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Kath Walker's "We Are Going"

Updated on November 1, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Kath Walker

AKA Oodgeroo Noonuccal
AKA Oodgeroo Noonuccal | Source

Introduction and Text of Propaganda Piece, "We Are Going"

Poetry and political activism seldom make good partners, for example, witness the spurious effusions of Adrienne Rich, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Amiri Baraka, Elizabeth Alexander. Unless a serious focus on personal experience guides the pieces, they sink into historical fantasy to rest in the dustbin.

"Oodgeroo Noonuccal"

Born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska in 1920 to Edward and Lucy Ruska on North Stradbroke Island, which is east of Brisbane, Australia, Miss Ruska married David Walker in 1942, but the marriage ended in 1954. In 1970, she received the Mary Gilmore Medal and became a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). Eighteen years later, she returned the award and changed her name from Kath Walker to "Oodgeroo Noonuccal."

We Are Going

They came in to the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent
All that remained of their tribe.
They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of the estate agent reads: 'Rubbish May Be Tipped Here'.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
'We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires.
We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.'

Reading of "We Are Going"

Commentary

First Movement: "They came in to the little town"

They came in to the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent
All that remained of their tribe.

Without context, the speaker of this spurious piece of propaganda titled "We Are Going" begins her drama by bringing into "the little town," which remains nameless, "a semi-naked band" of a tribe that had been "silence[d]" and "subdued." They are the only remaining members of their tribe, so the reader presumes that a pogrom has afflicted the people to which this little band belongs.

Second Movement: "They came here to the place of their old bora ground"

They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of the estate agent reads: 'Rubbish May Be Tipped Here'.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.

The reason the little band has come into this little town is that "their old bora ground" is located nearby. A bora ring is a special piece of ground used for the initiation ceremony of males in Australian aboriginal tribal culture. Women were forbidden from entering the area or even discussing any aspect connected to the bora ceremony.

The animosity toward "the strangers" is revealed when the speaker derisively refers to them as scurrying about "like ants." These "strangers" are accused of filling the bora ring with garbage, for they have placed a sign, "Rubbish May Be Tipped Here."

Third Movement: "We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers"

'We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires.

Racial animus continues to accrue as the speaker bitterly laments, "[w]e are the strangers here now," when in the past "the strangers" had been the ones who are now littering the bora ring and imposing their culture on that of the "little band."

The speaker declares defiantly, "We belong here, we are of the old ways." She then chants, "we are," attaching the phrase to some of the terms associated with belonging to "the old ways": "we are corroboree," bora ground, old ceremonies, the laws of the elders, wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering camp fires.

At this point, it becomes clear that the speaker is engaging in victimology and lamenting the loss of a culture that she has not experienced but now holds in high regard in order to disparage and indict a culture she deems the "other."

Fourth Movement: "We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill"

We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.

The list continues, as the speaker continues to chant "we are" before each thing, for example, "We are the lightening [sic] bolt over Gaphembah Hill / Quick and terrible, / And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow." Thunder and lightning, which is misspelled as "lightening" in the published copy of the piece, are hardly unique to any culture, as all areas of the earth experience those phenomena. Actually, none of the feigned cultural icons in the movement is unique to any certain tribe.

Fifth Movement: "The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter"

The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.'

The claims put forth in the final movement are unabashedly false. If, in fact, all the items mentioned here were gone, the "stranger" culture would not find the place anymore suitable to live in than the "little band" native tribe would. But the climactic highlight, the line that is engaged to create the most sympathy is the final one, "and we are going." The cultural icons of the "little band" have all been removed which is a tragedy, but even more tragic is that the people themselves are being eliminated.

Ahistorical Propaganda

As early as 1895, the Natural History Society, composed of members of the "strangers" race indicted in the piece, was trying to preserve the bora ring in the Nudgee area. Walker’s omission of this fact leaves her attempted poetic effort little more than ahistorical propaganda.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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