Kathleen Walker, born Kathleen Ruska, was Australia's first published Indigenous poet. She was a lifelong advocate for Aboriginal peoples' rights and education.
Walker, who would later take the traditional name of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, served in World War II with the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS).
I joined up firstly, because I don't like fascism and secondly, because my two brothers had been taken prisoners of war and I felt guilt about that. Here I was, sitting at home very secure and not pulling my weight. So I ended up in the Australian Women's Army Service.
[Oodgeroo Noonuccal. In Robert A. Hall, Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders recall the Second World War, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1995, p.116]
Enlisting for war service gave First Australians the chance to escape the restrictions of life under the Protection Acts. Walker's experience was no different.
In the 1930s and 1940s, there were few opportunities for Indigenous women to keep Walker in civilian life. She left Dunwich State School at the age of 13 and worked in poorly paid positions as a household servant. When she was 16, Walker was denied the chance to train as a nurse on the basis of her Aboriginality.
Walker enlisted on 5 December 1942, prompted by the capture of her brothers, Edward and Eric, by Japanese forces in Singapore.
One of the reasons I joined the army was it was the only way I could learn ... that the Aboriginals could learn extra education at that time.
[Oodgeroo Noonuccal. From exhibition text: Indigenous Australians at war from the Boer War to the present, Shrine of Remembrance, 2009]
The AWAS was established on 13 August 1941. Its purpose was to release men for active duty. Women filled many roles including:
- canteen staff
- wireless operators
In the AWAS, Walker learned new skills and may have been treated with greater equality than she had experienced as a civilian.
Following Japanese air attacks on northern Australia, and with the war in the Pacific intensifying, Brisbane became an important strategic base for the war effort. At its high point, almost 80,000 United States' service men were stationed there. They joined Australian personnel from the army, navy and air force and their auxiliary services.
Walker was stationed at army headquarters in Brisbane. She first trained as a switchboard operator then later as a wireless operator. Walker was promoted to lance corporal in April 1943. She remained in the AWAS until discharged on 19 Jan 1944, suffering chronic ear infections which led to partial deafness.
Walker's war service experience was largely positive. She made new friends, joined sporting teams and, in her off-duty hours, socialised with non-Indigenous Australians and African-American soldiers.
Robert Hall, in Fighters from the Fringe, said Walker's wartime experience was 'instrumental' in laying the foundation for her later political activism for Indigenous rights. Her friendships with African-Americans who served in segregated units and the discrimination she returned to after the war made her a passionate advocate for equality.
We want hope, not racialism,
Brotherhood, not ostracism,
Black advance, not white ascendance:
Make us equals, not dependants.
[Aboriginal Charter of Rights. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, My People: a Kath Walker Collection, Jacaranda, Milton, 1970]
Following her discharge from the army, Walker joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). It was the only Australian political party that did not have a White Australia policy. Walker developed her skills in public speaking and political strategy, which she would continue to use in the coming decades.
Walker promoted Indigenous civil rights through her political activism and writing. In the 10 years leading up to the 1967 Referendum, she worked with other well-known Indigenous activists including Faith Bandler and Doug Nicholls. They travelled around Australia raising awareness of Indigenous issues.
In 1964, Brisbane publisher, Jacaranda Press, published Walker's first collection of poetry. We Are Going featured poems with themes of Aboriginal dispossession and racism. It was reprinted several times over the next 12 months. Adam Shoemaker, in Black Words, White Page, said Walker's first collection of work was a popular success, even though initial reviews were highly critical.
In 1970, Walker received a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her service to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. She returned this award in 1988 and began using her Aboriginal name, Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal struggled with ill health for much of her adult life. She died from cancer on 16 September 1993 in Brisbane. She was buried on her beloved Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) beside her son, Kabul (Vivian), who had died at the age of 38.
Her passing was recognised worldwide. She was described as:
- a 'tireless fighter for land and civil rights'
- a 'trailblazer'
- 'a gentle and peaceful person who was outstandingly successful in conveying the Aboriginal message to the wider Australian community'
Her poetry continues to be popular worldwide.
- Abbey, Sue. Undated. Noonuccal, Oodgeroo (1920–1993), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/noonuccal-oodgeroo-18057/text29634
- DVA. Undated. Kathleen Jean Mary Walker, Nominal Rolls. https://nominal-rolls.dva.gov.au/veteran?id=97434&c=WW2#R
- Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oodgeroo-Noonuccal
- Hall, RA. 1995. Fighters from the Fringe: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders recall the Second World War, Aboriginal Studies Press 116.
- NAA. Undated. United States forces in Queensland, 1941–45 – Fact sheet 234, National Archives of Australia, Canberra. http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs234.aspx
- Noonuccal, Oodgeroo (1920-11-03-1993-09-16). Undated. Australian Poetry Library. https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo
- Shoemaker, Adam. 2004. Black Words White Page. Anu Press, Canberra.