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MoB Sunday Stories: Oodgeroo Noonuccal

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Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993), also known by her Anglo name Kath Walker, was raised on Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah), where she learnt Aboriginal customs from her community, before leaving to work in Brisbane at 13. She worked in domestic service for less pay than her white counterparts and was rejected for nurse’s training because of her Aboriginal descent.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Sydney, 1970. Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation

During the 1940s Oodgeroo joined the Communist Party of Australia where she learnt political strategy, and how to write and deliver speeches. She also began to write her own prose and poetry. As a single mother, Oodgeroo took up domestic work once again, working for prominent doctors Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis Cilento. The Cilento’s eldest daughter, artist Margaret Cilento, painted this striking portrait of Oodgeroo.

Margaret Cilento, ‘Portrait of Kath Ruska (Kath Walker later known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal)’, c1952. Photo: Carl Warner, City of Brisbane Collection, Museum of Brisbane.

By 1964 Oodgeroo’s first volume of poetry, ‘We Are Going’, was the first book by an Aboriginal woman to be published and was an immediate commercial success. She continued to receive accolades for her writing and activism work, including being appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to the community in 1970. She returned it in 1987 to protest the bicentenary celebrations of white settlement, subsequently adopting the name Oodgeroo (meaning “paperbark”).

Oodgeroo wrote a number of books, essays, speeches and collections of poetry throughout her career, as well as establishing an education centre on Minjerribah to teach Aboriginal culture on country. That centre and a number of her works can still be visited today.

​Rainbow Serpent Banner, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, 1988, Painted textile Courtesy North Stradbroke Island Museum on Minjerribah and Petrina Walker Photo: Carl Warner
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