First Nations family lawyer Rosalie Kunoth-Monks remembers a ‘strong and loving’ changemaker

The family of renowned First Nations lawyer Rosalie Kunoth-Monks remembered the prominent activist as a caring and wise champion of Indigenous rights.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of deceased persons. Ms Kunoth-Monks’ family have given permission for the ABC to use her name and likeness.

Ms Kunoth-Monks died this week at Alice Springs Hospital aged 85.

A proud Arrernte Anmatjere woman, Ms Kunoth-Monks shot to fame at the age of 16 when she became the first Aboriginal woman to star in a feature film – the 1955 Australian classic, Jedda.

Filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel cast Rosalie Kunoth-Monks to play the lead role in the classic 1955 Australian film, Jedda.(Wikimedia Commons: Howard Truran)

“She actually tried to run away from the set several times, but they were in the sand hills and they followed her and picked her up.”

A black and white movie poster depicting a shot native and the eponymous character, Jedda, hiding behind a tree.
A promotional poster for the 1955 Australian film Jedda(Supplied: Columbia Pictures)

A successful escape from the Jedda Plateau could have changed the course of her mother’s life, but Ngarla believes Rosalie was always going to have an impact.

Ms Kunoth-Monks moved to Melbourne, where she was a nun for 10 years before leaving the convent and marrying Bill Monks.

They established the first Aboriginal hostel in Victoria, and Ngarla remembers spending time there with his four siblings.

“She was very loving, extremely loving and not strict, but set limits for us,” she said.

“She made life better for all of us”

Rosalie Kunoth-Moines
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was a strong advocate for Indigenous people living in remote communities.(ABC News)

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has had a successful and varied career.

She was a strong advocate for Indigenous communities and strongly believed that Indigenous children should learn their traditional languages.

She has worked at the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, as Aboriginal Affairs Advisor to the Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Everingham, and as President from the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.

“Such an incredible moment”

Rosalie again brought national attention to the ABC’s Q&A program in 2014, when she delivered an emotional speech, dismissing suggestions that Native people were not cooperating with non-Native people in trying to improve their quality of life.

“I was at home [watching] with my daughter Ruby and we just stopped and looked at each other,” Ngarla said.

“It was such an amazing moment.”

aboriginal woman looks over her shoulder at the camera, her daughter sitting behind her
Ngarla and Amelia Rosemarie Kunoth-Monks want to continue Rosalie’s legacy.(ABC Alice Springs: Xavier Martin )

Ngarla’s daughter, Amelia Rosemarie, remembers being seated in the question-and-answer hearing.

“You could hear a pin drop…it’s like it’s commanding calm with its authority.

Big shoes to fill

Amelia was 12 when her grandmother began mentoring and taking her on speaking engagements across the country.

An elderly native woman sits in a camp holding a walking stick
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks in 2017, in a camp in Utopia, where she was born 80 years earlier.(ABC News: Neda Vanovac)

“When she passed away, her spirit shifted to me…I took over her roles. And those are pretty big shoes to fill.”

Labor Senator Malardirri McCarthy said she had lost an inspirational friend, a friend who made waves with her opposition to the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory in 2007.

“She became the conscience of political leaders of all persuasions…and from then on I found her voice grew much louder and much louder,” she said.

Senator Malardirri McCarthy in Darwin.
Senator Malardirri McCarthy says Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was an inspiration.(ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner paid tribute in a social media post, writing “we have lost a brave elder and matriarch”.

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