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Austrian Poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal 1920 - 1993

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, (born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, formerly Kath Walker) (3 November 1920 – 16 September 1993) was an Australian poet, political activist, artist and educator. She was also a campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Oodgeroo was best known for her poetry, and was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (pronounced Ood-ger-rooh Nooh-nuh-cal) was born on North Stradbroke Island (also known as "Minjerribah" or "Minjerribahin") Moreton Bay (east of Brisbane). The place where Oodgeroo was born falls within the traditional land and water of the Noonuccal people who generally identify as part of a "Quandamooka" nation consisting of Nunugal (Amity Point based and affiliated with Moorgumpin or Moreton Island people), the Nughi (who speak or spoke the Guwar language) and the Goenpul (often attributed to the bayside and southern sections of North Stradbroke Island and related Bay islands and waters).

Baptised Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, Oodgeroo Noonuccal was the second youngest of six children to parents Ted and Lucy Ruska. Ted was a labourer and led a strike in 1935; he instilled a fierce sense of justice in his daughter, with whom he shared the dreaming totem Kabul (the carpet snake). She wrote the poems Municipal Gum and Understand Old One.

Oodgeroo loved the sea and the seashore, but not her schooling. She wrote with her left hand, and was punished for it. She left school at age 13 in 1933, in the depths of the Depression, to work as a domestic servant in Brisbane. In 1942, during World War II with her brothers Eddie and Eric imprisoned as POWs in Singapore, she volunteered for war service in the Australian Women's Army Service. As a communication worker in Army HQ in Brisbane she received training in book keeping, typing and shorthand, reaching the rank of corporal. During her war service “Oodgeroo noticed a big difference in the way she was treated once she had enlisted. She experienced social equality.”

Oodgeroo married Bruce Walker, an Aboriginal welder and boxer, in 1942, but they had gone their separate ways by the time her first son, Dennis Walker, was born in December 1946. In the early 1950s she began work as a domestic in the household of Raphael Cilento and during this time she conceived and gave birth to her second son Vivian Walker (February 1953–20 February 1991). During this time she joined the Communist Party of Australia, which at the time was the only Australian political party opposed to the White Australia policy. Although she gained much important political experience through the Communist Party, Oodgeroo left the party after a few years because her comrades were not as committed to the fight against racial discrimination as she’d hoped, she found that there was still a degree of sexism and racism within the party, which would have prevented her from gaining prominence or office, and because she was often under pressure to allow other party members to write her speeches for her. Oodgero Noonuccal was also a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the community.

Life as an activist

Through the 1960s she began to emerge as a prominent figure, both as a political activist and as a writer. She was Queensland state secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), and was involved in a number of other political organisations. She was a key figure in the campaign for the reform of the Australian constitution to allow Aboriginal people full citizenship, lobbying Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1965, and his successor Harold Holt in 1966.

She wrote many books, beginning with We Are Going (1964), the first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman. This first book of poetry was extraordinarily successful, selling out in several editions, and setting Oodgeroo well on the way to be Australia’s highest-selling poet alongside C. J. Dennis. Critics’ responses, however, were mixed, with some questioning whether Oodgeroo, as an Aboriginal person, could really have written it herself. Others were disturbed by the activism of the poems, and found that they were "propaganda" rather than what they considered to be real poetry. Oodgeroo embraced the idea of her poetry as propaganda, and described her own style as "sloganistic, civil-writerish, plain and simple." She wanted to convey pride in her Aboriginality to the broadest possible audience, and to popularise equality and Aboriginal rights through her writing. Oodgeroo won several literary awards, including the Mary Gilmore Medal (1970), the Jessie Litchfield Award (1975), and the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Award. She was also awarded an MBE in 1970.

In 1972 she bought a property on North Stradbroke Island (also known as Minjerribah) which she called Moongalba ('sitting-down place'), and established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre. And in 1977, a documentary about her, called Shadow Sister, was released. It was directed and produced by Frank Heimans and photographed by Geoff Burton. It describes her return to Moongalba and her life there. In a 1987 interview, she described her education program at Moongalba, saying that over "the last seventeen years I've had 26,500 children on the island. White kids as well as black. And if there were green ones, I'd like them too ... I'm colour blind, you see. I teach them about Aboriginal culture. I teach them about the balance of nature." Oodgeroo was committed to education at all levels, and collaborated with universities in creating programs for teacher education that would lead to better teaching in Australian schools

In 1985 she appeared with her grandson, Denis Walker (Jr) in Bruce Beresford’s film The Fringe Dwellers.

In 1988 she adopted a traditional name: Oodgeroo (meaning "paperbark tree") Noonuccal (her tribe's name). That same year she returned her MBE in protest and to make a political statement at the condition of her people in the year of Australia's Bicentenary celebrations. She died in 1993.

A play has since been written by Sam Watson entitled Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country commemorating Oodgeroo Noonuccal's life, being a play swinging around Oodgeroo Noonuccal's real life experience as an Aboriginal woman on board a flight hijacked by Palestinian terrorists on her way home from a committee meeting in Nigeria for the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture

Bibliography

Poetry

  • We are Going: Poems (1964)
  • The Dawn is at Hand: Poems (1966)
  • My People: A Kath Walker collection 1970)
  • Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972)
  • Quandamooka, the Art of Kath Walker (1985)
  • Little Fella (1986)
  • Kath Walker in China (1988)
  • The Rainbow Serpent (1988)
  • The Colour Bar (1990)
  • Oodgeroo (1994)
  • No more boomerang (1985)

For children

  • Father Sky and Mother Earth (1981)

Non fiction

  • Towards a Global Village in the Southern Hemisphere (1989)
  • The Spirit of Australia (1989)
  • Australian Legends And Landscapes (1990)
  • Australia's Unwritten History: More legends of our land (1992)

Secondary sources

  • Beier, Ulli. Quandamooka, the art of Kath Walker (1985)
  • Shoemaker, Adam (Ed.) Oodgeroo: A tribute (1994)

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