Despite the importance of her poetry and prose, Oodgeroo’s experiences were much more than a catalogue of achievements in European terms. Her life, often hard fought, was one of enjoyment as well as pain, of laughter as well as sorrow. Oodgeroo had a wonderful sense of humour; it was, like the title of Ruby Langford’s latest book, ‘real deadly’. She was always able to use this to advantage, to embarrass stuffy politicos, to get action, to explode stereotypes of Aboriginal people. At the same time, she related to young people better than anyone else I have ever met. She told stories, she entertained, she challenged and always threw down the gauntlet. I’ll never forget the day she was involved in a radio hook-up with children from all over Queensland and was coaching aspiring young poets over the phone: ‘That’s a great piece – now you keep writing! Never forget; you do what your teachers say, because knowledge is power. Now, go out and get some!’
Oodgeroo was also a canny, fearless, and highly effective politician. She represented her community, her Aboriginal constituency, better than any elected or appointed official has ever done. The title of her major retrospective book of poems, My People, says it all. She saw all Aboriginal people as members of her extended family and believed that her verse expressed their words. Her work was from them and for them.
What did she teach others? To respect the land as the basis of all life, as the spiritual matrix of existence. Not to give up, to believe in the future despite the horrors of deaths in custody and police harassment. Not to exclude the poor, the sick or the disabled from Australian life. To use the arts for a strong political end. Above all, to increase respect for, and awareness of, Aboriginal culture.
Oodgeroo stood out as being one of the most inclusive human beings I have ever encountered. She did not have to be this way; it was her choice and all of the 28,000 children who visited her at her home of Moongalba over the past thirty years were the beneficiaries. Like them, I consider myself lucky to have known her.
Commentators often use terms like ‘fire in the belly’ when they speak of Oodgeroo, and it is true that she did not suffer the presence of fools or hypocrites. It is hypocritical that the federal government granted her no more than a ‘peppercorn lease’ on her land, stating that it was hers only during her lifetime. Never before has there been a clearer case for land rights; Moongalba must be preserved for her family and for her Nunukul people as a ‘sitting down place’ forever.
Oodgeroo had many, many different careers. Ever since she began publishing, she has been in constant demand, as an adviser to Ministers of Aboriginal Affairs, as an educationalist, as an artist, an actor, an ambassador for her people and as an internationalist. As she often remarked, ‘Everyone wants a piece of me’ – and no wonder.
Oodgeroo had to fight against many things in her life, and she succeeded in surmounting them all. However, one advantage she did have was the fact that she was able to grow up with her Aboriginal family – unlike the thousands of Black Australian children who were forcibly removed from their parents by government order.
This shameful period of Australian history provokes the question, how many Aboriginal people were prevented from achieving their destinies because of this barbaric practice?
Sitting on her front porch on Minjerriba (North Stradbroke Island) and discussing politics with her, I found that racial issues often became wider human issues of injustice and intolerance. This was one of Oodgeroo’s special gifts; she showed by her life and personal example the potential for true equality in Australia if all people modelled their behaviour on hers.