Black rights fighter and people's poet

Issue 

By Bill Mason
and Maurice Sibelle

BRISBANE — Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly known as Kath Walker, the popular poet and Aboriginal rights activist, died at Greenslopes Hospital on September 16 at the age of 72 after a struggle with cancer.

Her death came just three months after the final performance at the Cremorne Theatre here of the play One Woman's Song, celebrating her life and work.

In 1964, she became the first Aborigine to have a book of poetry, We Are Going, published.

Formerly a member of the Communist Party, and a long-time campaigner for Aboriginal land rights and other progressive causes, she was once state secretary of the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

In the '60s, when Aborigines were not even recorded in the census, Oodgeroo campaigned for recognition, despite the close scrutiny of the infamous Queensland Special Branch. It was a brave act for an Aborigine to campaign in those times. In Queensland law, the authorities were able to declare any Aborigine "in need of assistance". That person would then come"under the act" and could be forcibly removed to another area.

"Kath spared nobody her criticism", recalled Bob Anderson, a Brisbane tribal elder. "Politicians, church people or prime ministers were told when it was justified."

Anderson recalls a meeting Kath had with the then prime minister, Bob Menzies. After introductions, Menzies offered his guest a drink, to which she replied, "You could be arrested for offering an Aborigine a drink".

She changed her name by deed poll in 1987 to Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe from Stradbroke Island, in protest at plans for the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations. The late Don Brady, a respected tribal elder, bestowed the name Oodgeroo on her because she was always writing. Oodgeroo means paper bark.

In 1988, she returned her MBE to the Queensland governor, stating: "Since 1970, I have lived in the hope that the parliaments of England and Australia would confer and attempt to rectify the terrible damage done to the Australian Aborigines.

"The forbidding of our tribal language, the murders, the poisonings, the scalpings, the denial of land custodianship, especially our spiritual sacred sites, the destruction of our sacred places ...

"This year, 1988, marks 200 years of rape and carnage, all those terrible things that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia have suffered.

"From the Aborigine's point of view, what is there to celebrate? So I can no longer, with a clear conscience, accept the English honour."

She was fond of young people, and people of all races called her Aunty Kath. Oodgeroo Noonuccal will be widely mourned, both in the Black community and among Australians generally, for her poetry and her life as a resolute fighter for Aboriginal rights.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.