Walker, Kath (1920–1993) |

Kath walker

first Australian Aboriginal to publish a book of poems . name variations: cath walker; (Aboriginal name) oodgeroo noonuccal. born 3 november 1920 in minjerriba (north stradbroke island), queensland, australia; died in 1993; educated to primary school level; children: two children.

recipient of the Jesse Litchfield Award (1967) and the Mary Gilmore Medal (1977); she established an aboriginal cultural and educational center on stradbroke island; He has lectured and tutored at various institutions, including the University of the South Pacific.

selected writings:

we’re leaving (1964); dawn approaches (1966); my people (1970); (collection of aboriginal legends) stradbroke dreamtime (1972); father sky and mother earth (1981); little friend: poems by kath walker ( 1987 ); kath walker in china (1988); the rainbow serpent: o.n. and kabul oodgeroo noonuccal (1990); my people: oodgeroo (1990); shoemaker (1994).

Born in 1920 and raised in the traditional aboriginal style on an island off the south queensland coast, kath walker was introduced to the european world through a primary education. Although he was fluent in both cultures, his primary identity was Aboriginal, and from an early age he was active in civil liberties groups (including the Australian Communist Party). Walker was especially active in supporting the 1967 referendum, which gave Aboriginal suffrage which, in those states where it had existed, had been abolished under the 1901 Australian constitution, and also in land rights and conservation policy. He also served on a variety of arts and social service boards, including the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement and the Aboriginal Advancement League, to lobby for the civil rights of his people. He established a school, Moongalba, for the advancement of his people, and enjoyed an important national and international reputation as an assertive and charismatic black artist and activist. As the first poet of her career to be published in English, she became an inspiration to a younger generation of writers. Although she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1970, she identified so strongly with her people that she declined the honor in 1988 in protest of the bicentenary celebrations of European settlement in England, one she described as ” 200 years of humiliation and brutality for the aborigines”. that year she officially changed her name to the aboriginal oodgeroo noonuccal.

Walker became the first Aboriginal to publish a book of poetry with the appearance of We’re Going in 1964. In a 1960s Australia that was comparatively wealthy and complacent but fearful of communism, walker’s satirical and polemical verses caused a stir. She wrote clearly and bluntly about the economic mistreatment of her people in poems such as “Aboriginal Bill of Rights”, which she was noted for its firm and seemingly confident assertion of rights that at the time did not exist constitutionally. walker implicitly attacked the practice of christianity in australia and accused the government and welfare of bureaucratic paternalism and relegating her people to a permanent underclass. for white australia at the time, it was a seditious tone and certainly dangerously socialist. it was easy for the formalist aesthetes of the academic establishment of the day to denigrate her poetry as propagandist and regressive in her craft, because the influence of an older ballad was clearly evident in her. this manifesto, and other poems along the same lines, advocated the extension of human and Christian rights to the aborigines, and pointed to a long list of discriminatory practices. sometimes his poetry works more obliquely, as in his highly anthologized “we’re going,” which wistfully contrasts a demoralized present with an implied preset golden age when tribes are depicted as having been in harmony and eternity. identity with each feature. from her environment. in poems like “no more boomerang”, she is tersely satirical about the “advances” of white civilization, which contrast unfavorably with traditional values. many of her poems lament the disappearance forever of a lifestyle she perceived to be in the best ecological interest of the land she loved and all Australians.

Walker’s controversial poetry sometimes drew criticism from his own people. Mudrooroo, the leading black-identified intellectual of his generation, saw her less as a poet than as a polemicist (he invented the term “poemics” for his work), noting that the genres she used are those internalized as a result of his white upbringing. however, she noted that her use of simple meter and her diction are part of her enduring appeal both to her own people and to a larger audience of white readers. other critics, informed by postcolonial theory, debated whether mainstream critical frameworks apply adequately to her work, citing features of the verse that involve the use of aboriginal forms of rhetoric that are not visible to white readers. some pointed to the performative dimension of her art and her roots in mythic ritual and political oratory.

Although she was committed to speaking out against the dispossession of Aboriginal society by white “invaders”, Walker eschewed the victim role and worked actively and resiliently to build Aboriginal pride, identity and solidarity. An important aspect of her educational program was her commitment to writing stories of her quasi-traditional growth in Minjerriba, and to recover and illustrate, in a delicate and successful traditional way, the myths and stories of her own people and place for a generation to come. young. of readers in black and white.

walker received honorary doctorates from griffith and macquarie universities and queensland university of technology. In 1967 she won the Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature, and in 1977 the Patricia Weickhardt Australian Writers Fellowship and the Mary Gilmore Award. Her work has the rare distinction in Australia of being continually reprinted, and of having struck a note of optimistic hope for a self-respecting Aboriginality that is still powerful decades later. she died of cancer in 1993, aged 72.


buck, claire, ed. the bloomsbury guide to women’s literature. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992.

encyclopedia of world literature. vol. 3: from left to right. Detroit, MI: St. jamespress, 1999.

“oodgeroo noonuccal”, in new york times biographical service. September 1993.

jacquie maurice , freelance writer, calgary, alberta, canada

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