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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Connie Nungulla McDonald (1933–?)

PUBLICATION: When You Grow Up, Connie Nungulla McDonald with Jill Finnane, Magabala Books, 1996

SEX: Female

BIRTH DATE: 21st January 1933




  • Forrest River Mission, Kimberleys:  Connie and her mother were taken to the Forrest River Mission by the Wyndham police when she was four months old. (pp. 2-3)
  • Alice Springs: Where Connie lived while being educated at the Saint Mary’s Aboriginal Hostel (p.92-93).
  • Yarrabah, Northern Queensland: Connie moved to Yarrabah with Mary Jamison and her husband in 1957, to take up a position as a Kindergarten teacher. (p.154)
  • Sydney: Where Connie lived while she was doing her Church Army training. (pp.175-184) Connie returned to Sydney to work in the Church Army headquarters, and stayed there after she resigned.
  • Parish of St Matthew’s, Holland Park, Brisbane: Where Connie was sent for her first posting with the Church army. (p.182)
  • Gnowangerup, Great Southern region of Western Australia:  An Aboriginal community, where Connie was sent by the Church Army after she was recalled from Holland Park. (p.192)
  • East Perth, Western Australia: A lower-class region of Perth, with a largely Aboriginal population, where Connie did her third Church Army placement. (pp. 205-207)


  • Connie was a precocious, inquisitive and rebellious student. Her obvious ability led to her appointment as a teacher’s assistant when she was just 12. (p.41-42) Later, she was singled out by the mission staff as a student with prospects, and sent to the Saint Mary’s Aboriginal Hostel in Alice Springs for further education (p.92-93).
  • Connie made a concerted effort to attain a traditional education from the ‘tribal families’ that lived in camps around the mission. She went walkabout for two weeks in the middle of every year, during which time she learnt about bush foods and the ‘Law of Wanjina’. The freedom provided by the missionaries’ evacuation during World War II enabled Connie to learn about Oombulgurri practices, as did the concessions made to her as a member of the mission staff.
  • As a member of the mission staff, Connie tried to share this knowledge with her non-Aboriginal colleagues. She hoped that this might make them more sympathetic of traditional Aboriginal beliefs, however she found their attitudes difficult to change.


  • When the missionaries where evacuated during World War II, when Connie was a teenager, she filled the role of teacher’s assistant. (p.41-42)
  • At the age of 12, when there was a flu outbreak, Connie assisted with treatment and the preparation of the deceased. Her work ethic won her Mumma Nora’s praise. (p.52-54)
  • While she was studying at Saint Mary’s Aboriginal Hostel, Connie spent her summer holidays working as a house and nursemaid at the Delmore Downs sheep station, for Mr and Mrs Holt. Mr Holt ensured that all the Aboriginal workers on Delmore Downs received a fair wage and financial literacy training. Connie was respected and treated as a member of the Holt family. (p.115-117)
  • McDonald became a fierce advocate of education, and managed to convince a shearer at Delmore Downs to send his Aboriginal children to school at Saint Mary’s. (p.118-199)
  • When she returned to Forrest River after finishing high school at Saint Mary’s, she became an assistant teacher and a member of the mission staff. Connie embraced the opportunity, however she became increasingly cynical of the missionaries’ motivations for employing her. (p.129)
  • After being excommunicated by the Forrest River superintendent, Connie applied for a position as a Kindergarten teacher at Yarrabah.
  • Connie felt guided by God to leave Yarrabah and join the Anglican Church Army. She benefitted from her training in Sydney, however Connie also felt that there were double standards applied to Aboriginal students.
  • Connie had various placements with the Church Army. She carried out door-knocking surveys for the Parish of St Matthew’s in Brisbane (p.185-188). She did social work in Gnowangerup and East Perth (pp. 205-207) in Western Australia, often acting as an Aboriginal mediator.
  • Connie was committed – even addicted – to her work with the Church Army. She presumed that her “overzealous dedication” was driven by her desire to prove her worth, because of the lack of love she received growing up. (p. 212)
  • Connie began to suffer more and more from stress-induced illnesses, and to resent being frequently ‘uprooted’ by the Church Army. (195, 196).
  • Due to these factors, Connie felt liberated upon her resignation from the Church Army.
  • When she left the Church Army, Connie was recommended for a position with the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. As first she was hesitant, due to her health, and her preference for a ‘diplomatic’ rather than ‘political’ approach.(p.215) However, her commitment to social justice for Indigenous Australia compelled her to take the position in Redfern.
  • Connie then worked for Child Welfare Department at the Hostel for Aboriginal Girls, Burwood.
  • Connie took a second job with the Child Welfare Department, in a home for Aboriginal boys in North Sydney. This position was stressful enough to bring about her final retirement from social work.
  • When she started writing her life story with the support of Jill Finnane, Connie felt that she had realized the two career ambitions she had held since childhood: to become a teacher and to be a writer.” (p.ix)


  • Perth Native Welfare Department: declared Connie a ward of the state after her mother died, and placed her with various non-Aboriginal foster families. (p.7) She wrote a letter of complaint to them about the manager of the Native Hospital (p.76) and they responded by sending a representative to inspect and later dismissed the manager. (p.80) It was through liaising with this organization that the mission staff arranged to have Connie sent for further education in Alice Springs. (p.93) Connie held this organization responsible for the authoritarian policies, which demeaned and infantilized Aboriginal people. (p.29)
  • Australian Board of Missions: Connie criticised the deceitful and patronising attitude of the Australian Board of Missions, when she recalled that children in the dormitories were given better clothing only when there were seen by Southern visitors. (p.28)
  • Nonetheless, she thanks this institution in the book’s conclusion, for the role they have played in her life.
  • Royal Children Hospital: Where her half-brother Colin was placed after his mother Maisie left Connie’s father (p.161)
  • Royal Flying Doctor: Where Connie was treated when she broke both legs taking her first steps. (p.6)
  • Aboriginal Welfare Board: Despite her hostility towards the Aboriginal Welfare Board, she overcame her skepticism of its superintendent – Mr Green – after he and his wife showed her a great deal of kindness. (p.183)
  • Meals on Wheels: When Connie retired and became depressed, Meals on Wheel provided assistance and company. (p.225)
  • St Vincent de Paul: Connie enjoyed working alongside the St Vincent de Paul organization when she was in the Church Army, and overcame her biases about Catholics. They provided essential support when Connie was going through an emotional and financial crisis following her retirement. (pp.225-226)


  • The missionaries denied Connie information about her origin and parentage. This, she claims, was in accordance with government policy.
  • Connie also claims that the government ensured that the veil of secrecy covered the missionary activity, as they prevented visitors to the mission from discussing their experiences.
  • The government also prevented mission residents from speaking their native languages, and as such Connie’s first language was English.
  • Connie points out that many Aboriginal children were removed from their parents and placed in dormitories, so as to increase the influence of the ‘church and state’ over these young minds. (p.23)
  • When Connie was young, Aboriginal people were prevented from moving freely around the country without obtaining citizenship. (p.39)
  • When she decided that she would like to leave the mission, she was reminded that she could not cross the “twentieth parallel” dividing North from Central Australia. That her father and Uncle Sam had applied for citizenship, but had been knocked back (p.79)
  • On the 16th of December 1954, when Connie was 21, a mission staffer named Miss Thompson advised and aided Connie to get citizenship. (p. 141) Connie was glad to be granted citizenship, but she nonetheless challenged the judge on the terms of his selective concession.
  • In 1953, the Forrest River Mission school came under the auspices of the Western Australian public education system. This brought Connie’s teaching position under question, as she lacked formal qualifications. With the approval of the Education Department, she was allowed to continue in her previous role. (p.139)


  • Connie suffered from osteogenesis (chalky bones), which was diagnosed by the Royal Flying Doctor when she collapsed taking her first steps (p.6). This condition prevented her from taking part in many physical activities as a child, (p.43) but also precluded her from corporal punishment. (p.30) Her osteogenesis also caused Connie to have numerous accidents, including breaking an arm in the panic that ensued when the Japanese bombed Wyndham (p.37) and her leg while living in Yarrabah. (p.160)
  • During the war, when she served as a teaching and medical assistant, Connie learnt to overcome her condition and aid her fellow residents.
  • At the age of 13 Connie was taken to the Wyndham Native hospital with severe malnutrition. (p.69)
  • Connie had an appendix operation when she moved from the mission to Wyndham, which left her idle and bored. (p.149)
  • The intensity of Connie’s social work often affected her health. While working in Western Australia, she was admitted to the hospital because she was anaemic, sleep deprived and highly stressed (p.202) and she also spent seven months in the Shenton Park Rehabilitation Centre recovering from spinal injury. (p.211) Connie had a heart attack and was eventually forced to resign from social work all together (p.224)
  • Connie conceded that, despite the suffering, she also enjoyed the attention she received when ill. (p.211)
  • When she retired from social work, Connie’s isolation and chronic pain caused her to sink into serious depression.


  • According to government records, Connie’s mother ‘Biddy’ came from ‘Kurugi to the Key’. She gave birth to Connie when she was 15, and died a year and a half later. (p.3) Connie keenly felt the absence of her mother, which – combined with her father’s unreliable affection – contributed significantly to her sense of displacement.
  • Throughout her youth and adolescence, Connie persistently requested information about her mother’s background and the circumstances surrounding her birth. Her inquiries were rebuffed by mission staff, her father, and tribal elders, on the grounds that Connie would find out when she ‘grew up.’ (pp.18-21, 136)
  • Connie was provided some relief after she met her father, and he showed her a photo of her mother. Connie was shocked to realise how young her mother was. (p.87)
  • At the conclusion of her story this proclamation proves true. When Connie reconnects with her father Duncan McDonald, she feels the presence of her mother. (p.250) She is also told that her mother’s deathbed request was that her daughter would be cared for. (p. 250)
  • Duncan McDonald: Connie’s father was the son of a white station owner and an Aboriginal woman. Duncan was seen crying while nursing Connie as a baby, however he then left the Forrest River Mission for Inverway station and she did not see him again until she was 13 (p.6)
  • When he re-entered Connie’s life, Duncan educated her about politics and gave her a taste of the parental love and stable identity she longed for. (p.102)
  • Connie’s institutional upbringing made it difficult for her to bond with Duncan, (p.68) and she was anxious because his affection was never guaranteed.
  • Connie’s insecurities were apparently confirmed when Duncan declined her proposition to live with him when she graduated from Saint Mary’s. (p.120-121)
  • Duncan reversed his decision when Connie was on the verge of leaving for Queensland, however – still aggrieved – she vengefully rejected her father’s offer. (p.154-155)
  • Duncan and Connie did not communicate for most of her adult life, until she reconciled with her father before his death. (p.247-249)


  • Connie was never married, however she was proposed to by an unidentified skipper who worked in Yarrabah. (p.171) The skipper understood Connie’s reluctance to let her “defenses down” and fall in love, due to her lack of childhood affection. (p.167)
  •  Connie began to develop strong feelings for the skipper, but ultimately decided that her calling was to join the Church Army. (p.173)
  • At the conclusion of the book, Connie announces that her relationship with the skipper was renewed, however she does not elaborate.


  • Connie’s experience of the highly regimented and punitive system in place at the Forrest River Mission left her skeptical about Christianity. (p. 24)
  • Nonetheless, she came to believe that the Missionaries were sent on behalf of a divine power, and she held faithful to the promise, if not the practice, of Christian love. (p.124)
  • Connie increasingly disentangled her Christian faith from the authority of the missionaries and the Church authorities themselves, whose religious teachings she found too conservative and authoritarian.
  • Connie also grew to respect Aboriginal religious beliefs, as she increasingly came into contact with the ‘tribal people’ who were living on the outskirts of the mission during the war and when she was a staff member.
  • Connie’s increasingly liberal religious views also affected her social work. She avoided telling her clients what would be in their best interest, and instead helped them determine their own future course.
  • Despite her critiques of missionary practice, Connie expresses gratitude that they providing a grounding and guiding force throughout her life.


  • Nora Albert (mumma Nora): Connie’s tribal Aunt, who looked after her as a baby as well as her own children, until it became too much of a strain. (p.7)
  • Ubla Thompson: the only missionary who stayed at Forrest River during the war, and who learnt the native language. (p.38-39)
  • The Chulung family: Connie’s father’s cousins, who used to bring her food and invite her for dinner while she was in the dormitory. The mission staff kept her ignorant of the nature of their relationship, which was disclosed to her over Christmas dinner. (pp. 25-26)
  • Coralie Roberts: A senior student who took over teaching responsibility when the missionaries were evacuated. Coralie appointed Connie’s as her teaching assistant and continued her education. She supported Connie’s decision to go to Alice Springs, and threw a farewell party for her. (p.94) Connie was very affected when she was told that Coralie died of congenital arthritis at a young age. (p.106)
  • Maisie: Connie’s stepmother, who married her father when she was just 17 p.83) Maisie made her feel part of the family, and was mutually thrilled when Connie first referred to her as ‘mother’.(p.112) Maisie also supported Connie when her father rejected her (p.121). When Maisie decided to leave her father, she made Connie the custodian of her son Colin. (p.161)
  • Sister Eileen:  A missionary at Forrest River whom Connie admired.
  • Sister Eileen frankly discussed racial discrimination with Connie, and treated her as an equal.
  • Mary Jamison: A missionary who encouraged Connie to take up music, and who helped her become a more patient teacher. (p.57)
  • Mary Jamison and her husband asked Connie to apply for a kindergarten teaching position, and to move with them to Yarrabah. (p.154)
  • King Peter Warriu: One of the tribal elders who, upon her request, gave Connie a traditional education and recalled the history of their dispossession. (p.135-136)
  • Lorna and Granny Lottie (Schrieber): A friend and her mother who Connie became closely connected with in Yarrabah. It was Granny Lottie who first encouraged Connie to mend her relationship with her father (p.159-10)
  • Mr and Mrs Jack and Patricia Green: The former was the superintendent at the Aboriginal Welfare board, whom Connie boarded with while working at the Church Army. The Greens took Connie in when she resigned from the Church Army. (p.214)
  • Jill Millane: In June 1992, Jill used the money that she had inherited from her mother’s death to pay for Connie and herself to travel to the Kimberleys. During this trip, Connie reconnected with the Forrest River Mission community and with her father. (p. 233) Jill then assisted Connie to record and publish her remembrances.


  • Life on the mission: Connie describes the discriminatory disciplinary regime of the Forrest River mission where she grew up.
  • Connie also explains that her condemnation of the missionaries is not without exception, and she highlights the positive influence that individuals such as Sister Eileen, Mary Jamison and Ubla Thompson had on her life.
  • Belonging: From the beginning of the book, Connie explicitly spells out her central concerns about not belonging to a certain family or community.
  • Connie’s unanswered concerns about her parentage played into a larger concern about her place with Australian society. Growing up at the Forrest River Mission, Connie presumed she was a member of the Oombulgurri tribe, and the daughter of Mumma Nora. (p.17) She was left to wonder why she never had a tribal name which would identify her to other groups and provide her with protection. (p.4) Connie came to discover the reason – that her mother was not from the mission – and was often made to feel like an outsider at Forrest River Mission.
  • Being a community ‘outsider’ compounded McDonald’s concerns about her cultural membership.  Connie describes differences between ‘tribal Aborigines’ (“outwardly they did what the missionaries wanted but inwardly they were vastly different”) and those that lived on stations or missions (“these people found it easier to understand what the missionaries were on about and were less likely to be put down by them”.) (p.65)  She pondered her own position in this schema, but she found comfort of the humanist notion of the unity of mankind. 
  • The celebrations that surrounded Connie’s return to Forrest River from Alice Springs assuaged her concerns about being an ‘outsider’ somewhat. (p.122) However, being appointed to mission staff then elevated her above the residents, again leaving her in an ambivalent position in the community.
  • Eventually Connie decided, that despite her efforts, she would never feel completely included at the Forrest River mission, and so organized to leave with Mary Jamison.
  • When Connie joined the Church Army, she looked to the church community for acceptance and grounding.
  • However, again, Connie was disappointed. She felt that regardless of the efforts she made to be a respectable member of the Anglican Church, she continued to feel like an outsider.
  • At the conclusion of her autobiography, Connie returns to Forrest River mission with Jill. Upon her return, Connie felt an affinity to the Oombulgurri community that was lacking during her youth.
  • Aboriginal customs: While Connie is a devout and practicing Christian, she also felt animated by, and was respectful of, classical Aboriginal culture.  Connie described Aboriginal norms that were enshrined in her upbringing, such as communalism.
  • Connie also relates those protocols and practices that she made a conscious effort to learn from the ‘tribal Aboriginals’ who lived around the mission. Connie resented those members of the mission administration who prevented from her learning about traditional Aboriginal culture from an early age.
  • Even though she became a member of the mission staff, Connie defended traditional practices such as the smoking of houses against missionary interference.
  • Connie continued to defend Aboriginal spiritualism against the denigration of her fellow Christians throughout her career.
  • Frustrated ambition: Connie describes the obstacles that prevented her from realizing her potential. Connie became increasingly aware of the powerless position that she, as an Aboriginal person, held in Australian society in the mid-20th century. This included an awareness of discriminatory and controlling laws (p.39) and the racist views of the missionaries and general population. (p.63)
  • Connie also makes it clear that her handicaps, while large, were not debilitating.
  • Connie also faced criticism from the other Aboriginal people at the Forrest River Mission, who implied that she was a traitor.  As she had never felt fully accepted by this community, Connie was relatively immune to these criticisms. (p.94)
  • Christian love, racism and reconciliation:  Connie described herself, from a young age, as an outspoken advocate of racial equality and Christian love. During her youth, Connie frequently called the missionaries out on the inconsistencies of the principles of Christian love, and their discriminatory practice. (pp.61-63)
  • Connie differentiates between ‘true missionaries’, those inspired by Christian love and “really did God’s work”, and ‘so-called missionaries’, who sought to control and manipulate Aboriginal people. (p.57) In her own experience, Connie claims to have come across many more of the ‘so-called missionaries’ than ‘true missionaries’.(p.57)
  • Connie’s early victories against ‘so-called missionaries’ included bringing an end to foot-washing in the mission (p.63) and confronting the managers about the poor conditions in the cottages attached to the Native Hospital. (pp.70-73)
  • Connie also justified, on Christian grounds, hitting a girl in the shins with a hockey stick for making a racist slight. (p.110)
  • Connie received better treatment from medical staff and police officials in Queensland when she gained citizenship, and in Western Australia she was allowed to eat in a café for lunch, while her Aboriginal companions weren’t. (p.200) Far from making her feel accepted, these double standards enraged Connie, as they made her even more aware of levels of racism in the general community. (p.167)
  • When faced with critics of the current state of Aboriginal society, Connie shared her view that Aboriginal advancement has been held back by the racist attitudes of the majority. She used her own experiences as an example of the potential of Aboriginal people to integrate successfully into settler-colonial society, if given a reasonable chance.
  • Connie also aimed to improve the attitudes of Aboriginal people towards the authorities and the white majority.

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION:  When You Grow Up was transcribed and written with the assistance of Jill Finnane.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'McDonald, Connie Nungulla (1933–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 5 December 2023.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


21 January, 1933
Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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