Reading Time: 5 minutes

In post-colonial theory, the word ‘subaltern’ is used to refer to a member of any group who faces oppression due to caste or gender or race. In her seminal essay, Can the Subaltern Speak?, Gayathri Chakravorthy Spivak points out that a subaltern cannot speak and even if a subaltern speaks, it cannot be or will not be heard by others. Hence the subaltern is forced to be silent. This subaltern silence is portrayed in Oodgeroo Noonuccals’ poem We Are Going. The central idea of the poem is to highlight the silence of the aborigines.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993), also called Kath Walker opened a new, hitherto undefined area in Australian literature aboriginal poetry. A descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), she used her pen to give voice to the Indigenous struggle for rights and justice. Her collection of poems We Are Going(1964) was the first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman. The poem We Are Going is centred around the themes of colonization, oppression, dispossession, and cultural disinheritance. The poem criticises Western Society’s colonisation of the Indigenous world and “their old bora ground”. Ultimately, the poem shows the profound destructiveness of colonialism, while also powerfully asserting the beauty of Aboriginal culture and identity. The poem describes what has been lost through the British conquest, and what will be lost in the future of Aboriginal people who aren’t respected and valued. It suggests that colonialism is a form of cultural genocide, robbing Aboriginal Australians of their lives and identities, and destroying the beauty and balance of the natural world.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal

The opening of the poem places it in the aftermath of the British conquest in Australia and strongly implies that many Aboriginal Australians have already lost their lives as a result of this conquest. The speaker describes “[a] semi-naked band,” or small group of people, coming into a “little town,” and says that they are “[a]ll that remained of their tribe.” This description makes clear that this tribe -implied to be a tribe of Aboriginal Australians -was once much larger; now, though, as a result of colonialism, only a small number are left. The poem goes on to stress the fact that, as a group, they are slowly being wiped out as “They were the only ones left from their tribe”. The description of these people as a “semi-naked band” echoes colonial language, which often emphasized native people’s physical appearances and attire as “evidence” of their sub-human status. Additionally, all that is said at this point about these people’s experience is that they are “subdued and silent.” This implies that they have undergone extreme suffering, yet the poem doesn’t, at this point, offer their point of view. The words such as “subdued and silent” and lines such as “They sit and are confused, they cannot say their thoughts” reinforce this idea.

This “subdued and silent” small group of Aboriginal Australians are then contrasted with the “many white men”. The use of the simile ” the many white men hurry about like ants” criticises the white man’s ability to connect with the land, they only see the land as a practical resource, rather than having a spiritual connection with the land like the indigenous population. The poem also reveals that colonialism destroys whole ways of life and what is most sacred to these Aboriginal Australians. For example, “bora ground” is a sacred land where ceremonies were traditionally held. However, the poem describes how the “old bora ground” has been taken over by white colonizers, who have even set up a sign indicating that “Rubbish May Be Tipped Here.” In other words, the sacred land of the Aboriginal Australians is now used by the colonizers as a dump.

The poem then goes on to give voice to the people who are, at the start of the poem, “silent.” The speaker shifts to the collective first person: “We.” This can be read as the voice of the group of Aboriginal Australians and is sustained for the remainder of the poem. In its structure, then, the poem centres and prioritizes the perspective of people, who, have too often been dismissed, ignored, and silenced. Speaking from this “we,” the poem speaks to the beauty and complexity of Aboriginal Australian identity and culture. The speaker describes this identity in detailed, varied ways. The list emphasizes the connection of identity to both tradition and the land, in such lines as “We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders,” “We are the lightning bolt over Gaphembah Hill,” and “We are the quiet daybreak paling the lagoon”. The variety and complexity of this list emphasize the unique beauty and complexity of this culture. The repetition of “we are” creates a sense that despite the violence and erasure they have experienced, the Aboriginal people speaking within the poem are present and resilient. While the speaker describes the erosion of Aboriginal Australian culture, “all the old ways Gone now and scattered”— the poem also powerfully asserts the presence of this culture.

Finally, the poem suggests that colonialism has also destroyed the land and natural world itself. The speaker mourns the loss of the “eagle, the emu, and the kangaroo” who are now “gone from this place.” In other words, British colonialism has resulted not only in the loss of the native people and their culture but also in the loss of the animals that once inhabited the land. Implicitly, what was balanced and integral in this natural setting has been destroyed. By giving voice to the people who are, at the start of the poem, described as “subdued and silent,” the poem implicitly shows the urgency and importance of understanding and valuing Aboriginal Australian perspectives. In doing so, it refuses to accept the colonial framework that erases these perspectives, instead of showing a “we” who are dispossessed and “going” -but not gone.

The poem makes extensive use of figurative language to convey a sense of melancholic nostalgia coupled with a simmering resentment against the colonizers. Natural elements are used descriptively and have a dual purpose- representing the beauty of the indigenous connection to land, as well as the disruption caused by colonization. Phrases such as ‘the bora ring is gone’ or ‘the place of the damper is lost’ symbolize the disappearance of their culture and traditions.

Throughout the poem, there is an underlying theme of unity among the tribe, depicted through lines like ‘We are the shadow ghosts and ‘We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon’. The melancholy tone aids in illustrating the sense of loss and longing for their ancestral roots. Despite colonizers’ efforts to erase their identity, the poem retains a sense of hope, centring on resilience and survival. The repeated phrase ‘We are going’ underscores an unyielding presence and resistance despite immense adversity.

We Are Going serves as an important piece of protest poetry, presenting a critical account of the colonial experience from an indigenous perspective. Noonuccal’s poem utilizes vivid and melancholic imagery to underline the drastic transformations forced upon the native culture.