Urban Aboriginals and the relation to their cultural heritage

An analysis on the basis of selected poems

Seminar Paper, 2008

14 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background Information
2.1 Biographical Facts about the Authors
2.2 The Development of Aboriginal Poetry

3. Analysis of Poems
3.1 Connection to Nature
3.2 Question of Identity
3.3 Relation to Past

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

More than 230 years ago, Captain James Cook, a British explorer, ‘discovered’ the Australian continent and claimed it for Great Britain. From then on, the Indigenous Australian population experienced a drastic cultural and social change.

Today around “68% of the Aboriginal population […] live in urban environements” (Knudsen 2004, S. 73). Despite the progress in assimilation, smoldering sources of social friction between Aboriginal people and the white community, like unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and bad health care, remain. These subjects often occur in literature of indigenous authors, especially poetry, “the most popular genre of Aboriginal creative expression in English” (Shoemaker 1989, S. 179).

Another important theme, which is often worked up in indigenous poetry, is the urban Aboriginal’s relation to their cultural heritage, which will be the topic of this termpaper.

This theme is of high topicality nowadays, considering the increasing number of Aboriginals living in urban environments. It will be important to figure out to what extent the Indigenous’s past does still play a role in their present lives. Also it will be of interest if they still feel connected with their cultural past, if nature still plays a decisive role, even in “civilised Aboriginals’” lives, and how they generally feel about their situation of being part of two significantly differing cultures. Therefore, the poems will be analysed on the basis of the subtopics nature, identity and past.

The aim of this paper is to provide a small overview of recent poetic works dealing with this topical theme of the urban Aboriginals relation to their cultural heritage to draw the reader’s attention to a new, probably even largely unknown part of Aboriginal’s lives.

This termpaper will first give a short overview about the Aboriginal poetry in general and the authors lives. Later on, poems in which subjects like past, civilisation or nature occur will be analysed. Poems by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Jack Davis will act as exemplary works to be analysed and interpreted. Therefore, at the beginning of the termpaper some short biographical facts about these poets will be given to become acquainted with their cultural background.

2. Background information

2.1 Biographical Facts about the Authors

Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born on November 3rd, 1920, in Minjerribah on Stradbroke Island, where she spent her early childhood years. Her birth name was Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska. At the age of 13 she had to leave Primary School like mostly every Aboriginal child and started to work as a domestic servant in Brisbane. During the Second World War, she worked as a telephonist in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS). In 1942 Oodgeroo married Bruce Walker, a waterside worker in Brisbane, with whom she had two sons, Denis and Vivian.

In the 1960s Oodgeroo became one of the most popular and persuasive figures, for she was fighting for civil rights of the native community, especially for an ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’. She spoke and also wrote for Aboriginal Rights and was at all times exerted to gain social and political change.

In 1964 her first volume of verse, We Are Going, was published. It was the first book by an Australian Aboriginal woman in history. Oodgeroo later wrote The Dawn Is at Hand, which was published in 1966. These two books attained a nationwide publicity and immediate acceptance. In addition to that, Oodgeroo won several literary awards and was also awarded an MBE in 1970 for services to Aboriginal people. On top of that, she was involved in a number of political organisations and also travelled a lot, being guest lecturer at many universities and giving speeches in countries all over the world.

In the 1970s she bought a five-hectare piece of bushland at Moongalba on Stradbroke Island (‘sitting-down-place’), where she lived in a caravan and welcomed visitors of all cultural backgrounds.

In 1987 she returned her MBE to make a political statement concerning the slow progress which was made by Australia’s government. It was around this time that she adopted her traditional name Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal. On September 16th 1993 she died after a brief battle with cancer.

Jack Davis was born in 1917 in Perth, Western Australia. His parents were both taken away from their tribes and families and reared by whites when they were young.

The Davis family spent many years in Yarloop where Jack went to public schools till he was fourteen. From then on, Jack worked as a mill-hand and later on as a stockman in the north of Western Australia. This was when he for the first time met Aborigines who worked for great land owners, suffered under the working conditions and were deprived of civil rights.

From 1967 Jack Davis was fighting for civil rights of the native community. Like Oodgeroo, he wanted to bring social and political change to Australia. His first volume of verse was published in 1970 and made him the second of the two most important Aboriginal writers of this generation, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and him. Furthermore, he wrote a number of plays, which all gained a lot of positive critique. His insistent and successful commitment concerning Aboriginal affairs was honoured by several prizes and public awards.

In retrospect, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Jack Davis were key figures of native Australian literature and leaders of the protests against the conditions under which Aboriginals had and still have to live.

2.2 The Development of Aboriginal Poetry

Before a system of writing was brought to Australia by the Europeans, all native literature was in oral form. Legends, traditions and other important matters were transmitted from one generation to the next mostly in form of (spoken) verse because it was easier to memorize and learn. But after the arrival of the Europeans, the Aboriginal literature began to change from an oral to a written one (cf. Davis/ Hodge 1985, 21-22).

One reason is that the assimilation policy decided that native children should have a “higher education” and thus go to Metropolitan Schools. In these schools they did not just learn how to write, but also had to acquire a broad knowledge about European history and poetry. They were introduced to ballads and other more or less simple verse structures, but never became acquainted with modern poets. Because most of the Aboriginal poets well-known today all went to such schools, their poems are in the majority of cases reproductions of the traditional English style of writing verse for this is the form they learned to be poetry in schools (cf. Narogin 1990, 33). For this reason Aboriginal poems are in most cases conservative in their experimentation with verse structures.

But in this context it also must be stressed that in Aboriginal poetry aesthetic value is anyway of lesser worth than content, because it is the message which is supreme. Mudrooroo Narogin made the following definition about this theme: “Aboriginal poetry may be defined as a verbal discourse in which the message is dominant and the aesthetic function is subordinate. Aboriginal poetry […] is best defined as semiology” (Narogin 1990, 35). Besides, for most writers whose aim is to bring an important message across to as many readers as possible it is of lesser interest what critics might think as long as the readers are able to understand the meaning.

All in all the absence of experimental rhyming schemes and stylistic features in Aboriginal poetry preponderates because of the former reasons.

Nevertheless, a lot of critics tend to be on the side of aesthetic-value and so classify Aboriginal verse as bad poetry because of the “technical failings”.

Hence, these writings are “placed outside the canons of what, for some, constitutes good poetry” (Shoemaker 1994, 60).

3. Analysis of Poems

As already explained in the former chapter, the aesthetic value is not dominant in Aboriginal literature. On this account, the following poems will not be analysed concerning their rhyme schemes or verse structures, but in view of their meanings as a frame of study. Also striking allusions will be taken into account.

3.1 Connection to Nature

Nature, plants and landscapes are often described in Aboriginal verse. Sometimes poems which include these themes are interpreted in a way in which any political involvement is eschewed and only the aspect of the beauty of nature is stressed. But even when Black Australian nature poetry does not have an overt socio-political dimension, it can be politically significant as an illustration of the singular Aboriginal poetic appreciation of the Australian landscape (cf. Shoemaker 1989, 179-180).

Especially with regard to the situation of Aboriginals who live in urban environments, such poems can convey a certain meaning, because those people are separated from nature, which was their natural environment in former times. By analysing Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem “Return to Nature” (Zimmermann 1999, 56), in which the bond between an urbanised Indigene and the land is specified, the relation of nature and civilised Aborigines will be explained. Later on, the poem “Day Flight” (Zimmermann 1999, 74) written by Jack Davis will be analysed too.

As the title already may indicate, the major subject of the poem “Return to Nature” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal is the return to her homeland of an Aboriginal person, who spent the last years in civilisation. The “civilised” speaker tries to come back to her former roots and pick up her old way of life which includes a deep connection to nature. But after a first attempt to find back to her old form of communication with nature, she has to notice that the old bond is broken because of her time in “civilisation” and the transformation into a “brutal”, “impatient” and tired person she made.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Urban Aboriginals and the relation to their cultural heritage
An analysis on the basis of selected poems
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik )
Readings in Australian Aboriginal Literature, Proseminar
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
480 KB
Urban, Aboriginals, Readings, Australian, Aboriginal, Literature, Proseminar, Oodgeroo, Noonuccal, Jack Davis, Indigenous
Quote paper
Ilona Sontag (Author), 2008, Urban Aboriginals and the relation to their cultural heritage, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/114579


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