Why does some-one change her name? This is the story of Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska was born on the 3rd of November 1920. Kath was a descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah. [North Stradbroke Island]. Her totem was Kabool the carpet snake, who could not be eaten by his people.
Kath had wonderful parents who strongly influenced her. Her mother, Lucy McCulloch was one of the ‘stolen generation’. She was not taught to read or write at the mission school. Instead the nuns taught her to be ‘useful’, to wash clothes, cook, clean and iron so she could be work as a domestic servant in a white household. She bitterly resented being cheated of literacy.
Her father, Ted Ruska, was the foreman of a gang of Aboriginal labourers employed by the Queensland Government. Every fortnight he was paid a very small amount of cash and was given ‘rations’ to support his family – rice, sago, tapioca, matches, flour and one bar of soap. On Queen’s Birthday all Aboriginal people were issued with a woollen blanket and a plum pudding. The Ruska family supplemented their diet using the traditional hunter/gatherer skills of the Noonuccal people. Ted Ruska taught his children to respect their proud heritage as people of the Noonuccal.
Kath and her siblings were lucky – they were not taken from their parents and placed in church run missions. They were lucky because their mother was determined her children would read and write. Kath’s father said to her ‘Just ‘cos you’re Aboriginal doesn’t mean you have to be as good as most white children – you have to be better.’
Kath attended Dunwich State School. She was left-handed. Teachers punished her for not using her right hand to write. Not surprisingly, Kath left school at 13 to become a poorly paid live-in domestic servant, earning two shillings and sixpence [25 cents] per week. In 1941 she joined the Australian Women’s Army Service. [AWAS]. She was promoted to corporal, worked in switchboard operations and later as a pay clerk.
In 1942 Kath married Bruce Walker – a descendant of the Logan and Albert River Aboriginal people. In 1946 a son, Dennis, was born. Bruce took up boxing to support his family. Kath implored him to give it up. Bruce’s increasing dependence on alcohol led to domestic violence and the complete breakdown of their marriage.
To support herself and Dennis Kath became a domestic servant for the family of Sir Ralph and Lady Cilento. Dr Phyllis Cilento used the name ‘Medical Mother’ for her radio broadcasts and newspaper articles. The Cilento family encouraged Kath to write and taught her to draw and paint.
In 1964 her poetry anthology, We Are Going, was the first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman. The title poem ends: The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. The bora ring is gone The corroboree is gone And we are going.
The Dawn is at Hand was published in 1966 and the third collection My People: A Kath Walker Collection [1970 rev.eds.1981, 1990]
In the 1960’s Oodgeroo fought for Aboriginal rights. In 1963 she met Sir Robert Menzies who was the Australian Prime Minister. When he offered her a drink of wine she told him that if he had done that in Queensland he could have been put in gaol. Imagine, the Prime Minister of Australia in gaol! It was not until 1967 that Aboriginal people had the right to vote.
In 1972 Oodgeroo returned to the birthplace of her people – the Noonuccal. She established an education and cultural centre at Moongalba [sitting down place] on Stradbroke Island. By 1987, 26,500 children had experienced sitting down and learning at Moongalba.
In 1974 Oodgeroo was on a British Airways flight that was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Two people on board were shot. During that time Oodgeroo wrote poetry on an airline sickbag!
In 1988 she adopted a traditional name: Oodgeroo – paperbark tree – and Noonuccal – the name of her people.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal earned many awards:
• 1970 Mary Gilmore Medal
• 1975 Jessie Litchfield Award
• International Acting Award
• Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Award
• Doctor of the University from Griffith University.
In 1970, as Kath Walker she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire [Civil] for services to the community. In 1987 she returned it as a protest against the forthcoming bicentenary celebrations of white settlement. In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip founded Australia as a Colony of the British Empire. It was actually a dumping ground for British convicts. The British declared Australia Terra Nullius – Land that belongs to no-one. It belonged, in fact, to all the Aboriginal nations inhabiting the land.
This is why Oodgeroo Noonuccal returned her MBE: Next year, 1988, to me marks 200 years of rape and carnage, all these terrible things that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia have suffered without any recognition even of admitted guilt from the parliaments of England…. From the Aboriginal point of view, what is there to celebrate? … I can no longer with a clear conscience accept the English honour of the MBE and will be returning to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal died in 1993 at the age of 72.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal Websites:
• Australia – Great Australian Women – Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) 1920 – 1993) http://www.janesoceania.com/australia_greatwomen_kathwalker/index.htm
• Noonuccal, Oodgeroo – Poet – Australian Poetry Library http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo
This site also has an anthology of 15 of the 162 poems by Oodgeroo.. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993) People and organisations –Trove nla.gov.au/nla.party-571406
• Oodgeroo Noonuccal – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oodgeroo_Noonuccal
Books: Remember, if you are looking for works by Oodgeroo Noonuccal in your local library, you will also have to search under Kath Walker as well. Books written by Oodgeroo before she changed her name are all catalogued as Walker, Kath.
• The dawn is at Hand. Pub 1992 ISBN: 9780714529219
• My people: a Kath Walker collection Pub 1970 ISBN: 9780701603564
• We are going: poems / Kath Walker Pub 1964
• Shadow Sister [DVD] : a filmography of Australian Aboriginal Poet Kath Walker. [Oodgeroo Noonuccal] Author: Baird-Nussinov, Jenny, Pub 1977. This DVD hows Kath Walker living on Stradbroke Island and discusses her contribution to the Aboriginal Civil Rights Movement, her vies of Aboriginal culture and her involvement with poetry. Oodgeroo Noonuccal also wrote many Dreamtime stories. Father Sky and Mother Earth was published in 2008. ISBN 9780731407347
Poems by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
You keep quiet now, little fella,
You want big-big Bunyip get you?
You look out, no good this place.
You see that waterhole over there?
He Gooboora, Silent Pool.
Suppose-it you go close up one time
Big fella woor, he wait there,
Big fella Bunyip sit down there,
In Silent Pool many bones down there.
He come up when it is dark,
He belong the big dark, that one.
Don’t go away from camp fire, you.
Better you curl up in the gunya,
Go to sleep now, little fella,
Tonight he hungry, hear him roar,
He frighten us, the terrible woor,
He the secret thing, he Fear,
He something we don’t know.
Go to sleep now, little fella,
Curl up with the yella dingo.
All One Race
Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown,
From where the sun jumps up to where it goes down,
Herrs and pukka-sahibs, demoiselles and squaws,
All one family, so why make wars?
They’re not interested in brumby runs,
We don’t hanker after Midnight Suns;
I’m for all humankind, not colour gibes;
I’m international, and never mind tribes.
Black, white or brown race, yellow race or red,
From the torrid equator to the ice-fields spread,
Monsieurs and senors, lubras and fraus,
All one family, so why family rows?
We’re not interested in their igloos,
They’re not mad about kangaroos;
I’m international, never mind place;
I’m for humanity, all one race.
‘I will bring you love,’ said the young lover,
‘A glad light to dance in your dark eye.
Pendants I will bring of the white bone,
And gay parrot feathers to deck your hair.’
But she only shook her head.
‘I will put a child in your arms,’ he said,
‘Will be a great headman, great rain-maker.
I will make remembered songs about you
That all the tribes in all the wandering camps
Will sing for ever.’
But she was not impressed.
‘I will bring you the still moonlight on the lagoon,
And steal for you the singing of all the birds;
I will bring down the stars of heaven to you,
And put the bright rainbow into your hand.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘bring me tree-grubs.’
This article was contributed by Robyn Youl of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria.