This powerful poem was published in Noonuccal’s first collection, which was also the first collection published by an Aboriginal woman, We Are Going, in 1964. ‘We Are Going‘ examines the impact of British colonialism on nature and the life and culture of Aboriginal Australians.
Explore We Are Going
‘We Are Going’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal is a haunting poem that highlights the struggle of Aboriginal Australian tribes as they attempt to preserve their land, culture, and history.
In the first part of this poem, the speaker, someone outside the Aboriginal Australian community, describes a small group, all the remains of a specific tribe, coming into town. They come to the place of their “old bora ground” and appear like strangers amongst the changes that the “many white men” have made.
The poem transitions into the perspective of the small group, utilizing the word “We” at the beginning of successive lines. The group of Aboriginal Australians highlights the importance of the land, their culture, and their past. They allude to all that’s been lost and the remaining strength of their community. As the poem concludes, the group of speakers also describe how British colonialism has affected the land itself and the animals that used to reside there. The poem ends with the haunting line “We are going” suggesting that soon, all remaining members of this tribe, and tribes across Australia, will be lost.
You can read the full poem here.
Meaning of We Are Going
‘We Are Going‘ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal speaks to the struggle of Aboriginal Australian communities throughout history and into the present day. Throughout, the poet presents the message that if something doesn’t change, the important culture, history, and the Aboriginal people themselves will be lost. Throughout, the author highlights the beauty, strength, and resilience of these communities as well.
Throughout this poem, Noonuccal engages with several important themes. They include:
- Identity. The speakers’ identities and the identities of other men, women, and children of their community are at the heart of this poem. Throughout, the poet describes how destructive colonialism is when it comes to maintaining Aboriginal identity in Australia. The poet celebrates the culture of Aboriginal Australians and centers their perspective and experiences while also juxtaposing them against the perspective of white colonialism.
When the poet shifts to using the word “we” repetitively at the beginning of seven lines, they are shifting into the perspective of a group of Aboriginal Australians speaking about their own identity and how they have, throughout history, been dismissed and ignored. They emphasize their history and unique culture while ensuring that readers don’t forget how difficult it has been to maintain those elements in the face of British colonialism.
- Colonialism. Colonialism is one of the major themes of this poem. The poet describes everything that’s been lost through British colonialism and the lack of respect for Aboriginal Australian culture, practices, and uniqueness. The poet suggests that colonialism sought to rob Aboriginal Australians of their identities and destroy the balance of their world. The poem’s opening lines are spoken from the perspective of someone outside the Aboriginal community. They assert that Aboriginal Australians have already lost their lives, culture, and more due to colonialism. They suggest that only a small group of Aboriginal Australians are left and that they are “subdued and silent.”
This is contrasted against the “many white men” who fill the towns. But, as the poem progresses, the poetic narrator shifts, and readers are reminded of Aboriginal Australian communities’ strength, beauty, and resilience. If nothing changes, the speaker suggests, their culture will continue to be eroded and eventually be lost.
Structure and Form
‘We Are Going’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal is a twenty-five-line poem contained within a single stanza of text. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, through Noonuccal’s repetition, a different kind of rhythm is created. For example, the use of “We” at the beginning of seven lines in a row. Additionally, the poet’s use of consonance and alliteration is seen in the repetition of the “l” sound in lines fourteen and fifteen. They read:
We are the lightening bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “We” which begins ten of the poem’s lines. “The” is another example as is “They.”
- Caesura: occurs when the writer inserts a pause in the middle of a line. This can be accomplished through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “Notice of the estate agent reads: ‘Rubbish May Be Tipped Here’.”
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. For example, “Gaphembah Hill” is an allusion to a specific landmark.
- Simile: a comparison that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.”
Metaphors in We Are Going
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of numerous metaphors. Some of these include:
- “We are the quiet daybreak”
- “We are nature and the past”
- “We are the old ceremonies”
- “We are the corroboree and the bora ground”
Each metaphor the poet uses is presented to emphasize the strength, beauty, and power of Aboriginal Australian communities. But, at the same time, the writer ensures readers walk away with an understanding of how much of the community, their practices, ad culture have been lost (and may still be lost in the future).
They came in to the little town
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
In the first lines of ‘We Are Going,’ the speaker describes Aboriginal Australians in faintly insulting terms. It becomes clear quite quickly that the speaker is an outsider, much more closely associated with British colonialism than they are with Aboriginal communities.
The speaker describes a small group of people entering town. They were “subdued and silent,” a description of both their seeming unwillingness to talk to anyone and how they carry themselves. The speaker alludes to the fact that these few people are the only remaining members “of their tribe,” resulting from colonialism and the specific decimation of Aboriginal culture.
They walked into town onto land that used to be their own. It held significance in the past as “their old bora ground.” (This is a term used to describe the sacred land on which ceremonies took place.) It’s turned into something very different—a tipping ground for trash, or “rubbish.” Readers are immediately confronted with a powerful and troubling juxtaposition between what the land used to be used for and what it is used for today. This single specific example serves as a broader symbol for how white colonizers treated Aboriginal lands in Australia.
The “old bora ring,” where the ceremonies were held, is still visible underneath the trash, line seven informs readers. This is a painful image that readers are asked to imagine before hearing from the small group that walked silently into town.
It’s at this point that the poet makes a very clear transition. Within quotations, readers are met with the collective words of the small band of Aboriginal Australians, all who are left of their tribe.
‘We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
The group speaks together to allow the poet to share the combined experience of men, women, and children. The group notes how out of place they seem within an area that used to belong to them. They are strangers “here now” but, in reality, the “white tribe” (the white settlers) are the strangers. The speakers ask readers to shift their perspective of what is truly out of place. The Aboriginal Australians “belong here, we are of the old ways.”
Throughout the next lines, the poet utilizes a series of metaphors that compare the remaining tribe members and those scattered across Australia to the “old ceremonies, the laws of the elders,” and more. They are an integral part of the land in a way that the white settlers or colonial British are never going to be. They cannot connect to the land in the same way. But, they’ve still worked to remove any Aboriginal presence from areas they’ve deemed their own and exterminated their culture any chance they get.
Within these lines, readers can also find examples of allusions to specific cultural practices. For example, the speakers mention “the bora ground” and “the corroborre.” The latter refers to a traditional gathering.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.
The speakers assert various comparisons, stating that they are “the wonder tales of Dream Time” and “the past, the hunts and the laughing games.” The remaining tribe members embody everything that is left of their culture. Within their lives and their children’s lives, one can find the entire history of their culture and people. There are the hunts, ceremonies, campfires, joyous moments, and the darker moments.
One specific reference is to the “lightning bolt over Gaphembah Hill.” This is an allusion to a specific local landmark and an element of this poem that allows readers to connect the remaining Aboriginal Australians to specific landscapes.
There are good examples of personification in the following lines as the speakers mention “the Thunderer…that loud fellow.” The speakers note that they embody the legends of their past and the various stories that have always been told by their tribe. They are the bolts of lightning over the nearby hill, as noted before, and the loud clap of thunder that comes after. They are also, seen through an example of juxtaposition, the “quiet day break” that comes across “the dark lagoon.”
The shadows, which the speakers describe as ghostlike, creep across the camp as the fires burn down. These, too, are part of the tribe’s past and part of what the remaining members embody.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
And we are going.’
The poet continues, with their speakers describing how they are “nature and the past, all the old ways.” Again, this is an allusion to the history of this specific tribe and the ways they lived before the incursion of British colonialism. By stating that a few people embody these vast elements of history and culture, the speaker ensures that readers understand how at-risk history and culture are. Much of it is “gone now and scattered.”
The British, who are responsible for removing Aboriginal Australians from their native lands, are also responsible for the loss of “hunting and the laughter” and the displacement of the eagle, emu, and kangaroo. The bora, which has been mentioned twice already, is gone, as are the traditional gatherings that the tribe would have. The final line of the poem suggests that soon, the remaining members of the tribe will also be lost. They, too, “are going.” This final line is meant to move readers and remind them that the destruction has not stopped. Even in a contemporary context, Aboriginal culture, and the people themselves, are dwindling.
The meaning is that Aboriginal Australian culture, and people, are disappearing from the country due to British Colonialism. This process has not stopped and is still of great concern. The poet also ensures that the connection between the “tribe” mentioned in the text, nature, and the past is highlighted as something that can never truly be lost.
The purpose is to highlight the struggles of Aboriginal Australian communities throughout the country by alluding to the struggles of a specific unnamed tribe. The poet ensures readers walk away from the poem with respect for Aboriginal culture and a new concern for the dwindling tribe members, lands, and cultural practices.
The poet likely wrote this piece to comment on and share Aboriginal Australians’ concern for their future and the future of their cultural practices. The poem also highlights the community’s strength and connection to their past and nature.
Noonuccal wrote this poem in the early 1960s. It was published in 1964, We Are Going, the first collection of poetry by an Aboriginal woman to be published.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring some other Oodgeroo Noonuccal poems. For example:
- ‘Municipal Gum’ – a simple, moving poem that uses an extended metaphor to speak on the treatment of Aboriginal peoples.
- ‘No More Boomerang’ – describes how the Aboriginal culture of Australia is at stake and depicts the impact of colonization on people’s minds.