Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993)

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month in 2020, the Royal Australian Historical Society will continue our work from last year to highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our webpage, Women’s History Month.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this webpage contains the images and names of people who have passed away.

Activist, educator, environmentalist, and the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a work of poetry – it seems Oodgeroo Noonuccal could do it all. Born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska and known for most of her public life as Kath Walker, Oodgeroo (meaning ‘paperbark tree’) chose to go by her traditional language name in 1988.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, then known as Kath Walker, reading from her own poetry collection at the National Aborigines Day celebration in Martin Place, Sydney, 9 July 1965. [Image courtesy R. L. Stewart, Fairfax Media]

Born on Stradbroke Island off the coast of Queensland, Oodgeroo’s childhood was spent amongst the nature that would later play an important role in her poems. Her father, a labourer of Noonuccal descent, was a prominent campaigner for better conditions for Aboriginal workers, and this too left an impression on a young Oodgeroo. [1]

Though she left school at age thirteen to pursue work as a domestic servant, for which she was paid a lower rate than white domestics, Oodgeroo had already learned how powerful the written word could be. In later years she would take classes in stenography and secretarial skills, though her office jobs were short-lived. [2]

During World War II, after the capture of her brothers in Singapore by the Japanese, Oodgeroo joined the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS), one of at least nine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to do so. She rose through the ranks to become a lance corporal, working in switchboard operations and the pay office until discharged in January 1944. Afterwards, she and her husband Bruce Walker became involved in the Communist Party of Australia as they were the only party at the time who did not support the White Australia policy. Oodgeroo eventually left because “they wanted to write my speeches” – an insult to a woman who could captivate her audience through language better than any politician. [3]

It was in the 1960s that Oodgeroo became increasingly engaged in both poetry and Aboriginal rights. Her first poetry collection, We Are Going, was published in 1964 by Jacaranda Press, and some claim its sales ranked second only to the country’s best-selling poet, C. J. Dennis. Though her critics derided her work as “protest poetry”, Oodgeroo continued to write, publish, and win prestigious literary awards for her efforts, including the Dame Mary Gilmore medal. [4]

At the same time as her literary career was taking off, Oodgeroo thrust herself into the political sphere. She became involved in the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (QCAATSI) and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), both of which were instrumental to the success of the 1967 referendum. After unsuccessfully running for election as the ALP candidate in her local electorate of Greenslopes, Oodgeroo turned her efforts towards Aboriginal-run activist organisations rather than white-dominated ones, joining the newly formed Brisbane Aboriginal and Islanders Council and the National Tribal Council (NTC). [5]

Oodgeroo returned to her childhood home in 1971 at age fifty. There, she established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba, where her teachings inspired thousands of school children, educators, and visitors. Though her politics had become less demanding Oodgeroo continued to write, and was the poet-in-residence at Bloomsburg State College in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1978. [6]

Ten years later, Oodgeroo adopted the Noonuccal name she is now known by, and returned the MBE she had been awarded in 1970 in protest over the Bicentenary ‘Celebrations’ of White Australia. “From the Aboriginal point of view,” she asked, “what is there to celebrate?” [7]

Oodgeroo passed away in 1993. Throughout her lifetime she had been a proud Aboriginal activist, educator, mother, and poet, forever striving to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and pouring her heart out into verse. Amidst her poems about grief, loss, and devastation, it is her hopefulness for a better and brighter future that lives on:

Sore, sore, the tears you shed
When hope seemed folly and justice dead.
Was the long night weary? Look up, dark band,
The dawn is at hand. [8]

References:

[1] Sue Abbey, ‘Biography – Oodgeroo Noonuccal’, Indigenous Australia, Australian Dictionary of Biography, <http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/noonuccal-oodgeroo-18057>, accessed 27 March 2020; ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal’, Australian Poetry Library, <https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo>, accessed 27 March 2020.
[2] Abbey, ‘Biography’; ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal’.
[3] ‘Kath Walker’, Australian War Memorial, <https://www.awm.gov.au/learn/memorial-boxes/3/online-resources/walker>, accessed 27 March 2020; ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal’; Abbey, ‘Biography’.
[4] Abbey, ‘Biography’.
[5] ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal’.
[6] Abbey, ‘Biography’; ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal: author of We Are Going’, AustLit: Discover Australian Stories, <https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A12345>, accessed 27 March 2020.
[7] Clare Land, ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal’, Women Australia, 26 August 2002, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0082b.htm>, accessed 27 March 2020.
[8] Kath Walker, ‘The Dawn Is At Hand’, The Dawn Is At Hand (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1966), p. 9.

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