  And in that role, she was one of the key players in the negotiations that shaped the Keating government’s native title legislation after the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992.

What comes across in this moving account of a life well lived, is Ms Donoghue’s commitment to Aboriginal people.  An articulate, compassionate woman who faced opposition from those who wanted more radical change more quickly as well as those who resisted any change at all.  A woman who knew the history of her people, who had directly experienced dispossession.  A woman who, when she met her mother Lily, had no shared language. 

And then, in 2001, there was a controversy about whether Ms O’Donoghue was a ‘stolen child’.  I mention this distressing controversy only because it was a truly despicable example of a journalistic ‘beat-up’.

In this biography, Mr Rintoul traces the story of a remarkable woman, a great Australian and an inspirational role model. 

But, as Ms O’Donoghue says:

‘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 feel 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 is where the seeds of my commitment to human rights and social justice were sown.’

Strongly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith