POET, artist and Indigenous peoples activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, in earlier life known as Kath Walker, is North Stradbroke Island’s (known as Minjerribah by Traditional Owners, the Quandamooka people) most famous resident.
First recognised nationally and internationally for her evocative poetry, she was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse. In later life, she became far better known for her Indigenous educational work and her advocacy for Indigenous culture, rights and reconciliation.
According to her biography in the National Museum Australia:
In the 1960s Kath Walker — poet, activist and public speaker — articulated the feelings of Aboriginal people for the rest of Australia in a way that they had not heard before.
Her advocacy began in the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Kathleen Ruska had grown up with her family on North Stradbroke Island and had worked as a domestic through the Depression.
Joining the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1941 was a positive experience for her; she was accepted without prejudice and learned new skills.
Kath Walker joined the Communist Party of Australia at a time when it was the only party that was vocal in its opposition to racial discrimination. She remained a member for only a short while, being conscious, when she became well known as an Aboriginal spokesperson, that people may unthinkingly follow her lead.
In 1958 she joined the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, where she met white activists who were working for civil rights for Aboriginal Queenslanders at a time when the Queensland Aborigines Preservation and Protection Act gave total control to managers of Aboriginal reserves.
Kath attended the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) annual conferences from 1960, becoming the first Queensland state secretary in 1962. At the 1962 annual conference in Adelaide she read her ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’ and in 1964 her first collection of poems We are Going was published by Jacaranda Press. It was reprinted six times over the next 12 months.
Kath’s political philosophy changed markedly when she attended a World Council of Churches consultation on racism in London in 1968.
Prior to this meeting, Kath had seen Aboriginal disadvantage in class terms and had seen the racial coalition provided by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) as the most effective political approach to reform of laws and attitudes.
Her London experience put the Australian situation into an international context for her. She rejected the coalition politics she had previously espoused, arguing instead for Aboriginal people to become a unified and solid fighting force before they entered into coalitions with whites.
Kath supported the 1970 Pittock amendments to the FCAATSI constitution which would have increased Indigenous power on the Federal Council. When the amendments failed she was instrumental in supporting, with Doug Nicholls, the establishment of the National Tribal Council.
While she remained politically active, Kath’s priorities in the 1970s and 1980s when she returned to her beloved Stradbroke Island were art (her writing as well as the visual arts) and education. At this time she changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, recognising her Noonuccal ancestors whose land she had returned to.
She established Moongalba as a cultural and educational centre on the island. Here thousands of Aboriginal and white people came to learn about Aboriginal culture. She worked for a treaty between black and white Australians and, until her death, was engaged in activities to right injustice from the community level of Stradbroke Island to the national level. She believed passionately in the power of education to reform an unjust world.
BORN in 1920, Kathleen Walker, nee Ruska, grew up on North Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay, east of Brisbane.
Known as Kath, Walker showed a natural gift with words at an early age and was encouraged to pursue writing at school. Her father, Edward, worked for the Queensland government and campaigned relentlessly to improve conditions for Aboriginal employees.
Walker left school in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression to take up work in domestic service. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 two of Walker’s brothers, Eric and Eddie, enlisted for service in the army. Both were captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in February 1942, and they spent the next three and a half years as prisoners of war.
In December 1942 Walker joined the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and trained as a signaller. In that same year she married her childhood friend, Bruce Walker, who was a talented bantamweight boxer and a welder by trade. Kath remained in the AWAS until early January 1944. She settled in Brisbane with her husband, and their first son, Denis, was born two years later.
Both Eric and Eddie survived the war and returned home to Australia. Eddie, who had been a promising sportsman, had lost his right leg during his imprisonment. Walker separated from her husband soon after the war and returned to domestic service to support her son. She gave birth to a second son, Vivian, in 1953.
In the 1960s Walker began to develop a reputation as a poet, and published three critically acclaimed collections. Around this same time she became an increasingly passionate advocate for Aboriginal rights, and worked towards reconciliation for the remainder of her life.
In 1970 Walker was appointed a Member of the British Empire for her services to Aboriginal people. Now known by her traditional Aboriginal name, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, she returned her award some years later in protest against the celebrations planned to mark 200 years since the arrival of the first convict ships in Australia.
She died in 1993 at the age of 72. A trust was established in her honour to carry on the work she had begun towards reconciliation.