"Jedda" and her foster
Ngarla Kunoth, star ot the film "Jedda" and a former nun, now has a ready- made family of four part- Aboriginal children
. . . Ngarla Kunoth . . . Jedda . . . Sister
Rosalie . . . Mrs. Bill Monks. Different names, different ways of life, but they are one and the same person.
Firstly an Aboriginal child living a tribal life in Central Australia. At 15 a film star, thrust into the limelight in Sydney. A Church of England nun for ten years in
A wife, married a little over 16 months. And more
recently a foster-mother, at present caring for four part- Aboriginal children, three
Lived with mother's tribe
sisters and a brother, aged from six months to eight
They all add up to a life which is unique.
To the present-day Mrs. Monks, they have not been separate lives; they have all blended together.
She lives now at Essendon, Victoria, with her Geelong- born husband, a clerk, and they are the first foster- parents in a new family group scheme established by the Ministry of Aboriginal
"Mr. Worthy, the director, approached me and I fell for it," said Mrs. Monks in a quiet, gentle voice.
The scheme keeps brothers and sisters together. Mr. and Mrs. Monks will have up to six children in long-term placement.
"The aim is to eventually return the children to their families," said Mrs. Monks.
"It could take one year, or it could take up to five years."
Instant motherhood has not perturbed Mrs. Monks. She has had lots of experi- ence in child-care; as a nun she worked with children for eight years.
And the thought of becom- ing attached to the children and then having to part with them is not a worry.
"You can get too emotion- ally involved with the chil- dren, which is bad for them. But I feel I can cope now,
much more than when I was
"Then I had no one really to belong to; there you were alone. Now I have someone,
my husband. It gives me stability.
"And also in my life I have learned enough about
Mrs. Monks was born on
her grandfather's cattle property, Utopia Station, 150 miles north-east of Alice Springs.
Her father is three-
quarter German, part Abo- riginal; her mother was a
Her father was away a lot, droving. She, six brothers, two sisters, lived with her mother's tribe.
They lived a tribal life.
"That meant not living like Europeans," said Mrs. Monks. "We didn't sleep in a bed, didn't eat European
She lived in the bush, in the desert. Ate witchetty grubs, wild bananas, wild oranges, grass roots, kanga- roo, rabbit, wild turkey, goanna—"anything we could
"I remember trying to catch goannas—and goannas trying to catch me," she said with a soft laugh.
She also remembers some- times going to her grand- father's homestead and ask- ing for a loaf of bread, a tin of jam.
"My grandfather, a German, didn't acknowledge us, because of my father marrying a full - blood Aboriginal."
She slept in the open. Spoke a tribal dialect, a little English.
At ll, she went to school in Alice Springs, living at St. Mary's Church of England Hostel, a few miles
"Nothing exciting hap- pened," said Mrs. Monks "In school holidays I went bush again. There was no
"I enjoyed Alice Springs. There were things you could get in shops you couldn't get under trees, like ice-
When she was 15, life changed. "Mr. and Mrs.
MRS. BILL MONKS, who at 15 came from the bush to be feted as a star, holds the youngest of the children.
By MAUREEN BANG
"Chauvel came along. And
then I became public
property." She smiled.
Film - maker the late
Charles Chauvel and Mrs.
Chauvel went to the hostel looking for a girl to play the lead role in "Jedda," the film they were making.
Eight girls were given screen tests, she was chosen,
"Because I was photogenic, not because I was an actress
— I was terribly shy."
Looking back on it now
she said she was also tem-
peramental. "I'd say, 'I don't want to do it,"' but Mr. and Mrs. Chauvel were very patient with me. And in the
end I would do it.
"But I didn't know what it was all about. I didn't know what a film was."
When she saw the com-
pleted film and herself in it for the first time, she "giggled" her way through it — "and cried when I died in the end!"
But on becoming Ngarla Kunoth (Ngarla is a tradi-
tional tribal name of her mother, and it became her professional name), or simply "Jedda," there came a "slow awakening."
She enjoyed the filming. "I was out in the bush," but when she was taken to Syd- ney to be feted as a star she was terribly homesick. "All I wanted to do was go
"I lived with Mr. and
Mrs. Chauvel and felt very
much at home with them.
They were wonderful." But
Paraded as a celebrity
she was shy meeting other people and would say she
had a headache.
"I missed out on a lot of the glamor - I would have
had a ball now."
But as a celebrity she remembers being "paraded— I felt like a monkey. People would say, '"you have a nice smile . . . you do speak nicely —"' all that rot."
She remembers, too, people discussing her in her hearing. "It would make you feel as though you were not a human being — that you were something with three or four legs."
She went through the stage of being ashamed that she was an Aboriginal. "I
wished I was white.
"There was no prejudice, but people treated you differently. I can't explain it. I felt on the outer.
"It was quite new, this feeling.
"In Alice Springs there were not many white people, and the ones who were there spoke my language.
"I didn't feel different. Inside we were all the same."
After the film she went back to school, "but I didn't quite fit in." She went into secondary classes, "I won't say how far in," she said with a laugh.
At 18 she was assistant to
the play teacher at a hostel,
went back to the station where she was born for a while, and then to Adelaide, where she furthered her education.
She also became involved in the Church, the result being that she came to Mel- bourne and joined the Com- munity of the Holy Name, a Church of England order of
That was in 1959. She remained a nun, Sister Rosalie, until 1969.
She looked after children, European children. She came in contact with only one Aboriginal child. "She was very disturbed and I could do nothing for her."
Wanted to help
She began seeing a lot about Aborigines on tele-
"I knew what the Abori-
gines wanted to say, but I did not think they were expressing themselves well.
"I felt I had cut mysell off from my people. I fell perhaps I could be doing something."
She began thinking seriously of working among Aborigines, about ending her
life as a nun. "It was a
growing thing; not some- thing that happened over-
night." It took two years before she finally left.
Since then she has worked with the Ministry of Abori- ginal Affairs.
She has been in charge of the tutorial scheme, where university students help Aboriginal children with
"I would give pep talks to the students so they would not drop out of school." She also helped find accommoda- tion for Aborigines who came from the country to work. "We like them to be in a family atmosphere."
She has travelled around Victoria making contact with Aborigines.
In some districts she has found they can cope, in others they are not as con-
"Adults will send their
children to a shop instead of going themselves. Rather like New Australians; but with them it is the language bar- rier, with Aborigines it goes deeper.
Picture by LES GORRIE
"Many Aborigines coming
to towns and cities have for-
gotten their tribal way of life; sometimes it has been suppressed in them as child- ren. When they become adults, they can't cope.
"I was fortunate I had a
stable family background."
The greatest problem for Aborigines, she believes, is acceptance.
Mrs. Monks has returned
to Central Australia many times. A couple of months ago she went with her
husband. "We went walk- about — or rather drive about," she said with a laugh.
"I enjoy living in the bush, but I also enjoy these things," she said, pointing
around the well-furnished living-room.
"I have chosen this way of life, but I can go back any time to the bush and be accepted by my tribe. I am
"I've got my tribe, my people, my language. I know my own identity. This is my stability. Within myself there is peace."
Mrs. Monks met her
husband through his sister, a friend of hers. He spent many years travelling and working round Australia.
Although Mrs. Monks enjoys working among Aboriginal children, later she hopes to settle down simply as a housewife—"and, I hope, a mother."
She loves Central Aus- tralia; her husband does, too. They may settle there.
MR. and MRS. BILL MONKS, pictured at their home at Essendon, Victoria, with their four part-Aboriginal foster-children, three sisters and a brother. Mr. and Mrs. Monks are the first foster-parents in a new family-group scheme established by the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.