Alexis Wright remembers Oodgeroo Noonucal
Australians and readers across the world love Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal people for the contribution she made with a poetry that reflects her openness, compassion and participation in the struggle for the rights of Aboriginal people. Oodgeroo was a teacher and guide to thousands who visited her home Moongalba where she established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre. The huge legacy that Oodgeroo left us through her poetry and work as a political activist, educator and leader remains a beacon of pride and inspiration to Aboriginal people everywhere.
In the heart of Aboriginal consciousness – that place where our spirit is kept alive with memories, our constant source of light, hope for the future and defiance in troubled times – Oodgeroo Noonuccal is there. She is a legend, as familiar to us as looking up into the skies at night and seeing the light shining from those billions of stars in the Milky Way. Passing clouds only momentarily block that legacy, the Aboriginal sovereign thinking that shines through Oodgeroo’s work. She was a peoples’ storyteller of every campfire that we have ever sat beside, where all of the remembered stories, and all of the new stories, are told and retold.
A gifted custodian, she wrote about the violence of long-term colonialism plaguing the country, which was in her time, as today, no closer to being reconciled by just and proper means. When I read her work, I feel how deeply she understood the painful destiny that has continued in a new reality. No matter what we do, new ways are found by this country to treat us with dishonour and disrespect. To the people who currently claim to know what is best for Aboriginal people, I say this: your inhumanity creates its own inhumanity just as it did yesterday, just as it will do tomorrow, and the pain will stay with us.
Through this nightmare inheritance, Oodgeroo found a way to reach down deep into her heart, in search of what it meant to be Aboriginal. Somehow, she managed to find some small thing from the human soul, blooming in total adversity, and write it into poetry. She went forth and struck like a fearless warrior at the mightiest white egos, reminding them of the atrocities committed in the theft of this land. Her work was heroic and full of confidence, in a way that is rarely seen even today – as, for instance, when she listed the contents for a treaty document in one of her famous poems, ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’.
This federal government would do well not to waste any more time tinkering with Indigenous lives. It must work with new, Indigenous-agreed goals, with immediate timelines for a relationship based on mutual respect and trust for an Aboriginal-defined and controlled future. Such a relationship would require a giant leap in understanding Aboriginal thought and aspiration. The government could begin tomorrow by taking a good look at Oodgeroo’s poem: a template for building treaties with respect for the sacred beliefs and values of Aboriginal nations and peoples through a Charter of Indigenous Rights for the Future.
The blueprint for the way forward, based on the Declaration of Indigenous Rights (that Australia has yet to sign), has been developed by Patrick Dodson and can be found in his recent Nulungu Lecture of 21 August 2008. The majority of Indigenous people, and millions of non-Indigenous people, would place their trust in Patrick more than any other person in this country, and I am very surprised that a recent major article in the newspapers on Indigenous issues by Nicholas Rothwell did not refer to him once.
I also found it disappointing to hear the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs hose down the Prime Minister’s recent promise in Arnhem Land to negotiate changing the nation’s constitution to recognise the rights of Indigenous Australians. I am blown away by the inability of this or previous governments to work on a settlement of Indigenous rights with recognition and compensation for decades of damages, and tired of politicians taking their time to plan yet another process to look at a process of how to be involved in a process for anything to get done.
When I read Oodgeroo’s poetry now, I feel my heart reeling, pulled in different emotional directions as I look back at when she was writing. Oodgeroo was creating a story of our identity on paper, giving a message to the world about what was happening to our people. Her poems of the 1960s were written in Queensland just before, and during, the premiership of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who came to power in 1968 and remained premier until 1987. She wrote when only the very bravest were speaking out, during the decades of assimilation and integration. Oodgeroo recorded the heartbeat and soul of our people of that time, not only in an elegant and humane way, but also as ‘pure propaganda’, which was what she once called her writing – ‘not the best but the best-selling’.
Her work created the space for future generations of Indigenous writers, now writing some of the most important poetry and literature in the country. But over forty years have passed since she wrote some of her earlier poems, and we are still struggling for the same rights she and others fought for, against policies that are re-labelled as ‘self determination,’ ‘self management’, ‘shared or mutual responsibility’ and ‘intervention’. We have been blamed and denigrated for a great deal of what went wrong with government policies that were doomed from the start: policies never developed by, or with the agreement of, Aboriginal people.
Oodgeroo once wrote a poem titled ‘An Appeal’, in which she asked writers who have the nation’s ear to use their pen as a sword:
Your pen a sword opponents fear,
A war of strange ugliness was waged against Aboriginal people over the past few years with the sword of the pen, a war conducted as a long, unrelenting hostile media event, aimed collectively at Indigenous people. We were put on trial by the media, found guilty of violence towards each other and our children, and deemed incapable of moral thought. This was the story used by those on both sides of politics who wished to bring about the end of Aboriginal rights to land – the big unsettled business of occupation. Although the punishment of intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory was implemented without the permission of Aboriginal people, it was not done without strategy. No-one can tell me that the plan did not have the goal of breaking down Aboriginal cultural attachment to land by making it even more difficult for Aboriginal people to live on it. Statistics from regional towns and cities close to the areas where the intervention has been conducted have already shown, after twelve months, that large numbers of Aboriginal people have left their communities and land.
If you have been reading the newspapers, you would have seen how this one-sided dialogue was orchestrated. The question was, how to respond? Which allegation would you answer first? How much did you want to be kicked in the guts? Most of our people know how to practise self-censorship because they know through history what it means to go against the grain. To many, it seemed pointless to respond, a waste of energy because no-one was listening to us. The only voices heard were those who did not deviate from the storyline – and everyone else was criticised as supporting violence and dysfunction and communities as museums of ancient culture.
The ideology of assimilation was being built when Oodgeroo was beginning to write her poetry, and she let the world see that nobody could make a jail for her spirit. I feel very strongly that Oodgeroo was continuing an ancient message about the value of respect, a message at the heart of the epical stories of Aboriginal law in our long civilisation.
More than forty years ago, Oodgeroo spoke about the tragedy of dispossession and oppression in her poems ‘We Are Going’ and ‘Dispossession’. She wrote of cultural strengths that were being overcome by the destruction of tribal grounds in this most lyrical, sad but beautiful poem:
We are the lightning-bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Oodgeroo’s achievement was to make a weapon of poetry, in the same way as the great Irish writer James Joyce, whose character Stephen Dedalus spoke of having to use a borrowed canvas and borrowed words. The thoughts belonged to the cultural interior monologue of her people, but their stories in her poetry turned history into a mythmaking of what was believed and was true. She used words as a shield to hold back the full effect of colonialism, and the power of those words have lasted through many decades to remind us, as if they were written yesterday, where we come from and who we are and what we stand for. Poems such as ‘Oppression’ and ‘We Are Going’ are so potent they actually reinvigorate the sovereignty of the mind, with new energy and resolve to say ‘No’ to assimilation.
Oodgeroo absolutely understood the power of belief in the fight for sovereignty over this land – that if you could succeed in keeping the basic architecture of how you think, then you owned the freedom of your mind, that unimpeded space to store hope and feed your ability to survive. This was her wisdom and her guidance, an insistence that our people would believe in their equality and justice, would own their own thoughts. She was right! Her poetry continues to work its way into the soul of the nation and it will do so for a long time to come, in the struggles for acknowledgement of the injustices of the past.
She had sharp eyes for the reality of dispossession, but she also saw way back into the timelessness of culture, ever present in a changing world for Aboriginal people. I believe this helps to explain how cultural values stay steadfast and unconquerable against the pressures of assimilation. The idea of assimilating an ancient race of people of high intelligence and philosophy who had survived as the oldest living culture on the planet was, as she explained, just pouring ‘a pitcher of wine into the wide river’. I quote her beautiful lines from her defiant poem ‘Assimilation – No!':
The gum cannot be trained into an oak.
Her famous poem ‘No More Boomerang’ was sung by Cairns Aboriginal activist Les Collins on a cassette called Rebel Voices produced long ago by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. It became one of the great consciousness-raising messages of the Aboriginal political movement, rallying thousands of Aboriginal people from all parts of the country into the big protest marches of the 1970s and 80s. The sentiment about lost symbols of culture spurred us to rebuild hope in our people, to build a free and independent movement as the sovereign people of this land.
Oodgeroo’s poetry spoke for those who could not be heard. She gave voice on paper for those Aboriginal people who had suffered and died from oppression and dispossession without being heard across this land. One of these poems was ‘Daisy Bindi’, which tells the story of an Aboriginal leader who fought against slavery on Roy Hill station in the far inland of Western Australia.
I think of her poetry as expressing a passion that it was not only necessary but right that only a good humanity should reside on the earth of the ancestors. I find the soul of our humanity in her most lyrical poem ‘Community Rain Song’, which tells the story of tribal people living with the heart beat of the land:
Thunder up there,
Her concept was to forge a good spirit through an everlasting consciousness created from her own imagination, the same burning idea expressed by the great Irish bard W.B. Yeats in his lines, ‘Yet he who treads in measured ways/May surely barter gaze for gaze’, from his poem, ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’, or in the novels of James Joyce by the character Stephen Dedalus, who claimed he must set forth to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.
At the same time, Oodgeroo looked with a cold eye at the forced trade-offs oppressed and dispossessed people make in the worthless currency of integration and assimilation policies. In her poem ‘Cookalingee’, written for Elsie Lewis, Oodgeroo cut through the impersonal words used for the indescribable intensity of her people’s suffering. She described the troubled interior world of an Aboriginal woman working as a cook on a cattle station, possibly at the time when the poem was written in the early 1960s. Cookalingee is separated from her own people who are themselves suffering and hungry from the theft of their land. But she is still regarded as a lubra by the white people, even though she is dressed and provided for in the white man’s way, and working all day as their station cook. She feeds the ‘hungry nomads’, the ragged band of her own race outside her kitchen door:
Never begging, they stand by,
But, at the end of the day, she is left with, ‘Something bartered, something gone’ and so, without a life with her own people, ‘lonely in her paradise/Cookalingee sits and cries.’
This is a poem about the legacy of guilt and failed responsibility that has wreaked havoc with the minds of Aboriginal people, as individuals, as families, and as communities and nations. Way back in 1962, Oodgeroo wrote:
the Aboriginal’s knowledge is much greater than that of the white man in one respect. He knows more about the white man than the white man knows about us … We took time off, we, the Aboriginals took time off, to understand what the white man wanted and to respect his views, this has not happened on the white man’s side of the bridge and now the time has come when he himself must get to know us and understand us and respect us for what we want.
Reading those words you instantly sense the sharpness and the immediacy of her power. You can feel the blow of her words, but she is diagnostic and calm, and does not set out to destroy. She requires healing to take place. She steps outside her own pain and she measures up the entire country on a set of scales she has within her and she calls out the result. A spade is a spade, and there can be no confusion about what she has to say.
Aboriginal people have continued to develop a very sophisticated interest in other cultures. But you cannot have a partner who thinks less than you do about who you are, or who is lazy and places no value in new ideas, and who cannot understand the complexity and richness of Indigenous humanity. You cannot have a partner who is unwilling to learn, who never fully appreciates the antiquity of Aboriginal culture and survival on this land. We have not yet found a partnership where there is a true and honest preparedness to work beside a real long-term vision designed by Aboriginal people.
Even after Kevin Rudd’s huge gesture of an apology on behalf of the nation, his government, its ministers and bureaucrats have continued ‘business as usual’ when dealing with Aboriginal people. The bad advice of people who ran out of good ideas many years ago continues to pour into the ears of ministers, as the minders use their positions to keep the status quo of Aboriginal powerlessness.
I see this approach of befuddlement and mistakes every time I read the newspaper, and it is not my intention to examine here every detail of other people’s agendas. However, to give you some indication of the continuing oppression that Oodgeroo spoke about in 1962, I will contain myself to the recent Mabo Lecture delivered by the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, in May 2008.
It seems to me incredibly naïve to think that all parties in the Native Title claims process want to do the right thing by Aboriginal people, as Jenny Macklin claimed in her lecture. Very little has been given as compensation to create a real economy for Aboriginal people and their communities from the resources being taken from their lands. I am not even speaking about Aboriginal people having any real right to choose what happens on their land. Contrary to Jenny Macklin’s belief that numerous agreements have been reached under the Native Title legislation, there have, in fact, been relatively few agreements made.
Jenny Macklin claimed that the government was entitled to tell Aborigines (or, for that matter, any Australians) how they could spend their money and deal with their private property. While there is no question that hard work and cooperation are required to ensure that the benefits, for what they are, of the ‘mining boom’ are not squandered, it is quite another proposition to suggest that government bureaucrats are entitled to tell people what to do with their private property. Apart from the problems this proposition will face from the constitution and the Racial Discrimination Act, it feels to me like a Stalinist approach.
I wonder what Oodgeroo would have thought about those who are trying to dictate the future of Aboriginal people. At the 2008 Bennelong Conference in Melbourne, a prominent Indigenous leader pointed out to me one of the keynote speakers, who had been talking about the Northern Territory intervention and who claimed that Aboriginal people spent all of their money on six-packs. This man, an active voice for the continuation of the harshest policies directed towards Aboriginal people, admitted that he had never visited, or felt the need to visit, an Aboriginal community to find out if what he said was true or not.
I don’t spend all of my money on six-packs. Nor does my friend, nor do thousands of other Aboriginal people we know. My friend said that he actually felt confused and astonished that in this day and age, and with all of the thinking and work – the mountains of work that we have done over many decades – we could have possibly fallen into the hands of people who seemed like they were still trying to find the gangplank to disembark from the first fleet. A history full of arrogance, and the story of today is even similar to the story of ‘Namatjira’, in Oodgeroo’s poem about our great artist:
But vain the honour and tributes paid,
I have been discussing the importance of storytelling to honour the memory of our most gifted storyteller, Oodgeroo. As a full-time writer of mostly literary fiction, the question that I ask myself on a daily basis is how I should write. I am continually looking to others in the global community of writers to learn, to better understand how to work across distance, to develop and explore the depths of the complex nature of the world today and of our own relationship to it. I am trying to work with the authenticity of our own culture to present our literature to the world, to have this work recognised for its unique literary value in ideas and form.
I think it is possible and necessary for a writer of any culture to reach across regional and international boundaries by setting higher challenges of what can be achieved with literature, and I think the epics of our own ancient texts give us a certain affinity to the study of literature. I agree with the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa who, in his book Wellsprings, explains why the goals of world citizenry are necessary for a writer. He refers to the ‘variegated, fantastic cultural geography, through far-flung continents, languages, and historical ages’ influencing the work of the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Llosa writes that ‘Borges is a transparent example of how being a citizen of the world is the best way to write an original work, to enrich the culture of the nation in which one was born’.
I feel that, at least for myself as a writer, I should work with questions that are worth spending several years on. Some of these could be what we would ask about ourselves if we were given the time to analyse what we wanted as Indigenous people. For instance, I believe that Aboriginal government can work in Australia, even though no-one speaks about it anymore – and when they did in the past they were criticised across the country for stirring up Black rights and wanting to establish separate nations and so on. I feel that the quest for Aboriginal government is relevant and important for the future stability of our people who are asking important questions about the survival of traditional culture, and that I can use whatever skills I have as a writer to portray in literature how this dream could be lived.
In my fictional work I have attempted to replicate a rhythm and voice from my own area, in a story that might be told to our ancestors, rather than any living audience. It is a vexed question to ask an Indigenous writer: who are you writing for? One of the really strong influences on Indigenous writing such as my own has been a troubled conscience about what responsibility means. We are a society immersed in responsibilities to one another. We seem to have been born with responsibility locked into our psyche, but there is a huge human cost as we move from one day to the next, dealing with new ways of testing our responsibility. This is the way it has been in the two centuries of the soul-destroying battle we have endured to save our culture, and we still seem to come no closer to reaching an understanding with the rest of the country over the terms of their responsibility to us. This word ‘responsibility’ plagues all that we do, and I can see how in my own fictional work I was unconsciously looking at the impact of the responsibility we have placed on ourselves and to each other, in the context of a history of injustices and the unrelenting and escalating nature of Indigenous injury.
I have recently written a story for Amnesty International in London for the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The story I have titled ‘Be Careful About the Path of Least Resistance’ will be published in an anthology that includes many of the most thoughtful literary writers throughout the world. My contribution is for Article 17 of the Declaration which states: ‘Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others; no-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.’
My story is about the intervention policies in communities in the Northern Territory, its effects on a child, his family, and their relationship with their traditional land. I have particularly focused on the impact of Jenny Macklin’s impending legislation depriving families of their welfare payment for thirteen weeks if they cannot make their children go to school. The law is plain wrong, a new and horrific attack on us, depriving people of the only money they have to live on. A law that legalises starvation against a race of people is a weapon of cultural genocide. The government that has yet to reach a formal agreement with the Aboriginal nations of this continent is not – and will never be – the parent of Aboriginal children. This lesson was learnt in the days when Aboriginal people were wards of the state.
I have found valuable messages about writing in Oodgeroo’s poems. She explained how artists should work: ‘…as the lark sings and the eagle soars … Paint what you feel more than the thing you see’.
I like that.
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria. In 2007 her most recent novel, Carpentaria, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction), Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (Best Fiction Book) and the Australian Book Industry Award (Australian Literary Fiction Book of the Year). A version of this paper was delivered as the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Lecture in August 2008.
Like this piece? Subscribe!