Oodgeroo: Breaking the iron cycle of settler colonialism

An important value across the Indigenous world including in Aboriginal philosophy is: Knowing that which has come before helps to understand ways forward.

In Ghanaian tradition this value is represented as Sankofa, a bird with its feet facing forward, its head turned back and a gold egg in its mouth. The Twi language word translates to “go back and get it” and the associated proverb is “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”.

There are many ways for me, an Aboriginal person, to go back – reading the life and works of Oodgeroo (1920 – 1993) of the tribe Noonuccal is rewarding.  Evident in her work is her desire to go back to the values and ethics of Aboriginal culture in order to find a way forward.

The 3rd November 2020 marks the centenary of the birth of Kath Walker neé Ruska.

Significantly, Kath changed her name from that of the language of the coloniser to one from her own Noonuccal people – Oodgeroo – in 1988, the Bicentennial of the British “founding” of Australia. She travelled to Government House and personally handed back the Queen’s Birthday Honour she had been awarded, the Member of the British Empire (MBE). She could not accept such an award she said while her people were being dishonoured by a celebration of terra nullius.

There is a great deal to Oodgeroo – poet, writer, educator, great thinker and person of ideas who met and engaged with a diversity of people: she had no prejudice and was not judgemental, just an enquiring mind. Though her achievements are many the purpose of this paper is to illustrate how we can learn from an activist like Oodgeroo, rather than outline her career.

A great friend and mentor within activist Aboriginal intellectual circles, a less than extensive list would include – Faith Bandler, Mudrooroo Narrogin, Jack Davies, Joe McGuinness, John Newfong, Gary Foley, Gary Williams. Her sons came to prominence too: Vivian (1953-1991) who was a creative dancer and philosopher. Denis (1946-2017) with Sam Watson (1952-2019) started the Australian chapter of the Black Panthers in 1971.

While she was older than the 1960s activists who spearheaded the action, she “articulated the feelings of Aboriginal people in a way that they had not heard before” (Author unknown 1993).

Politics of black and white

Oodgeroo’s career is marked by strong connections to many settler colonials including poet Judith Wright with whom she enjoyed a long friendship. Her biography was written by her good friend Kathie Cochrane, a white woman. They first met in the 1950s in the early Aboriginal advancement movement developed by white liberals who wanted to improve Aboriginal conditions.

Her connections with Indigenous peoples, within Australia and internationally were vast and profound – Aotearoa New Zealand, Malaysia, Fiji, Nigeria, London, China, Russia, USA, India. She travelled widely to represent the interests of Aboriginal people, to lecture and to address international gatherings.

Oodgeroo joined the Communist Party the only party that opposed racial discrimination in the 1950s but left very shortly after, citing disagreement over the writing of her speeches. She was also aware that “since she had become well known as an Aboriginal spokesperson that others may unthinkingly follow her” (Author unknown 1993).

She was the first Queensland State Secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in 1962 having attended the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) annual conferences since 1960. She was a powerful advocate for Aboriginal citizenship, and with others mounted a massive organising effort around the 1967 Referendum. This proved a deep disappointment.

While successfully carried, the Referendum did not bring about the immediate and substantive changes activists had hoped for. Oodgeroo was of the opinion that the Referendum “had only eased the guilty consciences of white Australians in this country and overseas” (de Costa 2006).

FCAATSI was controlled by white liberals and in the July 1969 meeting Aboriginal delegates unsuccessfully called for Aboriginal leadership of the organisation at all levels, in line with the general call for Aboriginal self-determination.

Oodgeroo’s speech at this FCAATSI conference, titled Political Rights of Aborigines, was galvanising to the young Aboriginal delegates present, including Bruce McGuinness and Patricia Corowa – she said:

When you leave this conference and go back to… the rat-holes you call homes, that you have inherited from the Australian society, unite your people, and bring them out fighting! (Swan 2020).          

That same year Oodgeroo attended the World Council of Churches sponsored Conference on Racism in London, returning with a new sense of urgency. Her political philosophy changed markedly – from seeing Aboriginal disadvantage in class terms and supporting a coalition with white people, to promoting “the need for Aboriginal people to become a unified and solid fighting force” before any coalition with whites (Author unknown 1993).

It was the 1970 Easter conference of FCAATSI where the historic split between black and white occurred. Oodgeroo’s paper Coalition of Black and White Australians called out the white liberals for their need to control:

Black Australians, they argue, are inferior beings who cannot make their own decisions. When black Australian reformers take a staunch, militant stand, white Australians become frightened and confused. They object to being displaced by black reformers and immediately excuse their frustrations by accusing the black reformers of being bitter, cheeky, insolent and anti‐white (Read 1990).

Oodgeroo had clarity. She recognised the problem of settler colonial hegemony and white fragility, and she knew the value of Aboriginal activism for change over anything that white activists, of the left or the right, could deliver. Thus, she supported the development of the National Tribal Council (Author unknown 1993).

Jennifer Jones explains Oodgeroo’s political philosophy:

[Oodgeroo’s]…. primary allegiance was to Aboriginality, and she maintained a freedom to choose, moving between ideologies. By the time Oodgeroo came to write her autobiographical stories in the period 1969 to 1972, she had moved through both the CPA in the 1950s, the ALP in the 1960s, and had resigned from FCAATSl by 1969, then the peak organisation in Aboriginal politics. Oodgeroo had also joined and was soon to resign from the National Tribal Council; the Indigenous- led alternative to FCAATSl (Jones 2003).

Terra Nullius and colonisation

Her biography includes notes for a speech Beyond Terra Nullius, the Lie, attributed to Oodgeroo and her son Denis Walker, delivered on the occasion of the award of her honorary doctorate of letters, Queensland University of Technology in 1992. Oodgeroo said:

Terra Nullius was a legal lie used by the invading forces of the British to deny the legal rights of the indigenous people of this country, now called Australia.

This legal lie of terra nullius has been used right up to and until the high court of Australia handed down its decision in the now famous Mabo case. All previous claims by law by the indigenous people had, up until that time foundered on the rocks of that legal lie of Terra Nullius.

Now that the highest court in this land has recognised the pre-existing legal rights of the indigenous people, many forms of settlement of dispute of their territories and their law/lore must be made.

Settlements must be made by way of treaties at all local levels through the bloodlines back to their territories and agreed to by their elders in council at their local level. Legislation, be it state or federal, will not be sufficient, nor will the decisions made by the High Court. Such actions as stated are impositions and, as such, would continue to deny true justice to the indigenous people of this country.

Settlements of disputes at law/lore involving indigenous people and their territories should be considered by their elders in council at the local level and those consideration be given equal weighting with the invader’s law in resolving such disputes, to the extent that conditions regarding environment and remunerations need to be agreed to before settlement can take place.

Recognition of the indigenous people’s territorial and legal rights can only be justifiably dealt with by way of treaty mechanism. Anything else is an imposition and will merely water down the lie of Terra Nullius.

Because of the genocidal policies arising out of Terra Nullius, the lie, a great deal of disruption has taken place with the indigenous people and their territories. They will need immediate resources to allow them to restructure and redefine themselves in order for them to settle all outstanding matters.

Embodied in this process is the urgent necessity to recognise justice as natural law/lore. The invader’s law defines this natural law thus: “Natural law is God’s law and superior to man-made laws”.

Indigenous people have had to live through and survive the holocaust of the genocidal polices arising out of the legal lie of Terra Nullius for over 200 years. To delay any further is to continue to deny the indigenous people of this country true and equal justice.

The ongoing problems within the spheres of indigenous peoples’ existence such as high rates of imprisonment, high infant mortality rates, deaths in custody, breakdown of extended family units, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc, are all components making up the situation that constitutes an iron cycle which we have yet to break. The “piecemeal approaches” of the past have not worked. In the main these “piecemeal” attempts have been received as impositions that have been rejected.

In conclusion, last but by no means least, is the spirituality of the indigenous people of this country. Their spirituality is not a religion. It is tied firmly to the spirit of their Earth Mother who created all living things. Their sentries the rocks, the sea, land and air spirits…. are very much a part of their culture as is their philosophy which states: “We cannot own the land for the land owns us.”

The constitution of Australia was written to meet the needs of the invading English “haves” at the expense of the “have nots”.

It is time to shred the present English constitution and replace it with an Australian constitution which meets the needs of all races currently living in this country.

Oodgeroo understood that the foundational doctrine of the colonisation of Australia, enacted by the Crown to enable settler colonial expansion, represents a deliberate criminal act.

Settlements must be made by way of treaties at all local levels through the bloodlines back to their territories and agreed to by their elders in council at their local level – tells us that treaties, Aboriginal identity (through local elders vouching for bloodlines) and Aboriginal governance beginning at the local level are central to finding solutions.

I wish that Oodgeroo had lived to see the Canadian Royal Commission into Aboriginal people. There were all Native Commissioners who worked closely with local communities to hear them, restore their wellbeing and an economic base. She may have agreed it is a blueprint for us. Indeed, the immediate resources to allow them to restructure and redefine themselves because of the disruptions of colonisation through the doctrine of terra nullius – is being gradually provided across Canada.

In Australia the complexity of removal of children and the wholesale removal of people from their lands lends itself to a process of truth telling – the yolngu matha word being Makarrata. This is now urgent. It can be achieved through a Royal Commission.


Aboriginal people in a state of exception to the Australian settler colonial state

Oodgeroo says that what Aboriginal people are caught in – high rates of imprisonment, high infant mortality rates, deaths in custody, breakdown of extended family units, substance abuse, domestic violence – constitutes an iron cycle which we have yet to break.

The words “iron cycle” are an interesting choice. Colonisation brought the metal age to Australia and the unbridled use of metals has led the world into deep catastrophe. I refer especially to the development of agriculture whereby ploughing has been destroying the lands capacity to support human populations, especially in drylands.

If you find it hard to imagine a world without metals just remember that the reason for the long-lived Aboriginal civilisation was the anti-materialist nature of Aboriginal philosophy, culture and way of life. The idea of being “stone-age” is met with scorn and contempt by settler colonials who subscribe to wealth, materialism, acquisition and hoarding as a sign of prestige. Do not be deceived. The reality is of an overburdened, dying Earth.

If we are to break this “iron cycle” we need to understand the nature of it. The first of the great wars, the colonial wars were fought on every continent of the global South, against the Indigenous peoples. Wars against men, women and children, that destroy so much of the civilian life and infrastructure that people are forced to flee and are washed up in camps.

Camps such as we see now in Aboriginal Australia are not the normal and natural ways that our people have been living over time. They exist as a result of the criminal occupation of their lands and the forces that prevent them pursuing the lifestyles they have for thousands of years.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has analysed camps as places where people go to die, places where people have only bare life, where they have no power.

People in such camps live in a state of exception to the settler colonial state. Agamben has rightly observed that all of the violence of the modern democratic state is vested on the bodies of those in the state of exception, homo sacer (Agamben 1995).

This violent reorganisation of space is evident in Australia whereby Aboriginal survivors of state and vigilante violence are pushed into states of liminal existence, marginalised and said to be a ‘vanishing race’.

In fact, the promise of citizenship following the 1967 referendum, as well as the many policy and program innovations since then, have failed because Aboriginal people live in a state of exception.

The pillars of this exception include many of the issues that Oodgeroo and Denis outlined: the ongoing impact of the doctrine of terra nullius:

  • the ‘normal’ everyday, ubiquitous expression of white racism;
  • the ongoing crisis of the removal of Aboriginal children from their families;
  • the extraordinarily high levels of incarceration of Aboriginal men and women and associated deaths in custody;
  • the imaginary moral centre of settler ways of being and doing;
  • the lack of respect for Aboriginal cultural ways of being; and
  • the cunning of citizenship for Aboriginal people.

All of these explain why Aboriginal people are not truly citizens, why they live in deeply entrenched, endemic poverty and why those who kill them are outside of the law.

These pillars constitute the “iron cycle” that Aboriginal people are born into.


A new sovereign Republic

Oodgeroo and her son Denis identified the Australian constitution as the key to breaking this “iron cycle”. They said: It is time to shred the present English constitution and replace it with an Australian constitution which meets the needs of all races currently living in this country. Agamben says the only way the human rights and social justice of those in a state of exception can be addressed is by reconstituting the nation state with the rights of those in a state of exception at the forefront – a new constitution for a sovereign republic.

Increasingly, settler colonials and new migrants also share this ambition, to be freed from Britain and to be part of a proper settlement, a restitution of Aboriginal peoples’ rights (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos 2014). This is something that an adjusted preamble will not fix. Oodgeroo saw a new constitution as necessary in 1992, it is now fast becoming overdue!

The new constitution of this country needs to reflect the ethics and values of the spirituality of the indigenous people of this country just as Oodgeroo lived and breathed the importance of a spiritual path. She dedicated her life to opening the minds of white Australians to the value inherent in Aboriginal philosophy and ways of being. She was alive to the drama of the creation stories, the ethics and values of the Aboriginal way of life, she promoted the need for responsibility to maintain the ecologies of the environment and she knew of the connectedness of all things. She always extended a hand to the settler colonial, advocating for her people and educating white Australia.

Oodgeroo was no pushover politically and she recognised that Aboriginal people had to take care of their own business. She rejected the idea of having white people write her work for her, organise Aboriginal people politically or tell us how to conduct our affairs. However, she retained enduring, respectful friendships with white people.

Thus, she embodied the Aboriginal values of autonomy and connectedness whereby the strong independence encouraged in each person needs to be balanced with the rights and responsibilities of connectedness with all that is around you – family, kin, the broader community and the natural world.

There is no exaggeration in saying that meeting her was an enormous gift, she touched the lives of many people as she did mine. Oodgeroo is an enduring exemplar of what it means to be Aboriginal in settler colonial Australia and provides a template for our activism.



Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Connecticut.
Author unknown (n.d.) “Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal) November 1920 – 16 September 1993” Smoke Signals at http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/heroes/biogs/kath_walker.html accessed 20 July 2020.
Cochrane, Kathie (1994) Oodgeroo. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Jones, J. (2003) “Why weren’t we listening?: Oodgeroo and Judith Wright” Overland 171, pp. 44-49.
Nicolacopoulos, T. and George Vassilacopoulos (2014) Indigenous Sovereignty and the Being of the Occupier: Manifesto for a White Australian philosophy of Origins. Re.Press, Australia.
Read, Peter (1990) “Cheeky, insolent and Anti-white: The split in the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – Easter 1970” Australian Journal of Politics and History. Volume 36, Issue 1, April 1990, pp 73-83.
Swan, Q. J. (2020) Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.


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Victoria Grieve-Williams

Victoria Grieve-Williams is Warraimaay - an Aboriginal Australian historian who has published on Aboriginal family history, slavery, activism and the history wars in Australia. She works in interdisciplinary ways to progress the development of Indigenous knowledges, positioning Aboriginal spirituality /philosophy as the baseline for this development - with a focus on establishing the values and ethics inherent in what it means to be human in a changing world. Victoria is in the process of establishing a Healing Histories Foundation that will apply Aboriginal principles to heal the wounds of history through "truth telling" from a research base.

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