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Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal)

Category: People
Date: 3 November 1920
Date To: 16 September 1993
Sub Category:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island)

State/Country:Queensland, Australia
Detailed Information:

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (3 Nov 1920-16 Sep 1993), born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska and later known as Kath Walker, was an Aboriginal Australian political activist, poet, and educator.

Noonuccal was a Quandamooka woman and citizen of the Noonuccal Nation from Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Queensland. Her parents were Edward and Lucy Ruska. She had two children: Vivian and Denis Walker.

John Collins (1994) writes that '[b]ecause pioneers like Oodgeroo sounded the call and made significant contacts in other places, there is now more strength and direction in the [Aboriginal rights] movement'.

Servicewoman, poet, and activist

In 1942, Noonuccal joined the Australian Women's Army Service after two of her brothers, Eric and Eddie, were captured by Japanese forces in Singapore. She served as a signaller in Brisbane and met many African American soldiers who would become influential in her advocacy for Aboriginal rights later in life.

Noonuccal joined the Communist Party of Australia during the 1940s because it was the only party that opposed racial discrimination - in particular, the White Australia policy. This policy forbade people of non-European ethnic origin from immigrating to Australia (National Museum Australia). Noonuccal said that the skills she gained through the party in public speaking, speech writing, committee planning, and political strategy 'stood me in good stead through life' (Mitchell, 1987). But she left the party shortly after joining, stating that 'they wanted to write my speeches' (Mitchell, 1987).

In the 1960s, Noonuccal emerged as a prominent Aboriginal rights advocate and activist as well as a poet and public speaker. Through her work, Noonuccal articulated her experiences and feelings as an Aboriginal person. She published several critically acclaimed collections of poetry. As a writer, she received several literary awards including the Mary Gilmore Medal (1970), the Jessie Litchfield Award (1975) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers' Award.

Timeline of Activism

  • 1958: Noonuccal joined the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
  • 1962: Noonuccal became the Queensland state secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). She attended the annual conferences of FCAATSI from 1960. At the 1962 annual conference in Adelaide, she read her Aboriginal Charter of Rights, which articulated a desire for equality.
  • 1964: Her first collection of poems We are Going was published by Jacaranda Press. It was reprinted six times over the next 12 months. This was the first book published by an Aboriginal woman. Despite becoming Australia's highest-selling poet, alongside CJ Dennis, critics were sceptical that Noonuccal, being an Aboriginal person, could have written the poems herself (Mitchell, 1987). She was also criticised for the overt activism of her poetry, which was described as propaganda (Rooney, 2009). Noonuccal embraced this, stating she wished to convey pride in her Aboriginality to a broad audience while also popularising equality and Aboriginal rights (Cochrane, 1994). She even described her poetry style as 'sloganistic, civil-writerish, plain and simple' (Walker, 1975).
  • 1965-7: Noonuccal was vital in the campaign for equal citizenship rights. This culminated in the 1967 Australian referendum that reformed the Australian Constitution. After this, the Federal Government was able to make laws for Aboriginal Australians - the intention being that they could overrule discriminatory state legislation. This was of particular significance for Noonuccal because her home state of Queensland had legislation that allowed the government near total control of the lives of Aboriginal people. The referendum also allowed Aboriginal Australians to be included in the national census. As part of this movement, Noonuccal coordinated speaking tours, gave speeches at events, and lobbied both Prime Minister Robert Menzies as well as his successor Harold Holt. On one occasion, Noonuccal even informed Holt that he could be jailed in Queensland after he offered her a drink of sherry, on account of her being an Aboriginal person (Deadly Story). The referendum succeeded with 90.77% of the Australian population voting 'yes' to the proposed changes. In addition to obvious legal changes, the referendum also became a symbol of moral and political rights for Aboriginal Australians.
  • 1969: Noonuccal unsuccessfully stood as the Australian Labour Party candidate for her local Queensland state electorate of Greenslopes.
  • 1970: Noonuccal supported the Pittock amendments to the FCAATSI constitution that would have increased Indigenous power within the organisation. After attending the 1969 World Council of Churches' Consultation on Racism in London, Noonuccal was convinced that Aboriginal activists needed to focus on working within Aboriginal-led political organisations. Although the amendments failed, Noonuccal, along with Doug Nicholls, was instrumental in the establishment of the National Tribal Council. This body was the first national all-Aboriginal political body. That is, run by and for Aboriginal Australians. Its objectives were to promote the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, preserve their cultures, and promote 'Aboriginalisation'. Aboriginalisation refers to enabling Aboriginal people to take up positions in organisations, particularly those dealing with Aboriginal affairs. Noonuccal briefly acted as chairperson for the Council while also being a member of the Brisbane Aboriginal and Islanders Council.
  • 1970: Noonuccal was appointed a Member of the British Empire (MBE) for her services to the community, particularly Aboriginal people.
  • 1972: Noonuccal established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba on North Stradbroke Island. This centre became a venue where thousands of Aboriginal and white Australians were educated regarding Aboriginal cultures.
  • 1983: Noonuccal unsuccessfully ran in the Queensland state election in the Redlands Electoral District as a member of the Australian Democrats political party. Her policies focussed on promoting Aboriginal rights and the environment.
  • 1987: Noonuccal returned her MBE in protest of the Hawke government's failure to enact land rights legislation as well as plans to celebrate the Australian Bicentenary, which she described as celebrating '200 years of humiliation and brutality to the Aboriginal people' (The Canberra Times). At this time, she changed her name from Kath Walker to Oodgeroo Noonuccal in part to pay respect to her Noonuccal ancestors.
  • 1990: After the formation of the Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Noonuccal was appointed a member of the Southeast Queensland Regional Council.

Related Entries

  • Denis Walker

  • References

    General Reference
    National Museum Australia White Australia policy
    Deadly Story Aunty Oodgeroo Noonuccal
    Susan Mitchell (1987) The Matriarchs: Twelve Australian Women Talk about their Lives to Susan Mitchell
    Brigid Rooney (2009) Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian public life
    Kathie Cochrane (1994) Oodgeroo
    Journal Article
    John Collins (1994) Obituary: Oodgeroo of the Tribe Noonuccal
    Kath Walker (1975) Aboriginal Literature
    News Item
    The Canberra Times (16 December 1987) Aboriginal poet with return MBE

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