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Onus, William [Bill] (1906 - 1968)



William (Bill) Onus, Aboriginal Political and Cutural activist

Bill Onus was born in Cummeragunja in 1906 . His father was a drover and young Bill left home at the age of 16. His earliest political activity in 1929 can be traced to Salt Pan Creek, an Aboriginal squatters camp south-west of Sydney containing refugee families of the dispossessed and people seeking to escape the harsh and brutal policies of the Aborigines Protection Board becomes a focal point of intensifying Aboriginal resistance in NSW.

Significant alliances, strategies and future leaders were developed in this camp. People such as Jack Campbell, George and Jack Patten, Pearl Gibbs all spend time in the camp. This led to Onus becoming involved on the fringes of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) during the late 1930s. In 1940, after Jack Patten had joned thearmy, Bill Onus became the secretary of the APA. During the second world war Onus was active in the ALP and trade union circles, at the same time as organizing fund-raising concerts in the Redfern Aboriginal community. In 1945 he was a co-founder of the Redfern All-Blacks rugby team.

In 1946 he returned to Melbourne where he became President of the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and through his involvement with that organisation organized support for campaigns such as the 1945 Pilbara strike in WA and opposition to the Woomera Rocket testing range in SA.

In the early 1950s developed and staged a concert called ‘An Aboriginal Moomba out of the dark”. He was asked by Melbourne’s city fathers to provide a name for their new annual civic celebration and he suggested the name “Moomba”. There has been considerable controversy of the years since as to whether Onus had fooled the festival organizers as many Aboriginal people have pointed out that “Moom” is a local indigenous word for ‘bum’.

In 1952 Onus received an invitation from Walt Disney to visit the USA but was refused a visa by US authorities on the grounds of his alleged Communist associations. This incident is believed to have severly distressed Onus and he overtly changed his emphasis from political to cultural. Not long after being refused entry to the US he established “Aboriginal Enterprises” and opens a boomerang factory and shop in Belgrave on the edge of Melbourne.

He developed an interest in 8mm filmmaking and among the few surviving snippets of footage he filmed are shots of American film star Harry Belafonte being taught how to throw a boomerang in front of the Onus Belgrave shop in 1958.

In his later years Onus played a crucial mentoring role for his nephew Bruce McGuinness, who would later become one of Australia’s most significant Aboriginal leaders in the 1970s and 80s. Onus continued to be politically influential both locally and nationally through his involvement with the Aborigines Advancement League in the 1967 referendum campaign.

Bill Onus died in December 1968. His son Lin Onus would become one of Australia’s foremost contemporary artists before his untimely death in 1996.

[Gary Foley]

See Ian Howie-Willis, 'Onus, William Townsend (Bill) (1906 - 1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.