Skip to main content

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks AM

b. 1937

Rosalie Kunoth Monks AM (1937-), indigenous welfare campaigner and elder and former actress and nun, was born at Utopia Cattle Station in the Northern Territory, the daughter of Allan Kunoth and his wife Ruby, a woman of the Ngarla people, Anmatjere tribe. Her paternal grandfather was German, and her paternal grandmother was from Arrernte country. In 1953 Kunoth was cast by the producer Charles Chauvel in the title role of the film Jedda. Selected unwittingly from amongst local schoolgirls because she had the shy demeanour Chauvel was looking for, she actually was shy, but was coached, cared-for and chided by Chauvel and his wife Elsa, with whom she stayed throughout the filming. At one point, she ran away but was retrieved, to continue filming. Because the scenes were filmed out of sequence she never knew the story until Jedda was released in 1955; it previewed at the Star Theatre, a segregated cinema in Darwin, but Kunoth given special dispensation to sit amongst the white audience. Both Kunoth and her mother were dismayed by the sexualised nature of Kunoth’s role, which breached their customs. Further, the publicity booklet for the film, Eve in Ebony …the story of “Jedda” , stated falsely that Ngarla was her tribal name as a child. Kunoth was dismayed at the fiction, for Ngarla was her mother’s skin totem: ‘And every part of my body screamed and said, “I am not a Ngarla, I am an Apunaga woman”, because I’d been brought up knowing who I am, and for a white person to change my skin was more than I could take’ she later said. Kunoth left Alice Springs in 1957 and joined an Anglican order of nuns in Melbourne. Ten years later, with the blessing of the church, she left in order to work directly with Aboriginal people. She was employed at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and set up the first Aboriginal family group home in Victoria at Essendon. After returning to the Northern Territory with her husband Bill Monks, she became involved in politics, social work and environmental causes. She was appointed adviser on Aboriginal affairs to the Minister for Aboriginal affairs, Paul Everingham. In 1979, she sought election to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, in order to fight the proposed construction of a dam which threatened sacred land. Although not elected, she continued to oppose the dam, for which plans were abandoned in 1992. In August 2008 she was a spokesperson for Amnesty International in Canberra, censuring Federal government intervention in the Territory as a violation of human rights. In 2015 she was named Northern Territory Australian of the Year.

The photograph of Rosalie Kunoth Monks came into the collection along with a copy of the booklet produced to promote the film Jedda, Eve in Ebony.

Updated 2018