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Image 1: A.O. Nevilles assimilation vision. Courtesy of Koori Web.

ASSIMILATION, WAR,
AND REVOLUTION:
THROUGH THE LIFE OF
OODGEROO NOONUCCAL
Tia Harrison

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this essay contains images of
deceased peoples.

Since the arrival of European settlers in 1788 Australias First Nation peoples have suffered from
genocide to gross human rights violations. These violations have stemmed from the protectionist
attitudes of the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, culminating in the assimilationist
policies in the 1930s to today. The problem with assimilation is the negative impact that it had

and continues to have on Indigenous communities throughout Australia. The impact faced by the
Aboriginal people varies from individual, however as Lesley William states, there are themes in
life that are universal.1 The universality of the issues posed by the assimilationist policies saw a
surge in Indigenous pride and identity during Australias civil rights era in the 1960s and 1970s.
I will use the life of Oodgeroo Noonuccal to look at, compare, and discuss the themes
surrounding assimilation and the subsequent violations on Aboriginal human rights and its
influence on the Indigenous Rights movement.

ASSIMILATION:

Assimilation policies have been around since the early-1930s however a formal definition was
not established until 1961 at the Native Welfare Conference of Federal and State Ministers. It is
defined as:2
The policy of assimilation means that all Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected to attain
the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian
community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same customs and influenced
by the same beliefs as other Australians.
The resulting policies were seen by white Australians as integrating the Aboriginal population
into white society; integration through absorption. This was to be done in two distinct ways:
biologically and socially.3
Biological absorption would occur through interracial
relationships where children of mixed-descent would
Are we going to have 1,000,000
not physically appear to be Indigenous.4 Social
blacks in the Commonwealth or are
integration would occur through cultural adjustment
we going to merge them into our
where Indigenous peoples are taught to live in the
white community and eventually
manner of white people.5 The policy was accepted by
forget there were any Aborigines in
many within the white community as a liberal step
Australia
forward; with the introduction of the policy Aboriginal
peoples had a choice. As Richard Broome highlights,
the policy promised equality and cultural death at one and the same time.6 The cultural
genocide which was implicit in the policies is exhibited in a speech given by Western Australian
Chief Protector for Aborigines who stated that the absorption of the Indigenous population with
the white community would see Australia eventually forget there were any Aborigines.7

This one size fits all, homogenous notion of the Australian way of life, saw many First

Correspondence between Paul Hasluck and Rev. Canon F.W. Coaldrak; members of the Australian Board
of Missions on regarding the assimilation of Aborigines. Courtesy National Archives.

Nations peoples feel isolated and alienated. In her autobiography, Dont Take Your Love to
Town, Ruby Langford-Ginibi discusses her time in Aboriginal housing in a predominantly white
community. She saw assimilation by absorption as splitting up Aboriginal communities and
because there were so few black familieswe were very isolated from our friends and our
culturewe had trouble coping with the discrimination.8 As Williams concludes, there was
little, if any, consideration given to the severing of family and friendship ties.9 Assimilation was
an attack on the culture and identity of Indigenous Australians, a policy designed to divide on
race and colour lines.10 The discrimination and consequent social problems facing the Indigenous
communities became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

OODGEROO NOONUCCAL

Oodgeroo Noonuccal grew up on North Stradbroke Island. Due


to her isolation her early years were a little different than other
Aboriginal communities at the time as she was able to live in,
relative, peace from the protectionist policies favourable at the
time. Growing up her Father would protest the Queensland
government for better conditions for Aboriginal workers; this
political engagement had a profound effect on Oodgeroo.
Nevertheless after completing primary school, at the age of 13,
Oodgeroo became a domestic servant. Like so many other
Aboriginal domestic workers, Oodgeroo suffered from
inadequate pay and terrible working conditions. However due

Image 2: Oodgeroo Noonuccal during her time in the AWAS.


Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

to prejudices and lack of opportunities available to Aboriginal women Oodgeroo stayed a


domestic worker, that is, until the onset of another Great War.
The onset of the Second World War saw many First Nations and Torres Strait Islander peoples
sign up to fight for a nation which still denied them their basic human rights and freedoms. This
became a politicising issue particularly amongst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups,
as many recognised the inconsistency in performing the citizens responsibility to defend the
state while being denied the citizens right to vote.11 Nevertheless Oodgeroos brothers signed
up to assist the war effort and were captured at the Fall of Singapore. Oodgeroo feeling as if she
should contribute more to the war effort, like many women who had family fighting in
Australias Forces-roughly 35,800 by the Wars end- joined the Australian Womens Army
Service (AWAS).12
After joining Aboriginal servicemen and servicewomen discovered that the colour line
disappeared and enjoyed a degree of equality.13 As Oodgeroo stated All of a sudden they
were colour blind.14 Oodgeroo, whilst always enjoying the benefit of the right to vote, as she
was neither white nor full-blood; someone who Williams calls a grey class,15 used the other
opportunities afforded to her, such as the special training classes; I would be allowed to learn.16
However the relative equality afforded to Indigenous servicemen and women highlighted the
blatant inequalities experienced in pre-war and post-war Indigenous society. It was the war years
which were instrumental in helping to build the conditions for an Aboriginal political
movement.17 It was in this climate Australias assimilation policy gained appeal amongst the
white population. However many First Nations peoples were discovering the hindrance and
hatred that the assimilation policy bestowed on their communities and many leaders such as Gary
Foley, Reg. Saunders and Oodgeroo Noonuccal called for self-determination and true
integration.
AUSTRALIAS CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND OODGEROO NOONUCCAL

The 1960s ushered in a new era of rebellion, a social rebellion against the racist policies dictated
by the white Australian government. As Doug Nicholls commented, we began to realise that we
should be proud of our Aboriginal culture-that we should remember we are a great people.18 The
assimilation policy was inherently eurocentric and still a colonial thought; one which
saw white norms as being civilised rather
than the uncivilised culture of the Aboriginal
people.
As one advocate stated, assimilation policies
imply that the Aboriginal is inferior to the
white man and is worthless until he takes up
Image 3: Newspaper article from 1966 depicts language and
white mans ways19
views of white Australians regarding the Assimilation policy.

Oodgeroo had a similar sentiment when she argued, assimilation means the swallowing up by a
majority group of a minority group Assimilation can only bring us forwards as replicas of the
white race.20 It is hard to discredit such a claim, especially given the sentiments in newspapers
which pushed for assimilation against the wishes of the Indigenous population (see Image 3.).
The article, Many Aborigines do not want to be absorbed, H.J. Green stated these people must
be persuaded that the assimilated Aborigines were leading the right life.21
However those who had assimilated were still facing discrimination by those who they were
meant to become. Self-determination, social justice, recognition, and integration became the
order of the day. As Oodgeroo stated in an address in Melbourne in 1964, the ideal is integration
where an Aborigine can keep his [and her] own language and culture but live side by side in
dignity with white people.22
Assimilation has discouraged, hindered, and alienated Australias First Nations peoples; through
white policies and ideologies. This is still occurring to this day with the Northern Territory
Intervention Act, the closure of Aboriginal communities, delisting of sacred sites, and other
attacks on a proud, strong and surviving culture. White Australia needs to get their heads out of
the sand,23 understand, and respect Aboriginal culture and history, and create meaningful policies
which seek to advance their First Nations peoples. I leave you with a poignant poem by
Oodgeroo Noonuccal, which resonates to this day:
We want hope not radicalism;
Brotherhood, not ostracism;
Black advance, not white ascendance:
Make us equals, not dependants.
We need help, not exploitation;
We want freedom, not frustration;
Not control, but self-reliance;
Independence, not compliance;
Not rebuff, but education; Self-respect, not resignation24

Bibliography:
Primary Sources:
Images:
1. Neville, A.O., Three Generations [image], (1947) cited in Korri Web
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_15.html>, accessed 1 Oct. 2015.
2. National Archives of Australia, National Reference Service; Representations by the Australian
Board of Missions re the policy of 'Assimilation' for Aborigines 1962-1963, Correspondence
files, annual single number series 1962-63.
3. Lance Corporal Kathleen Walker [image],
(1942)<https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P01688.001>, accessed 1 Oct. 2015.
4. Many Aborigines do not Want to be Absorbed, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Feb. 1966, para.
1, 9, 11, <http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/news/1960s/smh23feb1966.html>,
accessed 9 Sept. 2015.
Other Sources:
Assimilation Something of a Dirty Word, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec. 1964,
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/news/1960s/smh16dec1964.html>, accessed 9
Sept. 2015.
Ginibi, Ruby Langford, Dont Take Your Love to Town (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of
Queensland Press, 2007).
The Age, Ostrichism Aboriginal Poetess Says, 25 May 1964, para.3, 6,
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/news/1960s/age25may1964.html>, accessed 2
Oct. 2015.
Walker, Kath, My People: a Kath Walker Collection (Richmond: Jacaranda Press, 1970).
Williams, Lesley and Tammy, Not Just Black and White: a Conversation between a Mother and
Daughter (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2015).

Secondary Sources:
Australian Law Reform Commission, Aboriginal Societies: the Experience of Contact (1986),
<http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/Recognition%20of%20Aboriginal%20Customary%20Law
s%20(ALRC%20Report%2031)/3-aboriginal-societies-experi>, pp.1-7, accessed 9 Sept. 2015.

Broome, Richard, Aboriginal Australians: a History since 1788 (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin,
2010).
Chesterman, John, and Douglas, Heather, Their Ultimate Absorption: Assimilation in 1930s
Australia, Koori Web, (2011) <http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/185.pdf>,
accessed 9 Sept. 2015.
Ellinghaus, Katherine, Absorbing the Aboriginal problem: Controlling Interracial Marriage in
Australia in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Koori Web, (2011)
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/82.pdf>, accessed 9 Sept. 2015.
Hall, Robert, Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Recall the Second
World War (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1995).

Williams, Lesley, and Williams, Tammy, Not Just Black and White: a Conversation between a Mother and
Daughter (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2015), p. 3.
2 Australian Law Reform Commission, Aboriginal Societies: the Experience of Contact (1986),
<http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/Recognition%20of%20Aboriginal%20Customary%20Laws%20(
ALRC%20Report%2031)/3-aboriginal-societies-experi>, p.3, accessed 9 Sept. 2015.
3 Chesterman, John, and Douglas, Heather, Their Ultimate Absorption: Assimilation in 1930s Australia,
Koori Web, (2011) <http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/185.pdf>, p. 48, accessed 9 Sept.
2015.
4 Ellinghaus, Katherine, Absorbing the Aboriginal problem: Controlling Interracial Marriage in
Australia in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Koori Web, (2011)
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/82.pdf>, p. 183, accessed 9 Sept. 2015.
5 Ibid.
6 Broome, Richard, Aboriginal Australians: a History since 1788 (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2010), p.
211.
7 Ibid.
8 Ginibi, Ruby Langford, Dont Take Your Love to Town (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland
Press, 2007).
9 Williams, Op. Cit., p. 13.
10 Ibid., p. 15.
11 Hall, Robert, Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Recall the Second World War
(Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1995), p. 119.
12 Ibid., p. 113.
13 Ibid. p, 120.
14 Ibid.
15 Williams, Op. Cit., p.23.
16 Hall, Op. Cit., p. 130.
17 Ibid., p. 120.
18 Broome, Op. Cit., p. 210.
19 Professor Geddes, Assimilation Something of a Dirty Word, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec. 1964,
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/news/1960s/smh16dec1964.html>, accessed 9 Sept.
2015.
20 Ibid., p. 216.
1

Many Aborigines do not Want to be Absorbed, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Feb. 1966, para. 9,
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/news/1960s/smh23feb1966.html>, accessed 9 Sept.
2015.
22 The Age, Ostrichism Aboriginal Poetess Says, 25 May 1964, para. 6,
<http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/news/1960s/age25may1964.html>, accessed 2 Oct.
2015.
23 Ibid., para. 3.
24 Kath Walker, Aboriginal Charter of Rights (1962)My People: a Kath Walker Collection (Richmond:
Jacaranda Press, 1970).
21