This article was published online in 2017
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) (1920–1993), black rights activist, poet, environmentalist, and educator, was born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska on 3 November 1920 at Bulimba, Brisbane, second youngest of seven children of Edward (Ted) Ruska, labourer, and his wife Lucy, née McCullough. Ted was a Noonuccal descendant, and Lucy was born in central Queensland, the daughter of an inland Aboriginal woman and a Scottish migrant. Lucy, at ten years of age, was removed and placed in an institution in Brisbane, and at fourteen years of age, without the skills to read or write, was consigned to work as a housemaid in rural Queensland.
Ruska’s childhood home was One Mile on North Stradbroke Island or Minjerribah—as it was known by the island’s traditional owners, the Noonuccal. The settlement, on the outskirts of Dunwich, was the setting for Kath’s earliest memories of hunting wild parrots, fishing, boating, and sharing in the community dugong catch. In 1934, at thirteen, she completed her formal education at Dunwich State School. The family, like many enduring the Depression, could not afford the nurses’ training her older sister had received. She left home for Brisbane to work as a domestic for board and lodging, and less pay than white domestics received, but armed with the ability to read and a talent for writing.
In World War II, after her brothers Edward and Eric were captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Ruska enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service on 28 July. After initial training as a signaller, she undertook administrative duties and was promoted to lance corporal in April 1943. In June she transferred to the district accounts office where she remained until being discharged on 19 January 1944. She enjoyed team competition, founding a women’s cricko (later vigoro) team, the Brisbane All-Blacks; she would later twice represent Queensland at cricko. On 8 May 1943 at the Methodist Church, West End, she had married Bruce Walker, a childhood friend and a descendant of Aboriginal clans from Queensland’s Logan and Albert rivers region; he was an electric welder. Their union did not last and as a single parent she struggled to provide and care for her son, Denis. A course in stenography led to an office job but, needed at home, she returned to the flexible hours of taking in ironing and cleaning for professional households. 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 she had a second son, Vivian; his father was Raphael Cilento junior (Cochrane 1994, 23).
In the 1940s the Communist Party of Australia—the only political party without a White Australia policy, and which opposed racial discrimination—had attracted Walker. Through the party she gained skills in writing speeches, public speaking, committee planning, and political strategy, which ‘stood me in good stead through life,’ but she left because ‘they wanted to write my speeches’ (Mitchell 1987, 197). Writing prose and poetry, she joined the Brisbane Realist Writers Group. James Devaney encouraged the reluctant writer and sent a selection of her poems to Dame Mary Gilmore. Ninety-four at the time of their meeting, Gilmore said, as Walker later recalled: ‘These belong to the world. Never forget you’re the tool that wrote them down only’ (Mitchell 1987, 198).
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. Despite the success of that book and The Dawn Is At Hand, which followed two years later, her work was dismissed by many critics as protest poetry. She would nevertheless win the Jessie Litchfield award for literature (1967), a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and the Dame Mary Gilmore medal. Sales of her poetry were claimed to rank second to Australia’s best-selling poet, C. J. Dennis.
Two years before her first book, in 1962, 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. She rose to the call for Aboriginal leadership and, in the early 1960s, travelled around Australia with FCAATSI delegates, among them Faith Bandler, (Sir) Douglas Nicholls, and Joe McGinness. Campaigning for equal citizenship rights, she met with cabinet ministers, led with Bandler a delegation to Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, and wrote and delivered speeches. The struggle culminated in the landmark 1967 referendum to empower the Federal government to legislate on Aboriginal affairs. This victory was particularly momentous in her home State, where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations lived under the all-encompassing authority of ‘The Queensland Acts.’
Walker stood for the Australian Labor Party in the Liberal stronghold of Greenslopes in the 1969 State election, but lost. Her hard-fought campaign for Aboriginal land rights, despite personal assurances of action by a succession of politicians, was slow to gain political support. London’s 1969 World Council of Churches consultation on racism 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 of America. My People (1970), a collection combining her two previous books, would be her last poetry for a decade and a half.
Aged fifty, in 1971, suffering ill health and facing challenges for power from younger Aboriginal leaders, Walker returned to Minjerribah. Near One Mile, she assembled a gunyah—a traditional shelter—on negotiated leasehold land, the beginnings of a learning facility, and named it Moongalba (the sitting-down place). Her teaching of Aboriginal culture on country inspired thousands of school children—whom she saw as the bright future—as well as teachers and other visitors who made the barge trip across Moreton Bay. She published two children’s books, Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972) and Father Sky and Mother Earth (1981). In 1983 she stood as a candidate for the Australian Democrats in the State election, without success.
During a tour of China—as part of an Australia-China Council cultural delegation—in 1984 Walker’s enthusiasm to write poetry revived, resulting in the simultaneous publication in Australia and China of Kath Walker in China (1988). She received prestigious awards, including honorary doctorates from Macquarie University (1988), Griffith University (1989), Monash University (1991), and Queensland University of Technology (1992). In 1977 she appeared in a film biography, Shadow Sister; her performance won the 1977 Black Film Makers’ award in San Francisco. She also advised on and acted in Bruce Beresford’s 1986 film The Fringe Dwellers. A veteran environmental campaigner, she spoke against uranium mining and opposed sand mining on Minjerribah. In 1987, in protest at the bicentennial celebration of Australia Day, she famously returned the MBE to which she had been appointed in 1970.
With her son Vivian in 1988 she wrote the script for The Rainbow Serpent Theatre, produced at World Expo ‘88, Brisbane; they wrote under their newly chosen Noonuccal names Oodgeroo (paperbark tree) and Kabul (carpet snake). These last few years together ended in 1991 with Kabul’s AIDS-related death at thirty-eight. Heartsick but resolute, Oodgeroo served as a judge of the David Unaipon award for Indigenous writers, as adviser on a national Aboriginal studies curriculum for teachers, and as patron of Queensland’s first Writers Centre. She died of cancer on 16 September 1993 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Greenslopes, Brisbane. At her funeral on Minjerribah hundreds came to farewell the nation’s much loved poet and activist, who was buried at Moongalba beside Kabul.
In 2006 Queensland University of Technology renamed its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Support Unit the Oodgeroo Unit. Direct, charismatic, quick-witted, and dignified, Oodgeroo taught the spirituality of her ancestors, responsibility for the earth, and the connection of all people. Her poetry and stories continue to inspire. She chose ‘a long road and a lonely road, but oh, the goal is sure’ (Walker 1970, 54).
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 30 April 2017.