3 November 1920 - 16 September 1993
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born on North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) in Queensland. She left school at 13 to work as a domestic servant in Brisbane and was 19 when war was declared in 1939. After the Australian Women’s Army Service was established two years later, she joined up. When the war ended, she supported her two sons working as a domestic for employers including Queensland doctors Raphael and Phyllis Cilento during the 1950s.
After the launch of the campaign for a Referendum on removing the discriminatory clauses from the Australian Constitution in 1957, a state Aboriginal organisation had been hastily established by Ada Bromham so that Queensland could take part in the founding conference of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (later FCAATSI) in February 1958. The third FCAATSI conference was held in Brisbane, at Easter 1961, and after this Oodgeroo Noonuccal rebuilt the Queensland council and served as QCAATSI secretary for the next decade. At the same time she published her first two books of poetry, We Are Going (1964) and The Dawn is at Hand (1966).
In Queensland as elsewhere, women’s organisations, churches, students, trades unions, and service clubs worked with Indigenous organisations during the 10-year Referendum campaign, explaining the issues and circulating petitions in all federal electorates. As well as taking an active part in publicising and collecting signatures for the petitions, Indigenous leaders like Pastor Don Brady, Ooodgeroo Noonuccal and her son Dennis helped forge state and national networks and also developed contacts with Indigenous people in other countries. Like Don Brady, Ooodgeroo Noonuccal travelled overseas to talk to leaders of other Indigenous movements, finding a stark contrast to how much government control was exercised over Indigenous people in Queensland. Laws and regulations affected people’s everyday lives, how and where they lived, where they were allowed to travel, what happened to their children, even how much they could own.
In 1962 Aborigines and Torres Strait islander people won the right to vote for representatives in the federal parliament, but Indigenous people in Queensland and West Australia were still denied the vote in state elections. When a new law providing unequal voting rights for Indigenous people was proposed in 1965, Oodgeroo Noonuccal led the protest against representatives who could be no more effective than ‘seat dusters’. She declared that a democratic country meant that ‘all people are truly given freedom of thought, freedom of choice’.
Under the Australian Constitution, if 10,000 people requested a Referendum to change the Constitution the Parliament would be required to respond. That target had long been achieved without any action by Parliament and Oodgeroo Noonuccal took part in several deputations to Prime Minister Robert Menzies. At one deputation in 1963, she taught a brisk lesson in the realities of Aboriginal lives. When the Prime Minister offered the deputation a drink, he was startled by her response that he could be gaoled for that gesture in Queensland.
Every week of every Senate sitting, a petition was tabled and when Parliament finally passed the necessary legislation early in 1967, 80,000 people had signed. Having won the federal vote just five years before, Ooodgeroo Noonuccal like other Indigenous people in Queensland was able to vote in the Referendum in May 1967, adding their ‘Yes!’ to all of those that changed Australia’s Constitution. However, for her, like many other campaigners, the work of achieving justice for Indigenous Australians had just begun.
In 1970, Oodgeroo Noonuccal led FCAATSI’s Day of Mourning on the bicentenary of James Cook's landing at Botany Bay on 29 April 1970. Echoing the first Day of Mourning protest in 1938, those taking part wore black to mark the suffering of Indigenous people.
After being awarded an MBE in 1970, in 1988, five years before her death, Oodgeroo Noonuccal returned the British honour in protest at the celebration of the bicentenary of the British occupation of Australia.