(Kath) Oodgeroo Noonuccal

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Name: (Kath) Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Epoch: Late 20th Century

Grouping Field: Literature (Fiction)

Location Grouping: Individual's Work Location

Map Coordinates: 27°31'06.5"S 153°01'42.9"E

Years At Location: Minjerribah 1920-1993 [Cilento Annerley's Home approx. 1950-1953]

One Historical Setting: Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Minjerribah (in Brisbane, Annerley c. 1952)

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Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) was Australia’s prominent black rights activist, poet, environmentalist, and educator.

Impact On Brisbane Society

In this current era of uncertain reconciliation, Oodgeroo Noonuccal stands as a powerful local and national symbol of hope. It is difficult for the educated historian to remain unsentimental. Technically, Brisbane is an adopted space. Ruska’s (Kath Walker; the name is used by biographer, Sue Abbey) childhood home was One Mile on North Stradbroke Island or Minjerribah. The traditional land was her home throughout her life. She left home for Brisbane to work as a domestic for board and lodging, and enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service, bringing her into contact with Judith Wright. During these years Ruska founded a women’s cricko (later vigoro) team, the Brisbane All-Blacks, and married Bruce Walker, a childhood friend and a descendant of Aboriginal clans from Queensland’s Logan and Albert rivers region. Kath Walker, as she was now known, became a single parent, looking after her son, Denis. She worked for the medical practitioners (Sir) Raphael and Phyllis (Lady) Cilento, whose worldly outlook, spirited family, and book-lined rooms encouraged her own artistic sensibilities. In 1953 Kath Walker had a second son, Vivian; his father was Raphael Cilento junior (Cochrane 1994, 23).

Kath Walker joined the Communist Party of Australia (the only political party without a White Australia policy) and the Brisbane Realist Writers Group. At this time Kath Walker was encouraged in her early writings by James Devaney. At Jacaranda Press in Brisbane, Walker’s poems found an advocate in submissions reader Judith Wright, who recommended publication. In 1964 We Are Going became the first poetry publication by an Aboriginal Australian. Her work was originally dismissed by many critics as protest poetry (including locals), but Kath Walker would nevertheless win the Jessie Litchfield award for literature (1967), a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and the Dame Mary Gilmore medal.

In the course of time, ‘Kath Walker’ became a common name known in popular cultural discourse. However, her finest work was in steering campaigns of Aboriginal emancipation and rights through its messy politics, in one of the most racist of states. Walker had been elected Queensland State secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement, while also a member of the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League executive. With Faith Bandler, (Sir) Douglas Nicholls, and Joe McGinness, Wright persuaded the Menzies Government to hold the landmark 1967 referendum to empower the Federal government to legislate on Aboriginal affairs.

Less understood at the local scale was Kath Walker’s international profile. Walker made a significant mark at the London’s 1969 World Council of Churches consultation on racism. It was the first of many international invitations, which over the years would take her to Fiji, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Walker was part of the 1984 Australia-China Council cultural delegation, and led to her award-winning Kath Walker in China (1988). The year 1988 was watershed moment. With her son Vivian, she wrote the script for The Rainbow Serpent Theatre, produced at World Expo ‘88, and where they wrote under their newly chosen Noonuccal names, Oodgeroo (paperbark tree) and Kabul (carpet snake). Her final years combined sorrow of family loss (Kabul’s AIDS-related death at thirty-eight) and the ultimate resolution in giving Minjerribah peoples their voice. Her story is an Aboriginal epic for Australians to hear, in parallel to the tradition of Homer.

Citations

Sue Abbey, ‘Noonuccal, Oodgeroo (1920–1993)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/noonuccal-oodgeroo-18057/text29634, published online 2017, accessed online 4 July 2019.

Cochrane, Kathleen J. Oodgeroo, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Qld, 1994.

Hartstein, Heike. Kath Walker’s My People: Poetry and/or Propaganda? Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, M.A.Thesis, 2000.

Taylor, Gail. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

Watson, Sam. Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country, Playlab Press, Brisbane, 2009.

Image Citation

Oodgeroo Noonuccal at Her Caravan Home Moongalba on North Stradbroke Island, Queensland, 1982, Collection reference: 30298 Juno Gemes Photographs. Gemes, Juno. (n.d.). State Library of Queensland

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