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Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993)

Oodgeroo Nunuccal, photo courtesy University of Queensland Press Oodgeroo Nunuccal, photo courtesy University of Queensland Press

Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal, known until 1988 as Kath Walker, was born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska on 3 November 1920, on North Stradbroke Island in South-East Queensland, one of seven children of Edward (Ted) Ruska and his wife Lucy (née McCulloch). Her father, who belonged to the Noonuccal people, the traditional inhabitants of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), was employed by the Queensland government as part of a poorly-paid Aboriginal workforce; his campaigning for better conditions for Aboriginal workers left a strong impression on his daughter. She attended Dunwich State School until 1933, when, at the age of 13, she left to take up work as a domestic servant in Brisbane. Working for a number of different families in the 1930s, she was paid poorly but remained in domestic service because of the strong prejudices against and lack of opportunities open to Aboriginal women. In 1941 she enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS), earning promotion to corporal and working in switchboard operations and later in the AWAS pay office.

In 1942, she married Bruce Raymond Walker, a member of the Gugingin (Logan) people and a childhood friend. The newly-married Kath Walker was invalided from the AWAS in 1943, after a serious ear infection left her with partial hearing loss, but she was able to train in secretarial and bookkeeping skills at Brisbane Commercial College under the army’s rehabilitation scheme. With the help of friends, the Walkers were able to purchase a house in Buranda, and Kath found a job with a smallgoods manufacturer at Murrarie in Brisbane’s eastern suburbs. Around this time, the couple also grew interested in politics, and became involved in the Communist Party of Australia—the only political party in Australian that did not support the White Australia policy at this time. By the time their son Denis was born in 1946, the couple had separated, and Kath Walker was forced to raise their son and maintain the household on her own. After her son began experiencing difficulties at school, Walker was forced to return to domestic service, working in the household of two prominent medical doctors, Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis Cilento. In 1953, she gave birth to a second son, Vivian (later Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal), the child of the Cilentos’ son Raphael junior.

In the 1950s, Walker became interested in writing poetry. By the late 1950s she had joined the Brisbane arm of the Realist Writer’s Group, and some of her earliest poems appeared in the group’s magazine, Realist Writer (later The Realist ). In 1963, encouraged by her contacts in the Realist Writers Group, she submitted a manuscript collection of poems to Brisbane publisher Jacaranda Press. After a recommendation from Jacaranda’s poetry reader, Judith Wright, the collection was published in 1964 as We Are Going . The work was an immediate commercial success, selling more than ten thousand copies and making Walker the best-selling Australian poet since C. J. Dennis. The plain-speaking style of her poetry, and the strong element of protest in it, precluded literary acclaim for her work, but the role of a political ‘protest poet’ was one in which Walker would come to revel. Her second poetry collection, The Dawn is at Hand , was published by Jacaranda in 1966. A third collection, My People: A Kath Walker Collection (1970, rev. eds. 1981, 1990) incorporated the content of the first two collections, and in later editions added new poems and essays.

During the 1960s, at the same time as developing her reputation as a poet, Walker became increasingly engaged in political activism in support of Aboriginal rights, social justice, and conservationism. Through friends she became involved in the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (QCAATSI) and came to play an important role in the national organisation, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). The FCAATSI played a leading role in the agitation that led to voting rights (in 1965) and Australian citizenship (in 1967) for Aborigines. In 1968, she moved to Holland Park, and the following year unsuccessfully stood as the ALP candidate in her local (state) electorate of Greenslopes. In 1969, she was invited to attend the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on Racism in London. The event was a pivotal moment for Walker; she returned to Australia convinced of the need for Aboriginal activists to work within their own political organisations rather than white-dominated ones. At the end of the 1960s, she left the QCAATSI and the FCAATSI for the newly formed Brisbane Aboriginal and Islanders Council and the National Tribal Council (NTC), of which she was briefly chairperson. Power struggles within the Brisbane Council led Walker to leave the organisation in 1971 and return to her ancestral home of North Stradbroke Island.

While she was assumed to have withdrawn from public life, Walker had in fact entered a new phase of her career where she assumed the role of educator and cultural guardian and ambassador for her people. After some opposition from the Queensland government, she established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba, near Amity Point on Stradbroke Island. The Centre became an important venue for visiting Aboriginal students from around the country. Walker also travelled widely in the 1970s, going on lecture tours around Australia and overseas, living through a hijacking on a return flight from Nigeria in 1974. In 1978, she was poet-in-residence at Bloomsburg State College, in Pennsylvania, USA, and visited a number of other US Colleges. Walker continued to write and publish, her work now largely reflecting her career as an educator. She published a number of books of Aboriginal legends aimed at young readers, including Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972), Father Sky and Mother Earth (1981), The Rainbow Serpent (1988), Legends of Our Land (1990), and Australia’s Unwritten History: More Legends of Our Land (1992). In 1982, she was awarded the FAW Christopher Brennan award for her contribution to Australian literature. In 1984, she visited China as part of an Australian cultural delegation, the trip providing the inspiration for her fourth and final poetry collection, Kath Walker in China (1988).

In 1988, as a protest against continuing Aboriginal disadvantage during the Bicentennial Celebration of White Australia, Walker returned the MBE she had been awarded in 1970, and subsequently adopted the Noonuccal tribal name Oodgeroo (meaning “paperbark”). Recognition of her literary, educational and political achievements continued to flow, however; she was awarded honorary doctorates from Macquarie University (1988), Griffith University (1989), Monash University (1991), and Queensland University of Technology (1992). In 1990, after the formation of the Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), she was elected a member of the Southeast Queensland Regional Council. Oodgeroo died at her home on Stradbroke Island on 16 September 1993. Her distinctive and pioneering poetry was part of a literary legacy that went hand in hand with her political life.

Poetry Collections
  • We Are Going (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1964).
  • The Dawn Is At Hand (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1966).
  • My People: A Kath Walker Collection (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1970, rev. eds. 1981, 1990).
  • Kath Walker in China (Beijing: International Culture Publishing Cooperative and Jacaranda Press, 1988).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Kathie Cochrane, Oodgeroo (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1994).
  • Karen Fox, ‘Oodgeroo Noonuccal: Media Snapshots of a Controversial Life,’ in Peter Read, Frances Peters-Little, and Anna Haebich, eds., Indigenous Biography and Autobiography (Acton, ACT: ANU E Press, 2008), pp. 57–68.
  • Lyn McCredden, ‘No More Boomerang,’ Poetry Review 89.1 (1999), pp. 35–40.
  • Jennifer A. Martiniello, ‘Still Dreaming: Old Voices, New Songs: Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry,’ in Bill Collis and Ludwika Amber, eds., Many Voices: Poetry for World Peace in the New Millennium (Ryde, NSW: Robyn Ianssen Productions and World Congress of Poets, c.2001), pp. 14–17.
  • Brigid Rooney, ‘Networks and Shadows: The Public Sisterhood of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Judith Wright,’ Literary Activists: Australian Writer-Intellectuals and Public Life (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland, 2009), pp. 60–77.
  • Adam Shoemaker, ed., Oodgeroo: A Tribute, special issue of Australian Literary Studies 16.4 (1994).
  • Alexis Wright, ‘A Weapon of Poetry,’ Overland no.193 (2008), pp. 19–24.
  • Judith Wright, ‘The Poetry: An Appreciation,’ in Kathie Cochrane, Oodgeroo, pp. 163–183.

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