Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s descriptive poem ‘We are going’ examines the displacement of indigenous culture and identity through rich imagery, powerful inclusive language, and figurative phrases. The poem is not broken into stanzas, rather it features short and long lines that are contrasted in metre, giving the shorter lines a sense of urgency. On the surface the poem appears very simple; almost like free verse, but on closer inspection it has a deep cultural significance that tears at the heart of what it means to be displaced and alienated. Moreover, the poem is peppered with enjambment, and the alliteration of “we” reminds the reader that it is not a tribe that has been displaced, but an entire culture; a culture that was once inseparable from nature: “We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon. We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the campfires burn low.”
Ever since the colonisation of Australia in 1788 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land laws and customs have been trampled; from the Yirrkala bark petitions with the Yolgnu people to Mabo, and The Native Title Act of 1993—the fight for land rights has continued. Indigenous people have a profound spiritual, physical, social and cultural connection to the land, and they see it as an essential and sacred part of existence—rather than an asset to make a profit from. As Palyku woman Ambelin Kwaymullina explains, “For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human – all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live on land, water, sky … country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.” Noonuccal’s poem captures this sense of interconnectedness perfectly and reminds us of the importance of ceremony: “We are the old sacred ceremonies, the laws of the elders. We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.”
The poem is also about the white man’s disrespect for the land. Noonuccal describes them as hurrying about “like ants”—capitalist-driven white men who treat the once sacred “old bora ground” as a garbage dump for real-estate agents. “Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring. They sit and are confused, they cannot say their thoughts: “We are the strangers here now…” It is this state of confusion that describes the displacement so well, and the veracity of the line that follows: “But the white tribe are the strangers.”
Noonuccal’s poem moved me deeply; it roused a fresh disgust towards our consumeristic culture and rekindled my passion for nature. Despite it being written over half a century ago (published in 1964) it has lost none of its potency. In fact, it is more relevant than ever; a reminder that we have failed to comprehend the sanctity of the land. Even now, mining and big industry continue to threaten wildlife and the delicate ecosystem we rely on to keep the environment in harmony, and we are now experiencing the consequences. Perhaps in the sixties, the poem may have acted as a warning, but now it is a prophecy come true: “We are the nature and the past, all the old ways gone now and scattered.” The last part of the sentence is in italics, but it may as well be a neon sign that reads: You have destroyed all that was once sacred to us, since Noonuccal iterates this in the coda: “The scrubs are gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone … the corraloree is gone. And we are going.” The question here is: Where are they going? For this is what displacement means – to be adrift and wandering, severed from what was once true and sacred, traditional and ritualistic; what we experience as a gap in society. Notably, the last line is a heart-wrenching reminder that we have taken nature for granted, and have never understood the sanctity of land and its indigenous peoples.
Read the original poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal here.
Noonuccal, O 1964, ‘Week 12 Lecture, ‘Identity Poetics: Australian Poetry Today’, We are going, Australian Writing and Cultural Change: Module 12, Canvas Learning Materials, Swinburne University of Technology, 15 August 2017.
Korff, J 2020, Meaning of land to Aboriginal people, Creative Spirits, viewed 17May 2020, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/meaning-of-land-to-aboriginal-people>.
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) c. 2019, Land Rights, AIATSIS, viewed 17 May 2020, <https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/land-rights>.