NOOSA – The esteemed anthropologist and academic Dr Ruth Annette (Fink) Latukefu (1931-2021) has died at her home in Newport Beach, Sydney, aged 89.
Ruth was born in 1931 in Frankfurt am Maine, Germany, arriving in Australia in 1939 with her parents, German Jewish refugees.
By 1955 the bright 23-year old, having completed a degree at Sydney University and now a research fellow in the Psychology Department at the University of Western Australia, found herself sitting in a room at the Railway Hotel in Mullewa, 450 km north of Perth and an hour’s drive inland from Geraldton.
The young academic was conducting fieldwork among the Wajarri Aboriginal people of the Murchison. Across the railway line were their camps, where customary practices and the Wajarri language still flourished. Most of the men worked as stockmen on surrounding sheep stations.
Ruth’s research focused on the social changes taking place as well as on tape recording songs and traditions before they were forgotten. This was to lead to an interesting reprise 50 years later.
In 1960, with a doctorate under her belt, Ruth arrived at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA, on Middle Head in Sydney, referred by the illustrious anthropologist, Professor AP Elkin.
Ruth was an instant success at ASOPA, where she lectured to Cadet Education Officers and Patrol Officers.
It was at ASOPA in 1963 that I, at the age of 17, first encountered Anthropology and met the serious bespectacled scholar who explained my crinkly mop of hair as due to “a recessive gene from when your mob was in Africa”.
A letter to her Aunt Kate of November 1964 shows Ruth had been a little overawed by the hard living kiaps, and that her sense of humour was well up to their ruses:
“This year, lecturing to the Patrol Officers for the first time, has made me feel more confident, as they are a very tough group of young men and I expected they would resent having a woman lecturer.
“They proved very charming and well behaved, even though they are hulking masculine types who drink and swear and lead a rough life.
“A lucky thing happened early in the year, which helped me a lot with them. I had set them an essay and discovered that they were plotting a hoax.
“Several of them referred to a ‘Dr CJ Blunge’, supposedly a famous Belgian anthropologist, who had worked not only in New Guinea but also Siberia.
“I started to get suspicious when he was quoted in a number of the essays I was marking. I thought it was a test to see if I was actually reading them.
“I said nothing but, for the next assignment, on the notice board I listed books that they should consult.
“Scattered among them were several new papers by Herr Blunge (which I had made up). Later I told them that Dr Blunge had been branded a Communist and no further works by him were to be kept in the ASOPA Library.”
It was also in 1964 that Ruth went to Milne Bay to research Lepani Watson’s successful campaign for election to the first House of Assembly in the Esa’ala-Losuia Open electorate.
In 1965, she was appointed to the University of Sydney to lecture in Anthropology. By then Ruth had met her future husband, Sione Latukefu, a Tongan Methodist Minister who was to become a noted Pacific historian.
“I first met Sione in 1963, when Jim Davidson, Professor of Pacific history at the Australian National University, asked me if I’d show a Tongan post-graduate student of his the Pacific collection at the ASOPA library.
“So I drove to collect Sione from Wesley College where he was staying. It’s a story he liked to tell. ‘When I heard a Dr Ruth Fink was taking me to ASOPA, I expected her to be a middle-aged academic such as the women lecturers I had in Queensland. I was very surprised to see an attractive young woman, not as old as myself’”
They were married in June 1966 and Pacific Islands Monthly reported:
“A Tongan choir sang at the Wesley College Chapel during the service and there was Tongan dancing at the big reception, which was attended by many academics from Sydney and Canberra.”
By 1967 Ruth and Sione had taken up positions at the new University of Papua New Guinea. Ruth said:
“(It) was a very exciting place in which to teach during its early years. We remained for 18 years, which was actually a bit too long but our time in PNG was an unforgettable part of our lives and that of our two children, 'Alopi and Lotte, who grew up there.”
In 1989 Sione became Principal of Pacific Theological College in Suva but in 1991 ill health led to a return to Canberra, where he died in 1995.
In 2005 Ruth gifted the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies the colour slides from her fieldwork 50 years before.
The slides had deteriorated and many months were spent restoring them. In 2006 Ruth flew to Geraldton where a function was organised to hand over the photos.
Ruth told me:
“Everyone was very interested in watching the projection of the photos and then handling the album, which got passed around the tables, with people recognising close relatives in the pictures and happily laughing and reminiscing about them.
“One photo showed some young boys sitting on a gate watching a football match. A man in his sixties introduced himself saying ‘that’s me, I was 13 then, and that’s my brother and I know all those other boys’ names’.
He presented me with a necklace of coloured seeds his wife had made and I felt very touched.”
When I lived in Sydney, Ruth and I would meet occasionally at my home in Cremorne or at her place on Sydney’s northern beaches. She remained deeply engaged in Aboriginal affairs.
At that time Ruth was working on a memoir of her early life and she provided me with this extract:
“At the end of 1959, I returned to Sydney with a doctorate in social anthropology from Columbia University and early the next year, Prof AP Elkin, who’s taught me at the University of Sydney, asked if I’d take over a short course in anthropology for teachers who were training to work in Aboriginal schools in the Northern Territory.
“This course was given at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Mosman, which was the training institution for administrative officers serving in the Territory of Papua New Guinea and for teachers being sent to newly establish primary schools there.
“The historian Charles Rowley, who was later to become the foundation professor in Administrative and Political Studies at the University of Papua New Guinea, was then Principal of ASOPA. I was appointed as lecturer in anthropology to the education officers.
“Unlike the rest of the staff, who’d all had experience of Papua New Guinea, I was supposed to orient people to work there without having been there myself. I asked for an orientation visit and at the end of January 1961 left for five weeks in Rabaul, the Eastern Highlands and Port Moresby.
“In Rabaul I immediately became aware of the clearly defined social division between ‘natives’, as they were then called, and Europeans.
“The master-servant relationships extended everywhere: clerks, drivers, teachers and nursing aides were given their orders and expected to obey.
“Actions were invariable initiated by Europeans, with the Papua New Guineas expected to await instructions and carry them out.
“In daily situations Europeans played a friendly, fatherly role in which there was never any doubt as to who was in charge. I suspected there were undercurrents of resentment and hostility but on the surface, obedience and compliance were automatic.
“This proved to be something of an obstacle on my visits to schools for whenever education officials introduced me to the local teachers I became identified with European authority.
“On the first day, one of the departmental officers called on a child to round up all the native teachers and their pupils to the schoolhouse.
“When we were assembled they were informed that I wanted to ask them some questions. Such as tense and formidable atmosphere had built up that the only thing I could think of, to save the situation, was to ask the children to draw a picture of their school and teacher.
“During three days at one school, where I stayed without education officials or other Europeans present, the young teachers were much more willing to talk freely.
“The quality of teaching in most of the schools I visited in 1961 was very poor. In crowded classrooms without books or anything other than a blackboard, the teachers, many with a limited grasp of English themselves, had pupils chant English phrases in parrot fashion.
“The children were distracted by the noise of similar drills from other classrooms. The teachers dominated, often wielding sticks, and expecting their pupils to mimic them but never ask questions.
“Overshadowing all this was a racist, colonial society in which little had changed.”
Ruth, whose lecturing featured a distinctive hop and slide we called the Finkanova, was a first rate academic with a warm and humorous personality that captivated even the hardest kiaps and distracted students.
Her introduction to Anthropology provided us neophyte teachers with an excellent introduction to the people of Melanesia and to the very substantial scholarship that had already been undertaken in Papua New Guinea and from which we were able to benefit.
A celebration of Ruth’s life will be held on Friday 4 June. Friends can contact members of her family for further details.
In this sound recording, Ruth talks about the poet AD Hope and reads his poem, Australia, of which she wrote:
“When I read AD Hope’s poem Australia, published in 1960, it made a deep impression, as I could relate it to the landscapes and places I had seen and experienced. His words succinctly captured the enigma of our vast, empty land and how little we yet understand it.”