Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest halls
And wild bird calls.
Here you seem to me
Like that poor cart-horse
Castrated, broken, a thing wronged,
Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged,
Whose hung head and listless mien express
Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen–
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?
by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (/ˈʊdʒ/ /ˈnuːnəkəl/ uud-gə-roo noo-nə-kəl; 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.
Oodgeroo (meaning ‘paperbark tree’) of the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island was known as Kath Walker until she returned to her language name in 1988 as a sign of protest against Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations and as a symbol of pride in an Aboriginal heritage.
Brought up on North Stradbroke Island east of Brisbane, Oodgeroo Noonuccal was educated at Dunwich State School until the age of thirteen and then became a domestic servant. She joined the army during the war and in 1942 married her childhood friend Bruce Walker, a descendant from the Logan and Albert River peoples near Brisbane. They had two sons, Denis Walker and Vivian WalkerRT) who both later took language names.
From the 1960s Oodgeroo Noonuccal became increasingly involved in civil rights and the Aboriginal activist movements and held several public positions. One of the founding members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, she served as state secretary for ten years and in this capacity she was a leader in the campaign to grant Aboriginal people full citizenship rights in the 1967 referendum. From the 1970s Oodgeroo Noonuccal was chairperson of the National Tribal Council, the Aboriginal Arts Board, the Aboriginal Housing Committee and the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League.
As a writer, delegate and spokesperson for her people’s cause she travelled in China, Europe, the US and Africa, representing Aboriginal Australia. Oodgeroo Noonuccal was awarded honorary doctorates by several universities and received numerous awards. She was made MBE but returned the honour in 1988, as a protest against the government’s lack of support for Aboriginal rights.
In addition to her reputation as a poet of national and international recognition, Oodgeroo Noonuccal is also known as a pioneer in Aboriginal education, having opened her home at Moongalba for educational camps for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. She described herself as an educator, storyteller and poet. As well as writing poetry, Oodgeroo Noonuccal wrote and illustrated children’s books, performed in films, and actively supported Black Australian theatre. A film, Shadow Sister, was made about her in 1977 by Frank Heimans.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was buried with great ceremony on Stradbroke Island.