Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, on Minjerribah (the Stradbroke Islands). Oodgeroo Noonuccal means Oodgeroo of the tribe Nunuccal; spelling variations include Nunuccal, Noonuckle and Nunukul. In 1970, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (under the name Kathleen Walker) was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) for services to the community. She returned it in 1987 in protest against the forthcoming Australian Bicentenary celebrations (1988).
Oodgeroo Noonuccal has written about her life and work in several publications, including a short account in Roberta Sykes's 1993 Murawina: Australian women of high achievement. In addition, extremely numerous publications by and about Oodgeroo Noonuccal are available in most libraries. Janine Little has compiled a bibliography of Oodgeroo's verse, prose and other works, reviews and critical works on her work, obituaries, and audiovisual and performance material featuring Oodgeroo. See 'Oodgeroo: A Selective Checklist' in Oodgeroo: a tribute (Shoemaker (ed), 1994).
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska on 3 November 1920, on North Stradbroke Island, country of the Noonuccal tribe. She attended Dulwich Primary; left school and became a domestic in Brisbane at the age of 13. As an Aboriginal person, she said, 'there wasn't the slightest possibility of getting "a better job" [even] if you stayed on at school' (Murawina, 1993).
Oodgeroo served in the Australian Women's Army Service (1942-1944). She published her first book of poetry, We Are Going, in 1964, going on to become a trailblazer in published Aboriginal writing in Australia. Oodgeroo was Queensland State Secretary of FCAATSI for ten years in the 1960s and from 1972 was managing director of the Noonuccal-Nughie Education Cultural Centre on Stradboke Island. Throughout her life, she was a renowned and admired campaigner for Aboriginal rights, promoter of Aboriginal cultural survival, educator and environmentalist. She stood as the Australian Labor Party member for the electorate of Greenslopes in the 1969 State election. Although voting rights had only been in place four years, Oodgeroo decided it was time to '[s]how our black faces in parliament.'
Oodgeroo's work has been recognised by numerous awards, including the Mary Gilmore Medal (1970), the Jessie Litchfield Award (1975), the International Acting Award and the Fellowship of Australian Writers' Award. She also held an honourary doctorate of letters (Macquarie University) and was awarded the degree of Doctor of the University from Griffith University. In 1970, Oodgeroo (under the name Kathleen Walker) was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) for services to the community. She returned it in 1987 in protest against the forthcoming Australian Bicentenary celebrations (1988). It was around this time that she reclaimed her traditional name, Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal Tribe.
Oodgeroo originally accepted the nomination as MBE after discussing the honour with members of the Brisbane Aboriginal community who felt that acceptance of the honour could 'open doors that were still closed to the Aborigines' ('Why I am now Oodgeroo Noonuccal', Age, 1987). However, Oodgeroo came to reconsider her acceptance. In her own words:
'Since 1970 I have lived in the hope that the parliaments of England and Australia would confer and attempt to rectify the terrible damage done to the Australian Aborigines. The forbidding us our tribal language, the murders, the poisoning, the scalping, the denial of land custodianship, especially our spiritual sacred sites, the destruction of our sacred places especially our Bora Grounds … Next year, 1988, to me marks 200 years of rape and carnage, all these terrible things that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia have suffered without any recognition even of admitted guilt from the parliaments of England … From the Aboriginal point of view, what is there to celebrate?… I have therefore decided that as a protest against what the Bicentenary 'Celebrations' stand for, I can no longer, with a clear conscience, accept the English honour of the MBE and will be returning it to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England, through her representative, the Queensland State Governor, Sir Walter Campbell.'
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Australian Women's Register
Oodgeroo Noonuccal, MBE (Born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, formerly Kath Walker) (3 November 1920—16 September 1993) was an Australian poet, political activist, artist and educator. She was also a campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Oodgeroo was best known for her poetry, and was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse. Through the 1960s she began to emerge as a prominent figure, both as a political activist and as a writer. She was Queensland state secretary of the Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (CAATSI), and was involved in a number of other political organisations. She was a key figure in the campaign for the reform of the Australian constitution to allow Aboriginal people full citizenship, lobbying Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1965, and his successor Harold Holt in 1966. She wrote many books, beginning with We Are Going (1964), the first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman, and won several literary awards, such as the Mary Gilmore Medal (1970), the Jessie Litchfield Award (1975), and the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Award. She was also awarded an MBE in 1970.
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