book review


21 October 2020

Stuart Rintoul: LOWITJA
Allen & Unwin, 2020.
ISBN, 9781760875602, $45, pp. 392.


Powerful words for a powerful woman. The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue explores the price she paid as a self empowered woman in a country that was not yet ready for her strength.

I have to admit that before reading this book I was unaware of who Lowitja O’Donoghue was, and her story from the Colebrook mission home to the status of National Living Treasure. At 88 years old, Lowitja remains a pioneer for Indigenous Australian women, from proving herself as a young nurse to receiving honorary doctorates from Australian Universities for her dedication to improving lives.

Lowitja’s Yunkunytjatjara story is woven loosely throughout the wider Indigenous affairs that she found herself heavily involved in. Stuart Rintoul did an incredible job of introducing each and every figure throughout each story. Although at times I found myself overwhelmed with details, I recommend taking it slowly and reflecting along the way. Learning about colonial and Indigenous histories of Australia side by side is heavy work which requires reflexivity and a willingness to unlearn things that may feel like the foundation of our Australian identity. Lowitja’s strength in facing the challenges, of asserting her place in a country that was not ready for an Indigenous woman to fight for the rights of her people, serves a great inspiration to marginalised communities today. To mirror Lowitja’s stoicism in advocating for the recognition of Indigenous rights as a reader with a dedication to understanding Australia’s Indigenous history is the beginning of allyship.

Despite being a white Australian reader, I think we can all relate to the discussions in Lowitja’s biography. From identity to legacy, Lowitja’s life story is rich with self-discovery. Rejection after rejection this book shines bright with fortitude. Often reflecting on her time at the Colebrook home, Lowitja carries her heavy childhood into her old age. Whilst acknowledging her distant family relationships, Lowitja shone a light on the people she chose to surround herself with. Seeing her around the world meeting with significant political figures also highlighted for me just how hard she worked to cement her place in the world as an Indigenous woman.

Rintoul and Lowitja spent years compiling the stories for these 8 books, which shines through in the thoughtful consideration of depth and detail. This is one to take slowly with a pencil in hand, I feel as if it can only become richer with time. This isn’t a breezy read, but instead an important one for those who want to learn more about the plight of First Nations women in
Australian history. Rintoul has compiled her stories in a way that will inspire the next generation of change makers.

It is not only the story of a single woman but the story of hundreds of nations working together for their mutual benefit. This beautiful hardback edition filled with images and understanding is filled with insight and importance beyond what I am taught as a student majoring in Indigenous studies. It is a reminder to branch out our reading practices; similar to Lowitja’s autobiography, I also recommend Dark Emu among other First Nations reads.With the end of this book over 10 years ago the weight of Lowitja’s story hangs heavy with the current political climate. With the budget handed down last week came the promise of 10,000 repatriated cultural artifacts juxtaposed against discussions of cashless basics cards for remote communities. Now is a time more complex than ever for Indigenous affairs. We must keep these stories alive, by reading, sharing and celebrating their wealth of knowledge.

I look forward to keeping this book on my shelves forever and learning more about the true stories and experiences of other women like Lowitja.

The author of this review is a settler on Aboriginal land. 

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