Note: This essay contains names and images of people who have died.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993) was an Australian poet, Aboriginal rights activist, political activist, and educator whose birth name was Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska (Kath). She was a proud Noonuccal woman from Minjerribah (which is also known as North Stradbroke Island in Queensland, Australia). Her father, Edward, was a Quandamooka man of the Noonuccal clan and her mother, Lucy, was a Peewee woman from inland Australia. Sovereignty to those areas was never ceded. It would be proper to call her Aunty Oodgeroo, as she was an elder of her people. The author acknowledges the elders and people of Minjerribah as the traditional custodians of their land and recognises their continuing connection to land, water and community.
Now what was all that about? What’s with the statement right up top that there will be pictures and names of dead people? It’s important to understand, so you can appreciate Aunty Oodgeroo. Robert Hughes book, The Fatal Shore, notes that two more different peoples could not have clashed with each other on that fateful day the Endeavour landed at Sydney Harbour on January 26th, 1788. Although Aboriginal clans have different spiritual beliefs, they all view their land as a quasi-living being. For Aboriginal Australians, life revolves around not just what you do, but where you are when you do it, where you were born, and where you die and are buried so that after you die you can still influence and guide your people (although some clans do not say the names of or view images of the dead). There’s no concept of property (other than personal items), and their clans and communities are integral to their way of life. This general culture had been going on for 40,000 years before that day in 1788. The English, on the other hand, have a culture of property ownership. Where you are and where you are born is not as important as who owns the land, and whom they can exclude from it. Equally, the Enlightenment, although fading, still held sway and Aboriginal people were noble savages at best, but certainly not actual people the same as the English (at least to Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788). The land was declared Terra Nullius, or empty, and legally English law became the law of Australia. Aboriginal people were classed as flora and fauna, for the English to do with as they wished.
Aboriginal people were not British citizens (or later, Australian citizens per the Constitution). They were the same as plants and animals. It’s worth noting that Australia had the ‘White Australia’ policy in force until 1974, so there was a good deal of racism and hatred towards Aboriginals and all people of colour culturally among white Australians. Aboriginal people were killed in their thousands, first by pestilence and inability to resist disease, then outright as they occupied land for grazing, then by being worked to death, and with alcohol (which many Aboriginal people lack a gene to properly process) and finally by poverty and desperation, separated from their land, their clan and their community. Their salaries – pitiful as they were – were held for them by the Government, and they were given meagre supplies in return, and in many cases this money was stolen. Their children were literally stolen (watch the movie The Rabbit Proof Fence for a good summary) so that they could be bred out of existence, their languages forbidden, their children’s children forced to marry whitefullas so they could be ‘humanely’ exterminated. Aunty Oodgeroo was lucky to escape being stolen from her parents, but this was the state of Australia when she was born.
As Kath Walker (she married Bruce Walker, an Aboriginal man, in 1942), Aunty Oodgeroo entered the Women’s Army Service in 1942 after her brothers were captured by the Japanese. She and Bruce had a son, Dennis, before Bruce’s alcoholism lead to domestic violence and their marriage ended. She joined the Communist Party in 1940, as it was the only party that accepted non-whites and had an anti-racist policy. This is where she learned her public speaking skills, and her ability to politically organise, which she would later use to work towards gaining citizenship and the vote for her people. She learnt to write speeches, prose and poetry – she lacked formal schooling initially, although she had done a stenographer’s course. She joined a writer’s group, encouraged at first by the family she worked for (doing domestic work and laundry in order to care for her son), and later by James Devaney, an Australian poet, and Dame Mary Gilmore, an Australian journalist and poet. She took the Aboriginal name Oodgeroo, meaning ‘paperbark’ in 1964.
I don’t have the space to focus on her poetry – this piece is about her activism – but I’d like to share the last lines of a poem she wrote, titled ‘We Are Going’ from Aunty Oodgeroo’s book of the same name published in 1965 (as Kath Walker) and encourage you to read her work, as it’s both lovely and powerful. These lines reflect the sorrow of the Aboriginal people at the loss of their ancestral lands.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.
In 1967 there was a Federal referendum to allow the Government to legislate for Aboriginal affairs, which would allow Aboriginal people citizenship rights and the right to vote (to put it as simply as possible.) The idea had been tested from the 1940s without success. Aunty Oodgeroo had, since 1962, been campaigning and working toward this result. She was first elected Queensland State secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement (FCAATSI). She travelled the country, delivering speeches and campaigning with other FCAATSI members. This was a time of unrest and relentless work by Aboriginal people who wanted the same rights as whites. I’ve included some links for further reading below. Aunty Oodgeroo led a delegation to meet with Robert Menzies, the long serving and very traditional Australian Prime Minister. Menzies offered her a sherry, which she turned down, then called for Menzies and his staff to be arrested. He was unaware it was illegal to offer alcohol to Aborigines. This served to challenge Menzies and ultimately the referendum gained his support, and the support of 90% of all Australians. Aunty Oodgeroo characterised it thus: “The victory of the 1967 referendum was not a change of white attitudes. The real victory was the spirit of hope and optimism which affected blacks all over Australia.”
After the referendum, she ran for office as an Australian Labor* Party member but was unsuccessful. In 1969, she was invited to a counsel on racism in London, and there she decided to no longer work under a white structure, but to work for Aboriginal run organisations, so she left FCAATSI. Aunty Oodgeroo retired to Minjerribah and built a traditional house there in 1971 and established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba. People assumed she retired from public life, though in reality she was working with and for her people. She worked tirelessly as an activist and educator throughout the 1970s, teaching young Aboriginal people the same traditional ways and language her father taught her. For it’s time this is quite radical as the general Australian culture wanted Aboriginal people to assimilate and become ‘proper’ Australians. She lived a full life as an activist and a poet in residence at an American university, and even survived a plane hijacking attempt in 1974. In 1988, during the bi-centennial celebrations, Aunty Oodgeroo returned her MBE that she was awarded in 1970 in protest against the ongoing racism and poor treatment of Aboriginal people.
Aunty Oodgeroo died on 6th September 1993, at her home in her traditional lands. She had been awarded many honorary doctorates, written many books of poetry, and was a great and important Australian whose spirit guides her people even now.
*The Australian Labor Party uses the American spelling.
Written by Melinda Kelly (she/her) from London, via Australia and America. Follow her on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
- https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/articles/anzac-day-2018/oodgeroo-noonuccal (Note: ‘deadly’ is Aboriginal slang word for great or amazing).
- Hughes, Robert: The Fatal Shore, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986
- Birmingham, John: Leviathan, The Unathorised Biography of Sydney, Penguin Books, 1990