Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Justine Saunders, Actress,
1953 - 2007

Justine Florence Saunders

20-2-1953 - 15-4-2007

JUSTINE Saunders, one of the Aboriginal veterans of stage and film, who also played a key role in creating frameworks for other indigenous actors to develop their craft, as well as taking a national stance on the issue of the "stolen generation", has died from cancer at Hawkesbury District Hospital in Sydney. She was 54.

Known for her roles in films such as Fringe Dwellers and Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, and the mini-series Women of the Sun, Saunders always felt that she had a privileged life working with the teams of people who allowed her to play roles of a lifetime.

She said of herself: "Low points in my working life have come from having to fight the stereotype, the white interpretation of the Black story - the naked, ragged Aboriginal girl running round the bush looking picturesque."

She felt that usually meant being "someone's woman, bashed, shot, raped, burnt or drunk...I was sick of living among cockroaches and eating the paint off the walls, so what else could I do?...after a while I thought, 'enough! I'm an actor and I'm not doing those roles anymore. I can speak English'."

Born next to a railway track to her mother, Heather, who was a stockwoman, during floods around Quilpie in Queensland, Saunders was part of the Woppaburra people from the Kanomie clan of Keppel Island.

She got her first taste of acting at a convent in Brisbane, in such productions as Finian's Rainbow and Annie Get Your Gun. After school, she moved from Roma - where she said she worked as "chief cook and bottle-washer" - to Sydney to get away from the poverty and racism of outback Queensland.

She worked for a time as a secretary before becoming a model. But she grew restless in the role of a glorified clothes horse and auditioned for, and won, a role in the Aboriginal play, The Cake Man, which went on to be staged at the World Theatre Festival in the US. She had become a professional actress in 1974.

Saunders played her part in changing the stereotype of Aboriginal actresses through the roles she played in shows such as Number 96, Prisoner and Pig in the Poke. Her last role, in 2004, was alongside Barry Otto in The Last Cab to Darwin.

In 1991, she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to the performing arts and to the National Aboriginal Theatre, as well as for the assistance she gave in the establishment of the Black Theatre and the setting up of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust in 1987.

However, in 2000, she gained wider national prominence when she asked Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway to hand in her medal because of the emotional turmoil her mother was going through in the wake of the Federal Government's denial of the term "stolen generation". Instead, she wore her mother's tribal dolphin pin, representing the Duwrrumbul of Great Keppel Island.

Saunders, who was 11 when she was removed from her mother and spent five formative years at the Brisbane convent "for her own good", told the federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, that she could not take a telephone call from him because she was trying to contact her distraught mother. "At the time I could not speak to him because I was in the middle of ringing back my mother, who was very upset, nearly collapsing...As soon as she heard the words 'stolen generation' she nearly had a breakdown.

"When I was taken, the government did not tell (my mother) where I was for 10 to 15 years, and Mum had to walk through half of Queensland to try to find out where her daughter was being held," she said.

Saunders' gesture in returning the OAM to the Government was not made lightly; she had treasured the award. "The medal meant a lot to me...I was gobsmacked, knocked to the eyeballs, shaking (when informed that she was to receive the award). But I'm giving it back to the Government that has told me my past was a lie. To tell me I did not go through that. How dare you; the arrogance of that person (Senator Herron)." She always understood the power of her profession.

Saunders first came to prominence in Number 96 in 1976, and is also fondly remembered for her role as Pamela Madigan in Prisoner. But she saw Bob Weis' Women of the Sun, in which she was featured, as a watershed, because the 1981 mini-series enabled Aboriginal women to bring their stories to a national audience. "It was our country before it was called Australia," she proudly noted.

"Bob Maza (cultural educator, playwright and the first indigenous AFC commissioner) always used to say, 'when you entertain, you educate'; I'd like to think people will remember me for playing my part in educating and entertaining," she said. "The curtain may come down, but hopefully the next generation can see what is achievable if this Little Black Duck can do it."

Saunders is survived by her partner, Peter Whittle, her mother Heather and some of her siblings. A memorial celebration of her life and work will be held in Sydney in the near future in accordance with her wishes.

Film producer Pauline Clague assisted in the preparation of this tribute to her friend.

Author: Gerry Carman
Date: 17th April 2007
Source: The Age

go back