Pioneering Aboriginal actress and activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has died

As the lead of 1955 film 'Jedda', she was the first female Aboriginal actor to play a lead role

NOTE: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following content contains images of a deceased person.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM, actress and pioneering Indigenous activist, has died aged 85. The late activist’s family has granted permission to use her image.

According to 3KND, the humanitarian’s family said she suffered several strokes on Wednesday (January 26), resulting in her evacuation from her home in Utopia to Alice Springs, NT, where she died in hospital that afternoon, surrounded by family.

An Arrernte/Anmatjere woman, Kunoth-Monks was born in 1937 at Utopia Station in the Northern Territory, before moving to Alice Springs. It was there in 1955, upon finishing school at 16 years old, that Kunoth-Monks was cast in the title role of Jedda, the first Australian film to be shot in colour.

She and Jedda co-star Robert Tudawali were the first Aboriginal actors to star in a lead role. The film would later be played to the 2015 audience at Cannes Film Festival, and is considered in Australia today to be a renowned classic.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks played the lead role in ‘Jedda’; 3 January 1955 CREDIT: NTL Howard Truran Collection

Kunoth-Monks was also a main character in the 2013 documentary film, Utopia. Directed by John Pilger, it was “an investigation into a suppressed colonial past and rapacious present”, providing an in-depth look into the experiences of Aboriginal Australians in modern Australia.

Kunoth-Monks was also a respected activist and politician. From 1960, Kunoth-Monks spent ten years as a nun in the Melbourne Anglican Community of the Holy Name. Upon leaving the order, she married Bill Monks and began work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, also establishing the first home in Victoria for Aboriginal children.

Kunoth-Monks served as President of the Barkly Shire in the Northern Territory and several times presented as a Northern Territory candidate for political office. In 2007, Kunoth-Monks was presented with the Northern Territory Tribute to Women Award for working for the rights of Indigenous women.

Following the Northern Territory Intervention by the Australian government in 2007, she emphatically opposed the imposition of federal leases and other discriminatory measures that targeted only Aboriginal people across 73 communities.

Her concerns about the Northern Territory Intervention were acknowledged internationally, when in 2010, aged 73, Kunoth-Monks travelled with Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM to Geneva to attend the UN meeting of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

For her humanitarian works, Kunoth-Monks was the NT State Recipient of the 2015 Australian of the Year Award. That same year, she was recognised as the NAIDOC Person of the Year.

In 2014, Kunoth-Monks’ appearance on ABC’s Q&A attracted national attention. In a passionate speech, she spoke in English and Arrernte language to reject claims that Indigenous people were not cooperating with non-Indigenous people to improve their quality of life. “Don’t try and suppress me and don’t call me a problem,” Kunoth-Monks said. “I am not the problem.”

Watch that interview below:

Kunoth-Monks is survived by her five children and 19 grandchildren. Per SBS, Kunoth-Monks’ granddaughter Amelia said: “She fought for her people because of the policies that don’t help us get out of the poverty that we have been put in.

“She wanted to fight against those policies and make her people act like they have purpose and dignity to live as equal people to our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters.”

A memorial service celebrating Kunoth-Monks’ extraordinary life is being arranged in Alice Springs before she is laid to rest at a private burial on country in Utopia.

Utopia director John Pilger paid tribute to Kunoth-Monks on social media, writing: “The best of Australians are Indigenous. Among the most inspiring was Rosalie Kunoth Monks.”

Read more tributes to Kunoth-Monks, including one by Olympian and and former politician Nova Peris, below.

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