Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kathleen Nola James (1933–1993)

by Betty Cosgrove

This article was published:

Kathleen Nola James (1933–1993), Aboriginal cultural leader and activist, was born on 18 December 1933 at North Rockhampton, fifth of six children of Queensland-born parents Joseph James, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née Chubb. Her father was of Gangulu heritage, traditionally connected to the Dawson Valley, south-west of Rockhampton. Nola believed that her great-grandmother was born at Cullin-la-Ringo, near Emerald, at about the time of the Wills massacre in 1861. She attended the Bluff Colliery State School and had a period of correspondence schooling. Later she worked with her family on pastoral stations, then as a domestic. She raised a family of nine children who were born between 1953 and 1964. She worked as a nurse for the Aboriginal Medical Service, in particular helping young mothers. In 1973 she was among a group of parents from Rockhampton who began to teach their children traditional dances.

James was an early visionary for the education of non-Indigenous Australians about Aboriginal life and culture. A founding member and coordinator of the Central Queensland Aboriginal Corporation for Cultural Activities (registered in 1980), she ran activities such as dance training, and recorded stories using small amounts of grant funding. At the same time, she envisaged a cultural centre at Rockhampton and set out to publicise and raise funds for the venture. In August 1985 the city council granted CQACCA 4.85 hectares six kilometres north of the city. Commonwealth Bicentennial and Department of Aboriginal Affairs grants provided funds, and Prime Minister Bob Hawke opened the centre on 9 April 1988. Named the Nola James Building, it featured cave-like galleries displaying and representing Indigenous art and artefacts, and included a small meeting room. Later two buildings were added, the complex being renamed the Dreamtime Cultural Centre.

From 1986 to 1989 James was on the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. In 1987 she was appointed to the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (from 1988 the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies). By then she had collected, collated, and lodged with AIATSIS substantial records and photographic material of Queensland Aboriginal life dating from the 1930s to the 1980s. She travelled throughout Queensland for the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs accompanied by non-Indigenous field teams, to locate and identify cultural sites and relics. This included undertaking an assessment of the heritage values of the site for the Jindalee Operational Radar Network for the Department of Defence. Having secured the services of Arthur Walton, acknowledged as the custodian of the Longreach-Stonehenge-Jundah region, she undertook investigations in Gulilae traditional country at Stonehenge. Numerous sites and cultural landmarks were located, including stone arrangements of rings, pathways, stone knapping grounds, rock art, a native well, scarred trees, and plant resources. The field report, which she co-authored, recommended that future archaeological investigations include Indigenous cultural consultants; this has since become standard practice.

Understanding that ‘white people like to see things on paper,’ James displayed ‘commitment, determination and resilience’ (Griffin and Shelley 1993, 173) in her efforts to achieve her goals. The University of Central Queensland (later Central Queensland University) awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1993 for her contribution to central Queensland’s Aboriginal culture. ‘Sensible, of few words, practical and with a big heart, ready to stand her ground, and with inexhaustible patience’ (Ganter, pers. comm.), she continued as the cultural director of the Dreamtime Centre until her death from bowel cancer on 22 July 1993 at Rockhampton. Survived by six daughters and three sons, she was buried in the North Rockhampton cemetery.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Blair, Bob. Personal communication
  • de Brabander, Dallas. ‘James, N.' Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. Vol. 1, A-L, edited by David Horton. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994
  • Ganter, Regina. Personal communication
  • Griffin, Grahame, and Reg Shelley. ‘Dreamtime in a Cow Town: The Dreamtime Cultural Centre in Rockhampton, Queensland.’ Culture and Policy 5 1993, 157–176
  • Huf, Liz, Lorna McDonald, and David Myers, eds. Sin, Sweat and Sorrow: The Making of Capricornia 1840s to 1940s. Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 1999
  • James, Nola. Housing, Camps and Material Culture in Queensland, 1930-1980. Copy negatives. Pictorial Collection, James.N2.BW. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  • Knuckey, Graham, and Ken Kippen. ‘The Archaeology of Stonehenge—A Preliminary Survey.’ Queensland Archaeological Research 9 (1992): 17–25

Citation details

Betty Cosgrove, 'James, Kathleen Nola (1933–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 December, 1933
Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia


23 July, 1993 (aged 59)
Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

bowel disease

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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