AUSTRALIA - GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMEN
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) (1920-1993)
An Outstanding Woman Writer Who Fought For Justice For Her People
Any account of the 1967 referendum, which granted a fairer deal to Aboriginal people (at that time they were not able to vote), would have to include the huge contributions made by Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe and several other outstanding women like Faith Bandler, Pearl Gibbs and Jessie Street, women who worked hard to create a more just and equitable society for everyone in Australia.
On 3 November 1920, the child who would become Oodgeroo was born on Stradbroke Island, the largest of the subtropical isles in Queensland's Moreton Bay. She was christened Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska and grew up surrounded by Stradbroke's immense sparkling white sand hills, freshwater lakes and long straight beaches. The Ruskas' Aboriginal family group, the Nunukul or Noonuccal, called the island Minjerraba in their language; it was the white explorers who named it 'Stradbroke' in honour of a British colonial official. On her father's side Kath was part of the Noonuccal tribe; the name she later adopted for herself was the Aboriginal name for the distinctive paperbark tree with its weeping foliage and paper-thin bark, which the tribespeople used as roofing material for their gunyahs.
Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal)
Kath was one of seven children born to Edward (Ted) and Lucy Ruska. Ted Ruska had Aboriginal, German and Spanish-Philippino ancestors. His grandfather was a Philippino sailor who jumped ship to escape punishment and ended upon Stradbroke Island, where he worked as a dugong fisherman and married an Aboriginal woman. By the time Kath Ruska was born, colonial attitudes and intermarriage had weakened the previously strong tribal life of the Noonuccals; there were only a handful of full-blooded Aborigines left on Stradbroke Island. Kath's maternal grandfather, Alexander McCulloch, was a Scottish immigrant who married Minnie, an Aboriginal girl he met when she was working as a maid at Marion Downs, a large pastoral station in central Queensland. They had a daughter, Lucy, but Alexander McCulloch died when she was a small child. Against her will the fatherless Lucy McCulloch was taken from her mother and sent to Brisbane to be brought up in a Catholic institution for 'uncontrollable or half-cast' girls. Minnie McCullock may have been persuaded to place a thumbprint or fingerprint on a government paper as a form of consent, but this does not mean she willingly agreed that her daughter should be removed and sent away. Perhaps she was told that Lucy would receive a good education from the white people, which was certainly not the case.
Lucy McCulloch was an intelligent child but was not taught to read or write in her mission school. Like most girls of what has now become known as 'the stolen generation', she was trained by well-meaning nuns to wash clothes, iron, clean and cook in order to find employment as a domestic servant in a white household. Lucy went to work as a servant at an outback cattle station at Boulia, in Queensland, and it was here she met Edward Ruska, who had left Stradbroke Island in search of paid work. They married and Ted took her to live on Stradbroke Island, where he had grown up. Ted and Lucy raised a large family on this beautiful, unspoiled island. All her life Lucy Ruska bitterly resented her lack of literacy and the homelife she herself had been deprived of, and she made sure these benefits would not be denied to her own children.
Ted Ruska was employed by the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, established by the Queensland government to house mentally or physically disabled Aborigines as well as those with an alcohol problem. He was the well-respected and likeable foreman in the gang of Aboriginal labourers, which did everything from wood cutting to road building, sweeping and clearing gutters or unloading cargo from the Otter, a rusty old ship that belonged to the Queensland Navy which made the short journey between Stradbroke's port of Dunwich and the mainland twice week. In return for working long hours six days a week, Ted Ruska received a minuscule wage and 'rations' to support his family. these consisted of rice, sago, tapioca, matches, flour and one bar of soap, which was handed out every two weeks. ever since the foundation of Moreton Bay Colony (renamed Queensland on its separation from New South Wales in 1859), it was traditional that on the Queen's birthday every Aboriginal was issued with a woollen blanket and a plum pudding. On Stradbroke Kath and her brothers and sisters learned to scale and prepare fish, using the sharp edge of 'eugarie' or pippie shells, and to fish for mackerel, mullet and tailor. she learned that 'Kabool' (the carpet snake) could not be eaten, because this was the totem of the Noonuccal.' sometimes her father saddled up the horses and they would ride along the shore, then turn inland to climb hills covered with flowering wattles and sweet-scented gums. Just how deeply Kath's childhood influenced her can be seen in her book Stradbroke Dreamtime, published in 1972. She wrote how:
... at Point Lookout, we would tether our horses ... and take up a position behind the small sandhills that dotted the shore. We would lie full-length upon our stomachs and silently wait for the beautiful nautilus shells to come out of the sea ... their trumpet-like shells would unfurl to the breeze a sail, mauve-coloured, which caught the sun's rays and shone like satin.
Possibly the fact that Ted Ruska worked for the Queensland government saved Kath and her siblings from the fate of her mother and other part-Aboriginal children, who were taken from their parents and placed in church-run missions. However, no Aborigines were allowed to join in the social activities of Europeans working on the island. 'We were banned from their dance floors,' Kath remembered. 'When we went to the cinema we were made to sit with the "inmates" of the Dunwich Institutions, on hard benches right at the front. The white staff sat on cane chairs at the back of the cinema theatre.'
Before Kath's first day at Dunwich State School her father impressed on her: 'Just 'cos you're Aboriginal doesn't mean you have to be as good as most white children - you have to be better.' Her schooldays were unhappy. Her teacher punished her for being left handed by beating her over the knuckles with a ruler, and she was forced to use her right hand; like most left-handed children, she found this very difficult. Kath was a highly intelligent and creative child who in later life would create art and poetry. But the only future for her was in domestic service or early marriage. At thirteen she left school and started work in the only occupation then available to a part-Aboriginal girl - as a resident domestic employed by the family of a solicitor in Brisbane. She was paid the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence a week in addition to receiving her board and lodging. She had dreamed of becoming a nurse, but knew that her meagre education made such a training impossible.
The outbreak of war gave Kath a chance to escape from the drudgery of poorly paid domestic work. In 1941, when she was almost twenty-one, she presented herself for an interview at Brisbane's Victoria Barracks, hoping to join the Australian women's Army Service. Warned she might experience racial prejudice in the armed forces, Kath replied with characteristic forthrightness that she 'could see no difference between a racist in uniform and a civilian racist'. She was accepted for the AWAS, and experienced very little discrimination during her time in the Australian Army, where everyone was known by a number rather than a name. In her khaki uniform she was neat, smart and hard-working. In later years, some of the soldiers with whom she served as well as an Army doctor recounted that they had been led to believe Kath came from Ceylon. such a belief probably helped her to mix and mingle well.
World War II changed Kath's life. Her experiences in the AWAS presented her with opportunities to see how other people lived. She served at Area Signals Headquarters at Chermside, was trained as a telephonist and acquired the rudiments of stenography. She had a lively personality and from her time in the Army acquired a fondness for 'cricko', a female version of cricket. In order to get Aboriginal girls to work together harmoniously, Kath formed a cricko team known as the 'All Blacks'. During her Army service Kath developed gingivitis, a severe gum infection, as well as an inner ear infection which led to loss of hearing. these ailments caused her to be invalided out of the forces in 1944 on health grounds and ensured she was given a very small pension. At this point she met Bruce Dennis Walker, one of her former schoolmates from Stradbroke Island. A descendant of the Logan and Albert river tribes, Bruce Walker was a good dancer and a flyweight boxer. He worked as a welder at the Kangaroo Point shipyards. Kath and Bruce Walker were married in 1942 and, with a private loan from a friend, acquired a small house in Myrtle Street in the Brisbane suburb of Buranda. In 1946 the couple had their first child, a son whom they named Dennis.
Kath and her husband joined the Australian Communist Party in 1944; they felt it was the only party that was not racist. However, they soon became disillusioned by the communists' lack of action on racial discrimination and resigned. Kath was unhappy about the fact that the party wanted to write her speeches for her and 'tell her what to say'. Bruce Walker, in an effort to bring in more income to help his family, took up boxing in noisy and often violent tents at local shows. At that time boxing was one of the few ways Aborigines could acquire money and status. Gradually his life became dominated by fights, the excitement they stirred up and by alcohol. by the time their son was born the marriage was in trouble. Kath implored Bruce to give up boxing. Eventually he did so and became a 'wharfie', but he blamed Kath for his loss of status. Soon Bruce Walker's dissatisfaction with the monotony of work on the wharves, his increasing dependence on alcohol and the contrasts in character and ambitions between himself and Kath caused rows. These led to bouts of domestic violence punctuated by outbursts of remorse on Bruce's part, and led to a complete breakdown of the marriage. After they separated Kath kept little Dennis, whom she adored. Her husband, who was also fond of his son, retained visiting rights. Bruce, in and out of work, soon ceased to contribute to the household and Kath found herself virtually penniless. to support herself and Dennis she had to take in washing and ironing, something she loathed doing. In this bleak period she also took a job at the Dandy Bacon Factory at Murrarrie, but abandoned it in fear that her son would be harmed by her absence while she was working.
During this difficult time in her life Kath replied to an advertisement for domestic help in Brisbane, and joined the family of Sir Raphael and Lady (Phyllis) Cilento, both highly respected doctors. Dr Phyllis Cilento was widely known as the 'Medical Mother', the name she used for her radio broadcasts and newspaper articles. Kath soon became a family friend; although she was paid for her work, she was never regarded as a servant. Sir Raphael and Lady Cilento wee an exception couple, and Kath helped Dr Phyllis Cilento to look after her elderly mother. The Cilentos had five highly intelligent children; theirs was a family with a strong interest in the arts. Their daughter Diane would become a world-famous actress, and Ruth and Margaret, their two other talented daughters, followed artistic pursuits. their sons, David and young Raphael, studied medicine. The family were far more open minded than most members of Brisbane's extremely conventional society of the 1950s. Sir Raphael Cilento played an important role in Kath's education, encouraging her to browse among his vast library of books and to read poetry. From Margaret Cilento (Maslen), Kath learned to draw and paint.
In 1953, at the age of thirty-two, Kath gave birth to a second son whom she named Vivian. Claims have been made that Dr Raphael Cilento Jnr (known as 'Raff' and the same age as Kath) was Vivian's father. Raff Cilento was unhappily married and visited his parents' home regularly. Eventually he divorced his first wife and remarried. Raff Cilento, now a leading New York neurologist, is cited in Kathie Cochrane's biography of Kath Walker as being Vivian's father. He was also cited in this context in an article about Vivian in The Bulletin. However, he has never spoken out in public on the topic. The year before Vivian's birth, Kath still saw her ex-husband Bruce whenever he visited his son. However, many people commented on how different Vivian was in appearance and character to Bruce Walker and to his elder brother, Dennis. According to a member of the Cilento household, Kath was extremely fond of all the Cilento family. 'She would not have wanted to cause trouble in our family,' Dr David Cilento told me in a telephone interview. All her life Kath remained great friends with him and other family members. 'She was a very proud and independent woman who would not have wished to have charity from anyone,' Dr Cilento said.
Living in the lively and stimulating Cilento home, Kath experienced a new way of life. yet to her it seemed impossible that she would ever become part of such a world. How could an Aboriginal woman with two children to support, who had left school at thirteen, find the time and money to develop her own artistic talents? her first priority was survival for herself and her children. Apart from her small Army pension, she had no other means of financial support. It would be years before there were arts grants and fellowships for indigenous writers. At the age of thirty-seven, Kath was brave enough to take the first step towards intellectual self-improvement. She took a refresher course in stenography and typing, hoping to obtain some kind of office job. In 1958 she was approached by Kathie Cochrane and her husband to join the newly formed Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (QCAATSI). Both organisations aimed to obtain civil rights for Aborigines and to advance their cause.
The Queensland Aborigines preservation and Protection Acts, passed between 1939 and 1946, gave the Queensland government of the day total control over Aboriginal settlements and their inmates. The acts provided for a director to be appointed by the Minister for Native Affairs; the director had almost omnipotent powers over Aborigines. As legal guardian of all Aborigines under the age of twenty-one, the director had the power to remove children from their parents and arrange for their adoption. His permission was necessary for any marriages between Aborigines. He controlled the movement of Aborigines between settlements, and had the right to remove any 'trouble-makers' to Palm Island. The Office of the Director also had control of money earned by Aborigines. Since no Aborigine could obtain a bank book, their earnings were 'managed' or banked for them. It was therefore relatively easy for any corrupt official to funnel money out of Aborigines' hard-earned savings accounts held by the office.
Some of the reserves and many of the missions were run by concerned staff. Others, however, harboured highly disturbed employees, among them sadists and child abusers. The Office of the Director controlled the entry of visitors to the settlements, making it harder for Australian and foreign journalists to investigate reserves suspected of treating their inmates harshly or inhumanely. Brisbane psychiatrist Dr Lilian Cameron and North Queensland physician Dr A. Campbell and others wished to draw attention to the plight of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In conjunction with the United Nations, they wrote and published a booklet detailing treatment of Aborigines that they believed to be unjust. While Lilian Cameron was writing the booklet she met Kath Walker at the home of Kathie Cochrane; she found her to be highly intelligent but at that stage still very shy of speaking out in public. Close involvement in politics on behalf of her people proved to be the catalyst which would draw Kath into public speaking. Indignation over the treatment of Aborigines and the rape of black women developed her determination and revealed her talent. Concern for others helped her to become well known in her own right at a time when women (black or white) found it very hard to be taken seriously. She became the voice of a voiceless people.
The decade of the 1960s was an important time for Kath Walker, on a political and on a personal level. She was deeply involved in the civil rights movement for Aborigines and stood as the ALP candidate for Greenslopes. However, she subsequently left the Labor Party because of internal racism. She became Secretary of the QCAATSI, and was subsequently invited to join the Federal council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in Canberra. She also became an important member of a delegation to the Menzies government that argued the case for constitutional recognition of Aborigines; their efforts culminated in the famous 1967 referendum which gave Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders official recognition in the census, the right to vote and greater control of the money they earned, previously held in trust for them. by this time much of that money had conveniently 'disappeared'; Aborigines who had managed to save up enough money to buy land sometimes found that those savings, supposedly held in trust, had 'evaporated'.
Kath became the first Aboriginal member of the Brisbane Realist Writers' Group and received a great deal of support from her writing colleagues. Praise and encouragement came from writers she respected such as James Devanney and the ageing poet and author Mary Gilmore. Gilmore invited Kath to read some of her poems and told her: 'these poems belong to all mankind. You are the tool that writes them down. In 1964, aided by a commonwealth Literary Grant, Kath Walker published her first collection of poetry, We are Going. It was reprinted seven times. She was lionised by other writers who wanted to help the cause of indigenous people. Still writing under the name Kath Walker, she quickly gained some degree of fame although like most Australian poets did not receive much money for her work. the book's title was not intended to indicate that Aborigines were a dying race, as many Europeans had believed them to be in the past. Kath said that her book was intended 'as a warning to the white people that we can go out of existence or, with proper help, we can go on and live in this world in peace and harmony'
Two years later she published a second collection of poems, The Dawn is at Hand, which won the Jessie Litchfield Award. Kath received significant and valuable encouragement from the celebrated poet and conservationist Judith Wright, who first read Kath's early poems at the request of the Brisbane publisher Jacaranda press. These two talented women became friends and 'shadow sisters'. The literary world was impressed, recognising that the strength of Kath'sy lay in the simplicity of her language allied to the fervour of her message. Kath's poetry and prose carried a potent appeal for social justice for Aborigines, and her poems were an important vehicle for transmitting Aboriginal culture to Australian schoolchildren as well as to the general population. Kath wrote her poems in a simple, direct way spiced with wit. Many were based on Aboriginal chants: simple but direct lines like 'Son of Mine' to0uched people's hearts with its message of reconciliation. her overall message with its attendant rhythm, humour and irony caught the imagination of the Australian reading public:
Over the years she acquired an international reputation through her poetry, but her work as an activist meant less time for her own writing. She was invited to visit China with members of the Australia-China Society, headed by Professor manning Clark. The poetry she wrote on her trip to China was later translated into mandarin and published with Oodgeroo's requiem for those killed in the Tiananmen Square massacred, added at the last moment due to the poet's sense of outrage.
Oodgeroo was awarded major literary honours in several countries. In Australia these included the1966 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literary Merit, and in 1967 an award from The Fellowship of Australian Writers as well as the Mary Gilmore Medal. In 1970 she received the honour of MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from Her Majesty the Queen. Eighteen years later, however, at the same time she changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal by deed poll, she made the decision to hand this back as a form of protest against '200 years of unadulterated humiliation'. She travelled as an official envoy and lecturer to national and international conferences, received a Fulbright Scholarship and a Myer Travel Grant to visit the USA and was poet-in-residence at Bloomsburge State College, Pennsylvania, where she became a source of inspiration for younger women. From 1970 onwards she dreamed of creating an education centre on her beloved North Stradbroke Island on the site of the old Presbyterian Moongalba Mission, north of Dunwich. Moongalba means 'sitting down place' in the Noonuccal language. Oodgeroo was a keen conservationist who fought to preserve the beauty of Stradbroke in the face of sand mining, developers of holiday resorts and builders intent on putting up blocks of apartments. she was fiercely protective of the unspoiled beauty of her birthplace and also opposed those who wanted permission to build a bridge to link Stradbroke to the mainland, which she feared could easily upset the fragile ecological balance of the island by bringing in hordes of tourists. Oodgerro asked for a relatively small sum for her Aboriginal Educational Centre, but this was denied her by the Queensland government and by the Redland Shire council. Lacking an official commitment to funding, she was unable to create her dream.
As the former Moongalba Mission she lived in a caravan. Always able to see the funny side of things, she joked that life in her caravan meant that she was spared some of the domestic chores she had carried out for others as a domestic servant. 'I can't stand domestic work,' she said. 'As soon as you get a house, you have to do the chores. You could spend your entire life doing the cleaning and I really can't bear housework. On Stradbroke, Oodgeroo turned the old bushland mission into a centre for educating children of all races. Her application to the local council for the lease and eventual purchase of the land was refused, so she was not able to establish the permanent museum, library, art gallery and theatre she had dreamed of building. She wasted a great deal of time negotiating with state and federal governments. At one time Lilian Bosch, an American art collector who resided in Queensland, became interested in putting up some of the money. when Ms Bosch learned of the unavailability of a council lease beyond Oodgeroo's lifetime, she changed her mind about investing. Oodgeroo was outraged.
It was extremely shortsighted of the council that administered Stradbroke to grant a lease of the land at a peppercorn rent for Oodgeroo's lifetime only. It was surely a supreme irony that they allowed Oodgeroo's grave to be dug at Moongalba, but denied her request for a building permit for her Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Culture Centre. since she was denied the right to build any structure of a permanent nature, she continued to live in her small caravan with its open-sided extension. Between 1972 and 1978, 8000 visitors came to Moongalba: academics from the United States, Japan, Germany, Sweden, the former USSR and the Pacific islands, including Papua New guinea....after that Oodgeroo stopped counting. Oodgeroo showed visiting children many of the traditional ways of the Noonuccal. they learnt to fish and discovered which bush foods were good to eat. She proved herself an excellent teacher, never happier than when talking about her beloved island to children. In 1972, Barbara Ker Wilson had eagerly published at Angus and Robertson Oodgeroo's collection of childhood reminiscences and Aboriginal stories contained in Stradbroke Dreamtime. The book's cover was based on a painting by a young Aboriginal student. In 1993 a new edition was published, with full colour illustrations by the outstanding Aboriginal artist Bronwyn Bancroft. Oodgeroo wrote most of this book during a visit to Judith Wright at her home on Tambourine Mountain, near Brisbane.
During her lecture tours Oodgeroo often made a series of drawings in a defined style 'as a bit of an escape'. In July 1981 she abandoned her pen in favour of the paint brush and held a one-woman show of her paintings and fabric designs to coincide with National Aboriginal Day in the Brisbane community Arts Centre. 'Art is a universally understood language,' she said. She hoped that recognition of her work would open the way for other Aboriginal artists. She was proved right: Aboriginal art has become sought after worldwide by a jaded materialistic society in which many people despair of the latest developments in modern art and are searching for the spirituality which they encounter in Aboriginal art. the success of Oodgeroo's poetry and prose and its acceptance among the Australian writing community provided encouragement to other Aboriginal writers. In 1985, when she was sixty-five, a second exhibition of Oodgeroo Noonuccal's art was held in Sydney at the home of publisher Ulli Beier. In the book Quandamooka (the Noonuccal name for Moreton Bay), Oodgeroo explained that she had tried to capture the essence of the island in her brightly coloured drawings in which shells, barnacles, snakes and turtles appear juxtaposed with well-known Aboriginal motifs.
In the early 1980s, Oodgeroo realised that Australian society was changing. 'The best thing that ever happened to Australia was all the other races coming to this country - they improved our eating habits for a start!' she declared. However, she still considered white Australians as racist, saying that 'they tend to see only the black drunks in the street, not the white drunks alongside them'.
In 1977 Oodgeroo received an American acting award for her part in Shadow Sister, a film about her life based on poet Judith Wright's name for her friend. Eight years later she gave a second and even more memorable performance in a film directed by Australian Bruce Beresford, based on Nene Gare's book The Fringe Dwellers. Oodgeroo threw herself enthusiastically into playing Eva, a tribal elder living in a tiny humpy. She put on a white wig and a faded sundress and smoked a battered pipe. Her portrayal was masterly and revealed her as a highly talented actress. Bruce Beresford's film has become a classic, depicting Australia just as it was in the 1960s, warts and all. Oodgeroo advised Beresford on the authenticity of the film and one of her grandsons played a small role. She found the days of shooting it 'hard work but enjoyable'. After seeing the completed film, she observed: 'It's very realistic. Some people will probably be embarrassed to see Aborigines portrayed as living on the white man's rubbish dump. but that's what we did to survive during the 1960s. After two hundred years of being belted into the ground, dispossessed and spat on, we're still surviving - and it takes a strong race to do that. Physically we're a mess, but spiritually we'll always be strong.
On an overseas trip Oodgeroo made in the mid-1970s, a plane in which she was a passenger was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. she awoke from sleep to find a gun pointed at her head. 'It's a wonder they didn't shoot my ruddy head off,' she said later. Her ordeal and that of the other passengers and crew of the Boeing 707 ended in Tunisia, after the terrorists shot dead one of the passengers, a West German banker, claiming they had to do this to publicise their demands for the release of nine of their fellow terrorists. In 1987, on a tour of some of the poverty-stricken areas of India, Oodgeroo spoke out about AIDS, foretelling: '... the population of the world is going to be drastically reduced. One half dead from AIDS and a quarter gone from cancer and related diseases ... Man is the most aggressive, dangerous animal ... I'd love to be proved wrong. I don't want to be proved right about this - ever!' She spoke from the heart, for her son Vivian had been diagnosed as HIV-positive and would later develop AIDS. Oodgeroo and Vivian Walker shared many interests, including the theatre. At the age of seventeen he had been the first Aborigine to receive a scholarship to NIDA, Australia's National Institute of Dramtic Art. It was shortly before the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations that Oodgeroo visited Brisbane's government House to return her Imperial honour, the MBE, in a gesture of protest against the federal government's failure to legislate for land rights. In support of his mother, Vivian changed his name to Kabul Noonuccal.
The Queen sent a telegram of congratulations to Oodgeroo when she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Macquarie University in 1989. She also received honorary doctorates from the other universities. the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen's Music, paid tribute to Oodgeroo when he composed an extravagant orchestral and choral production based on her poetry. He told the press that he regarded her as 'the greatest living poet in Australia'. Her son Kabul's premature death from AIDS-related complications was a tragedy for Oodgeroo, but somehow she recovered from her grief. Like his mother, Kabul was a multitalented artist who had worked as a choreographer in Australia and California, and he was also a gifted playwright. His play Why the Corroboree? was designed to connect urban and tribal Aborigines. He and his mother had worked together on the script, which was used in the Rainbow Serpent Theatre, the centrepiece of the Australian pavilion at Brisbane's Expo, held to celebrate the Bicentennial of 1988.
Oodgeroo saw no conflict between returning her MBE to Government House and working on a story for the Australian government pavilion at Expo. although her role at Expo aroused controversy, she and many others hoped Expo would be (like the opening ceremony of the Olympics) what she called 'a marvellous wide audience'. She defended her actions by insisting that 'the bicentenary is the celebration of white settlement. what we have written is for the world's marketplace'. Oodgeroo and Kabul's show at the Rainbow Serpent Theatre was seen by two million visitors and was one of the highlights of Expo, which was extremely popular with overseas visitors, many of whom knew nothing of Australian indigenous culture.
Oodgeroo and Kabul related the storyline through a mixture of live theatre and colour transparencies, music and spectacular light effect. The concept of the Dreamtime, the core of Aboriginal spirituality, was explained by an Aboriginal elder seated in a cave. He told of his people's love and respect for the bountiful landscape, for Mother Earth, and recited the powerful story of the Rainbow Serpent, the give4r and taker of life. As the elder communicated with the spirits they appeared from the smoke - kangaroo, a goanna and an emu. Oodgeroo and Kabul reminded the audience to: 'Consider the land at all times or else the spirit of the Earth Mother will grow angry and take back what she provided.' Oodgeroo received congratulations for stressing the need of conservation, to care for Mother Earth.
Only Aboriginal actors took part in the performance. Oodgeroo was firmly convinced that her people were born actors, playwrights and artists, talents that stemmed from the ancient oral tradition of the Aboriginal storyteller. I talked to Oodgeroo when I was researching an article on art events at Expo, aware that before the event opened she had expressed grave reservations, feeling that Aboriginal contributions were being marginalised amid the welter of hype about Expo making millions for Brisbane. Oodgeroo spoke from the heart. 'I don't give a stuff for Expo or the Bicentennial. What I'm doing is giving fourteen of my people six months' full-time work - and that is worth celebrating.' She wondered if all the emphasis on 'entertainment' would detract from the genuine Aboriginal experience she and Kabul wanted to provide. She hoped benefits would flow to her race because the Aboriginal message was being made to all the many visitors in a peaceful manner. she repeated several times: 'Aborigines have proved what I said all along: if you give them a fair go, they can accomplish anything they put their minds to.'
Two years after Expo, Oodgeroo once again spoke out fearlessly about Aboriginal deaths in custody, as she had done before. She described the royal commission for Aboriginal Deaths in custody as a cover-up for criminal acts committed against her people, and a waste of taxpayers' time and money. At seventy-five she showed the same fire, fortitude and tenacity that had inspired her involvement in Aboriginal rights for nearly forty years. her determination and strength of purpose were as strong as ever. Although Oodgeroo's detractors claimed she was strident and manipulative, her admirers regarded her as a loyal friend and a powerful force for reconciliation and for Aboriginal education. Two years later, the end came very suddenly for Oodgeroo. she began to complain of leg pains and she was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. It spread rapidly to her liver; unable to eat, she grew thinner and thinner. She died as bravely as she had lived and was buried beside Kabul, her younger son, in a traditional Aboriginal ceremony. Tributes to Oodgeroo were received from all over the world by Dennis Walker, her elder son, her grandchildren and her three remaining sisters. Leading Australian writers from many different backgrounds spoke of their sense of loss at her passing, acknowledging her as the first published Aboriginal author to express her commitment to political equality and education for Aborigines and her deep concern for the environment. Rodney Hall, a fellow member of the Brisbane Realist Writers' Group who knew Oodgeroo for nearly forty years, said: 'She was a woman who could move between two worlds, so she set out to make a bridge between them.'
Hundreds of people, rich and poor, poured onto Stradbroke Island to honour her at a memorial service held in Dunwich Hall. the burial ceremony took place in a clearing among her favourite paperbark trees. Dennis Walker pronounced a fitting epitaph: 'She has done her job. she has set the example here and she needs the rest.' As Oodgeroo's body was lowered into the earth, two humpback whales swam slowly through the shallow waters of Moreton Bay and out to sea. She would have liked that.