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Past present

by Krysia Kitch, 24 March 2016

Krysia Kitch celebrates Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

Studio portrait of servicewoman Lance Corporal Kathleen Jean Mary (Kath) Walker, c.1942
Studio portrait of servicewoman Lance Corporal Kathleen Jean Mary (Kath) Walker, c.1942

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) (1920-1993) was, above all, a wordsmith; whether in the guise of activist, poet, writer, or educator it was her facility with language that was the key to her success. Her ability to craft a potent phrase or lyric line, and utilise rhythm and changing mood to add dramatic effect enabled her to share her passions and beliefs, whether as an orator on the campaign trail rounding up support, or telling tales to a rapt audience of school children. Her poetry provided insight into the Aboriginal experience and perspective to white Australians, and she was an inspiration and mentor to generations of Aboriginal writers, performers and educators. An extraordinary woman, Oodgeroo is the subject of several portraits in the National Portrait Gallery collection, and the fact that so many are included is an indication of her place in Australian history. Her insistence on the value of cultural exchange and respect for one another is her abiding legacy.

Born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska in 1920, Oodgeroo was the second-youngest of seven children; her father Edward (Ted) was a traditional custodian of Minjerribah, as North Stradbroke Island is known to the Noonuccal people. He instilled in her a strong connection to her Aboriginal identity and taught her a traditional way of life, hunting and collecting native foods, respect for their totem Kabool, the carpet snake, and the stories of their country. Leaving school at the age of thirteen, Oodgeroo went into service in Brisbane, one of the limited options available for young Aboriginal women at the time. 

Oodgeroo’s horizons were altered when she enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1941 and trained as a switchboard operator; later, through the army’s rehabilitation scheme, she had the opportunity to gain qualifications in shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. During the next decade, Oodgeroo married Bruce Raymond Walker and had two children, Denis and Vivien. It was also during the ‘40s that she first became politically involved, joining the Australian Communist Party, attracted by the fact that it was the only party at that time that did not endorse the White Australia policy. 

Kath Walker, Aboriginal Poet, 1965 by Clif Peir

During the 1950s Oodgeroo took up writing seriously and joined the Realist Writers Group in Brisbane, which provided her with support as well as the opportunity to publish her early poems in the group’s magazine, Realist Writer. By 1963 she had gained enough confidence to submit a collection of her poems to Jacaranda Press, whose editor sought the advice of Judith Wright in determining whether to publish. Wright’s resounding endorsement led to the publication of the collection in 1964 under the title We are Going. Wright and Oodgeroo became lifelong friends, exchanging letters and poetry and affectionately calling each other ‘shadow sisters’. Success was immediate, and the publication needed to be reprinted, with more than ten thousand copies sold. Two more volumes of poetry followed: The Dawn is at Hand, in 1966 and My People: A Kath Walker Collection, in 1970. 

Along with her literary success, Oodgeroo became more deeply engaged in political activism, becoming Secretary of the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in 1961. Involvement in the national iteration of this organisation followed, working with Aboriginal leaders from across Australia to improve conditions for their peoples. During the ‘60s Oodgeroo campaigned tirelessly for citizenship rights, and in the lead-up to the 1967 Referendum travelled thousands of kilometres, exhorting people to vote ‘yes’. 

Oodgeroo Noonuccal at Moongalba Stradbroke Island (her sitting down place)1982 by Juno Gemes

Her ready wit and intelligence allowed her to take advantage of any opportunity that was offered to highlight an issue or drive a point home. One such instance occurred when she was part of a deputation meeting Prime Minister Menzies, who was happy to see Oodgeroo but very resistant to the idea of holding a referendum on constitutional change. Being a hospitable man he offered a drink to Oodgeroo, who cheekily reminded him that in the state of Queensland he would be committing a crime, as it was illegal to ‘provide spirituous liquor to an Aborigine’, deftly demonstrating how conditions for Aboriginal people varied dramatically from state to state. Menzies resisted all attempts at persuasion, and it was not until Harold Holt became Prime Minister that a referendum was held and Sections 51 (xxvi) and 127 of the constitution were changed, allowing the Federal Government to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and including them in the population count.

Clif Peir’s portrait, Kath Walker, Aboriginal Poet 1965, was painted during this period of Oodgeroo’s life. He adopted a traditional approach to depicting a writer, including an open book with Oodgeroo in a quiet reflective mood, gazing intensely into the distance as if in deep thought. Although based in Sydney, from the 1950s Peir travelled extensively throughout central Australia and became known for his depictions of desert landscapes. He was a great admirer of Oodgeroo, or Kath Walker as she was known then, and asked to paint her portrait; when she agreed, he invited her to stay at his home in Oatley while he did so. The portrait was hung in the 1965 Archibald Prize. Peir also demonstrated his interest in the conditions of Aboriginal people in another, more practical way through the donation of several of his artworks to the ‘Art Sale for Land Rights’ at Paddington Town Hall in 1970. The fundraiser provided support to Aboriginal Land Rights Councils in New South Wales, North Queensland and the Kimberley. 

Seventeen years later, the two portraits by Juno Gemes present a different side of Oodgeroo. Gone is the neat Chanel-style suit, swapped for shorts and t-shirt, and she appears much more relaxed. She is at home, at the door of her caravan in one and sitting down inside it in the other. She is also very comfortable with the photographer, for Gemes had been involved in the protest movement for Aboriginal rights over several decades, as a participant, and also recording the movement and the key players within it. 

Oodgeroo’s home or ‘sitting down place’, Moongalba, near Amity Point on North Stradbroke Island, is the inspiration of much of her poetry and where she established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre, the site of her great education campaign, encouraging children from across Australia to visit her in order to learn about Aboriginal culture and tradition. Over several decades, 30 000 school children visited her and were captivated by her vivid storytelling, gathered round the campfire. Some of these stories are included in Stradbroke Dreaming (1972), a combination of stories of growing up on the island and traditional storytelling, often imbuing lyrical descriptions of country with a moral message, the tales setting down guidelines on how to survive in the bush. Children weren’t the only visitors; teachers were always guaranteed a warm welcome, as were academics from across the world. Oodgeroo advocated that all Australian children should be taught about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture.

Oodgeroo’s t-shirt indicates that although she had retired to Stradbroke Island in 1971 she continued to be involved in campaigning for Aboriginal rights. The t-shirt design was created for the protests for Aboriginal land rights that occurred in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games of 1982. A selection from Gemes’ extensive photographic archive formed the 2003 exhibition, Proof: Portraits from The Movement 1978 – 2003 at the National Portrait Gallery, and although Oodgeroo could easily have been included in the areas showcasing ‘The Political Activists’, ‘The Persuaders’ or ‘The Writers’, she was featured in the section dedicated to ‘Land Rights Before Games: National Land Rights Action’. 

Although based on Stradbroke Island, Oodgeroo travelled widely, in demand as a speaker both in Australia and abroad, including Nigeria, India, the United States (on a Fulbright scholarship), and as part of a cultural delegation to China with Manning Clark. She was awarded honorary doctorates by four Australian universities, and an MBE, which she eventually returned in 1988 in protest at the Bicentennial celebrations. 

That same year she changed her name from Kath Walker to Oodgeroo (meaning paperbark), of the tribe Noonuccal, affirming her pride in her Aboriginal heritage and her recognition of the power of language to shape thought.

George Fetting’s portrait was taken in the year before Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s death from cancer, in 1973. Living in Brisbane at the time, Fetting had the idea for an exhibition of photographic portraits of remarkable women, and Oodgeroo was one of the women he approached. He travelled to her home and spent a day photographing her. The result is larger than life, with the 110 x 88.2cm print taken up by Oodgeroo’s face, framed by her left hand. Her gaze is steady and solemn, looking into the distance, and every pore of her face and the smallest crease on her hand can be seen. Fetting describes portraiture as his ‘first love’, and in this instance he has created a compelling work, with rich tonal range and quiet intensity, conveying strength and solemnity. In this portrait, Oodgeroo Noonuccal appears every inch the matriarch of a community she has gathered around herself. 

The final word should be given to Oodgeroo, who, in her interview with Hazel De Berg in the oral history collection of the National Library of Australia, stated ‘… one day I sat down and thought, I’m sick of answering questions, I’ll write a poem about who I am, what I am, and why I am what I am. The poem is called The Past.’ In it, she ponders the relevance of what has gone before and how it continues to weave through the present and into the future. She continues to challenge us all to be aware of past events and remain cognisant of the limitations of the present, while working towards change and a new and better reality.

The Past

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
Tonight here in suburbia as I sit
In easy chair before electric heater,
Warmed by the red glow, I fall into dream:
I am away
At the campfire in the bush, among
My own people, sitting on the ground,
No walls about me,
The stars over me,
The tall surrounding trees that stir in the wind
Making their own music,
Soft cries of the night coming to us, there
Where we are one with all old Nature’s lives
Known and unknown,
In scenes where we belong but have now forsaken.
Deep chair and electric radiator
Are but since yesterday,
But a thousand thousand camp fires in the forest
Are in my blood.
Let none tell me the past is wholly gone.
Now is so small a part of time, so small a part
Of all the race years that have moulded me.

by Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal, from My People 3/e, The Jacaranda Press, 1990. Reproduced by permission of John Wiley & Sons Australia.