Ballad of the Totems by Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)

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Ballad of the Totems by Oodgeroo Noonuccal

My father was Noonuccal man and kept old tribal way,
His totem was the Carpet Snake, whom none must ever slay;
But mother was of Peewee clan, and loudly she expressed
The daring view that carpet snakes were nothing but a pest.
Now one lived inside with us in full immunity,
For no one dared to interfere with father’s stern decree:
A mighty fellow ten feet long, and as we lay in bed
We kids could watch him round a beam not far above our head.
Only the dog was scared of him, we’d hear its whines and growls,
But mother fiercely hated him because he took her fowls.
You should have heard her diatribes that flowed in angry torrents,
With words you’d never see in print, except in D.H. Lawrence.
“I kill that robber,” she would scream, fierce as a spotted cat;
“You see that bulge inside of him? My speckly hen make that!”
But father’s loud and strict command made even mother quake;
I think he’d sooner kill a man than kill a carpet snake.
That reptile was a greedy guts, and as each bulge digested
He’d come down on the hunt at night, as appetite suggested.
We heard his stealthy slithering sound across the earthen floor,
While the dog gave a startled yelp and bolted out the door.
Then over in the chicken-yard hysterical fowls gave tongue,
Loud frantic squawks accompanied by the barking of the mung,
Until at last the racket passed, and then to solve the riddle,
Next morning he was back up there with a new bulge in his middle.
When father died we wailed and cried, our grief was deep and sore,
And strange to say from that sad day the snake was seen no more.
The wise old men explained to us: “It was his tribal brother,
And that is why it done a guy” – but some looked hard at mother.
She seemed to have a secret smile, her eyes were smug and wary,
She looked about as innocent as the cat that ate the pet canary.
We never knew, but anyhow (to end this tragic rhyme)
I think we all had snake for tea one day about that time.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal Achievements

Oodgeroo Noonuccal was a prolific poet who came with breathtaking pieces of poetry. She used poetry to express her feelings and thoughts. Oodgeroo Noonuccal 's impact on society was great as she went as far as using personal encounters and experiences to reach out to her audience and connect with them at a higher level. Once she established this connection, she would use well-crafted words to come up with beautiful poems that would get them to see the world through her eyes. The Ballad of the Totems is one of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s most famous works from the book, My People: a Kath Walker collection.

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Poem Analysis

The poem is written from the first person point of view. The persona of the poem is in a dilemma as she comes from a family that is struggling to choose between traditional and modern life. In the eight stanzas, the poet tells us of the family dilemma whereby the father is a traditionalist and still believes in spiritual culture whereas the family wants to live the modern life (Aussey, Farmstay).

Oodgeroo Noonuccal uses the spirituality of natives to expound on the central theme: conflict. The tone of the poet is that of a conflicted person who is not sure about the kind of life she wants to follow. Oodgeroo Noonuccal's work also has a humorous touch to it, especially how the persona describes her dad. Stylistic devices are used such as rhyme and rhythm. At the end of each sentence are rhyming words and the choice of vocabulary that the poem is easy to understand and follow (Watson, Sam).

Although the meaning of some words in Oodgeroo Noonuccal writing was vaguely unclear, it does not affect the understanding of the poem. Symbolism is used where the mother uses the word robber to refer to the snake for eating her chickens. The form of the poem is definite and the structure uniform, for lines per stanza with rhyme observed throughout the poem.

At the end, the poet leaves us with suspense because she does not reveal which side wins. After the father passed on, the snake left but it is unclear whether it is because it was attached to the father or because the mother hated it and chased it away.

Works Cited

Aussey, Farmstay. "Ballad Of The Totems - Oodgeroo Noonuccal - Poem - Australian Poetry Library". Poetrylibrary.Edu.Au, 2017,

Watson, Sam. "Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal". Queensland Review, vol 14, no. 01, 2007, p. 43. Cambridge University Press (CUP), doi:10.1017/s1321816600005924.

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