Dreamtime, Machinetime: We Are Going
Aerial views of Minjerriba (Stradbroke Island), and Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) walking along the beach with children. Oodgeroo tells us the inspiration for her poetry, and its role in personal and political resistance to white oppression. Summary by Romaine Moreton.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal is an acclaimed Indigenous poet, and was greatly involved in the push for Aboriginal rights. This documentary is an important testimony to her work, and its influence on Indigenous literature.
Dreamtime, Machinetime synopsis
An episodic documentary featuring distinguished Indigenous artists specialising in literary and visual art forms.
Dreamtime, Machinetime curator's notes
Dreamtime, Machinetime is a title borrowed from Trevor Nickolls’ artwork of the same name, and visits locations such as Yirrikala, Warndoolier (Perth), Minjerriba (Stradbroke Island), Narr’n (Melbourne), Balingup and Warrane (Sydney). A nicely paced documentary that showcases the work of writers Archie Welter and Oodgeroo Noonuccal and artists Banduk Marika and Trevor Nickolls. The documentary highlights the artists’ social conscience that gives substance and form to their work. The rhythm of this documentary allows the audience to participate in the work presented; entering the poetry of Kath Walker, or the prose of Archie Weller, their literature is given a visual component by the filmmakers.
In the culture of Banduk Marika, stories are inherited generation through generation, and are restricted. The word restricted means that each person can only re-tell a story that they have permission to. This inherited right to stories exists in all Indigenous cultures in Australia, and Banduk Marika tells us that she as an individual can only tell certain stories and paint certain symbols, like the barramundi for example. What this means is that not every artist is permitted to use the barramundi to tell their stories.
Nickolls’ visual art speaks about the marriage between Western culture and Indigenous culture, and how they represent two different ways of seeing the world. All of the artists in Dreamtime, Machinetime comment on the changes that are occurring for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous culture as a result of coming into contact with Western society, and it is this commentary that informs their artwork.
Notes by Romaine Moreton
This clip shows Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Indigenous activist, artist and poet, relating how her poetry emerged from the political activism she undertook on behalf of her people. A narrator introduces Noonuccal, filmed with children on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), followed by a black-and-white photograph of her as a younger woman. She reads her poem ‘The dispossessed’, accompanied by soft haunting music. The camera cuts to an Aboriginal artwork with the title of her poem superimposed on it. A series of archival black-and-white photographs illustrate the reading, followed by photographs showing her political activism in the 1960s.
Educational value points
- The clip features the Indigenous Australian poet, artist and political activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, also known as Kath Walker (1920–93). In 1988 she changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal to identify more closely with her Aboriginal heritage. She was the first successful Indigenous Australian writer and was a prominent activist on behalf of Indigenous people throughout her life. She was also involved in other issues, for example as a member of Writers against Nuclear Armament.
- Noonuccal was a passionate and articulate advocate for Indigenous rights. Through her writing and participation in various organisations she brought national and international focus to bear on the oppression of Indigenous Australians and raised the question of human rights and dignity in relation to their plight. In 1987 she returned the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) she had been awarded in 1970, as a symbolic act of protest against the injustices she believed the upcoming Bicentennial celebrations would commemorate.
- The poem read by Oodgeroo in this clip, ‘The dispossessed’, was included in her first book of poetry, which was also the first published by an Indigenous writer. When this book, We Are Going, was published in 1964 it sold out in 3 days, signifying the beginning of Noonuccal’s successful career as a poet and gaining her international recognition.
- In the clip Noonuccal refers to the inspiration for her poems. She says of her poetry that she heard and expressed the voices of her people. Elsewhere she has said that the poems belong to her people and that as the one who wrote them down she was merely a tool. She has also said she chose poetry as the most personal form of written expression and to appeal to Indigenous people who are natural storytellers and songmakers.
- The clip explores a number of ideas associated with dispossession that relate to Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem ‘The dispossessed’, including the belief that Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land with the coming of the British to Australia. The idea that Indigenous people were denied an independent voice to tell their stories is also explored, as well as the idea that they were dispossessed by political groups who claimed them as ‘our blacks’, claiming to be able to speak for them.
- Noonuccal’s participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s in Australia is illustrated in black-and-white photographs in this clip. This was a significant time for activism on behalf of Indigenous rights, culminating in the 1967 referendum. The referendum proposed that discriminatory clauses against Indigenous Australians be removed from the Constitution. The proposal was accepted by 90 per cent of Australians.
- Some significant archival photographs of Indigenous Australians are shown in the clip, including two showing Indigenous men chained at the neck and being supervised by a man of European ancestry. In 1905 a Royal Commission on the Condition of Natives, established in Perth, Western Australia, investigated why Indigenous people suspected of spearing cattle were always chained together at the neck, usually 15 at a time, when they were to be brought in for questioning.
- This clip forms part of the documentary Dreamtime, Machinetime, which was made in 1987 and focused on the work of Aboriginal writers and artists. This clip focuses on Oodgeroo Noonuccal and features an interview with her. The interviewer is never visible, allowing the film to focus on Noonuccal as she explains the inspiration for her poetry. This gives her words and the archival images freshness and immediacy. Noonuccal’s reading of her poem ‘The dispossessed’ enables the viewer to enter into the performance.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 17 minutes into the documentary.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal walks along the beach with a group of children.
Narrator Kath Walker is widely known as a courageous fighter for Aboriginal rights. She became a poet to give a voice to the Aboriginal movement in the early ‘60s. Kath is settled up in Minjerriba, North Stradbroke Island, the traditional home of her people, the Noonuccal tribe. She has written five collections of poetry and prose and the power of her work has been acknowledged worldwide.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal recites her poem ‘The dispossessed’. There is an image of an Aboriginal painting and photos of Aboriginal people being mistreated and living in poverty. The reading is accompanied by soft haunting music.
Peace was yours, Australian man,
with tribal laws you made.
’Til white colonials stole your peace,
with rape and murder raid.
They shot and poisoned and enslaved,
until a scattered few.
Only a remnant now remain,
and the heart dies in you.
The white man claimed your hunting grounds,
and you could not remain.
They made you work as menial,
for greedy private gain.
Your tribes are broken vagrants now,
wherever whites survive.
And justice of the white man means,
justice to you denied.
They brought you bibles and disease,
the liquor and the gun.
With Christian culture such as these,
the white command was won.
A dying race,
you linger on, degraded and oppressed.
Outcasts in your own native land,
You are the dispossessed.
Archival photos of Oodgeroo Noonuccal taken during her years as a political activist are interspersed with footage of her being interviewed.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal I wrote ‘The dispossessed’ in the early ‘60s when we were trying to gather up people to form the civil rights movement and what inspired me to write ‘The dispossessed’ was there were those in the political world who were extreme left-wingers and there were extreme right-wingers. The Aboriginals were right in the middle. And they were all trying to get possession of the Aboriginal people and this has been going on for the last 200 years, you know they talk about the Aboriginals as ‘our blacks’. So I stood up and said, ‘Why don’t you just stop and ask the Aborigines what they want?’ And, of course, everything broke loose and I went out very disillusioned and very bitter and very angry and I went home that night and I put down, in draft form, a poem which finally became ‘The dispossessed’. The conditions for Aboriginals during that time was very bad. We had the highest rate of infant mortality in the world. We still have it – 17 of our children dies against one in the white world in this lucky country called Australia. We have the highest leprosy rate in the world in Western Australia in this so-called lucky country. Now, in the Australian years BC, and by that I mean Before Cook, we were a disease-free race of people. And all these diseases came in. I heard the voices of my people and every time I heard a story like that, I went home and I wrote a poem about it.