Community & Environment

 
 


Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill ignited the First Nations' Land Rights movement

Max O.

A historic commemoration was held at Kalkarindji (600 kms south of Darwin), Northern Territory in August this year to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off by the Gurindji people. This amazing struggle that initially fought for better wages, working and living conditions transformed into the massive 'Land Rights' movement that shook the country and confronted Australians with the issue of Aboriginal Sovereignty.

The cattle industry in Northern Australia was essentially built and ran on the backs of Aboriginal labour. They were not paid wages equal to white stockmen. Pastoralists argued against equal wages when an attempt was made to introduce it in 1965. Up until 1968 it was illegal to pay Aboriginal workers over a stipulated sum in money and goods.

The first protest by Aboriginal people for equal wages took place at Union Camp, Newcastle Waters Station (270 km north of Tennant Creek) in 1966. Whilst the strike was lost, it brought the nation's attention to the appalling entitlements and conditions imposed on Aboriginal people and was the catalyst for the Wave Hill walk-off.

The Wave Hill walk-off took place on August 23, 1966, after the Wave Hill Station manager rebuffed Vincent Lingiari's approach for a weekly wage for Aboriginal stockman of $25. This amount was much less than what usually was paid to white stockmen in the 1960s. 

Around 200 Aboriginal stockman, domestic hands and their family members of the Gurindji and Walpiri people went on strike and walked off Wave Hill station, owned by the British aristocrat Lord Vestey, and camped at Wattie Creek some 13 miles away.

Gurjindjis settle on traditional site at Daguragu
Wattie Creek is called Daguragu in Gurindji and was chosen by Vincent Lingiari (community elder and head stockman) and the community because it is near a significant cultural site, in the centre of their traditional land. The Gurindji  struggle was reinforced by such famous names as Dexter Daniels (a Roper River man and union organiser), Robert Tudawali (Aboriginal actor and unionist) and by non-indigenous people, in particular Brian Manning (Darwin waterfront worker and staunch unionist).

Manning, Dexter and Tudawali organised a strike fund amongst unionists and Manning made fifteen 1,600 km round trips from Darwin to Wave Hill in his truck loaded with supplies for the Gurindjis. This sustained the strike and was crucial to the Gurindji's victory.

Support also came from Frank Hardy, communist and author of the famous and celebrated book of the Gurindji struggle, "The unlucky Australians". He travelled to the Northern Territory in June 1966, camped with the Gurindji strikers spending time trying to understand their injustices. In the early stage of this struggle white supporters, who were mainly unionists and Communist Party members, concentrated on addressing the economic grievances and initially overlooked the deeper issue of Gurindji's desire for the return of their land.

With the assistance of Hardy the Gurindjis documented their work and living conditions grievances in a claim entitled, 'Program for improved living standards for Northern Territory Aborigines'. Starting to realise the Gurindji's greater objective of restoration of their traditional lands and sacred places, Hardy wrote up a petition at the Indigenous people's request in 1967 to Governor-General Casey for the recovery of their 'tribal lands', of which they were dispossessed a hundred years earlier.

Whilst the Federal Government cabinet and Governor-General rejected the petition, the new language of land rights came into being and moved the cause of First Nations' sovereignty into territory without precedent in Australia. Despite the fact that powerful friends of the pastoral industry and the capitalist state (Northern Territory Cattle Producers Council and the Northern Territory Administration and Federal Ministers of the Interior, Social Services, and Territories) opposed the Gurindji's land claim, allies from the union movement vigorously supported the campaign to inform non-indigenous Australians about their cause.

Non-indigenous Australians unite with the Gurindjis to mobilise support
The actors, building workers, waterside workers, teachers unions around the nation in conjunction with the Northern Australian Workers Union over the ensuing years sponsored Gurindji representatives to go on speaking tours of the southern states.  Lupna Giari and Dexter Daniels met and spoke to non-indigenous audiences about the exploitive working and living conditions they endured, and their desire to regain their traditional lands.

Financial support and national mobilisation around the nation overcame the isolation that the pastoral industry and capitalist state had hoped would crush the Gurindji campaign. After striking for nine years, a partial victory was in sight when the Labor Whitlam government came to office in 1972, on a platform to undertake legislation for land rights.

Eventually the original Wave Hill lease was relinquished and two new leases were issued, one to the Vestey Group and the other to the Murramulla Gurindji Company. Around 3300 square kilometres, which included important sacred sites, were leased to the Gurindjis.

The Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the 16 August, 1975 arrived in Daguragu (Wattie Creek) and in the unforgettable symbolic gesture poured a handful of Gurindji soil into Vincent Lingiari's hand in the official handover ceremony. In the same year the Gurindji people bought the pastoral lease. 

Afterwards the Northern Territory government threatened to take over their lease, compelling the Gurindji to lodge a land rights claim. By 1986 they won freehold title to the Dagaragu waterhole, situated in the Northern Territory's Victoria River region.

The Wave Hill walk-off was a significant historical turning point for Indigenous Australia and blazed the way for a number of land rights acts in the nation. By the 1970s the cause of Aboriginal Land Rights had gained such momentum and public imagination that urban Indigenous activists began to flex their political muscles. 

On Invasion Day, 1972 four Aboriginal men (Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey, Michael Anderson and Bert Williams) planted an umbrella opposite Parliament House in Canberra an established the now famous 'Aboriginal Tent Embassy'. It became a powerful symbol  of the landless who were treated as foreigners in their own land. Support for the embassy massed to over 2000 people, who had to frequently oppose the violent dismantling of their tents by the police. 

The recurring clash between the political action of the Aboriginal activists and police violence against the 'Tent Embassy' was captured by television film crews and screened on Australian TVs, and made news overseas. Public outrage was swift against the Federal government, and the 'Aboriginal Embassy' drew unprecedented support from people across Australia and the world.

Wave Hill walk-off poetry and song become Australian folklore
The now famous Wave hill walk-off of the Gurindjis became folklore and is celebrated in the equally famous poem, Gurindji Blues, and the song, From little things, big things grow, both readily recognised throughout Australia. The Gurindji Blues poem was written by Ted Egan with Vincent Lingiari in the 1960s. With some of the most memorable lines being:

"Poor Bugger Me, Gurindji
Me bin sit down this country
Long before no Lord Vestey
All about land belong to we
[...]
Long time work no wages, we,
Work for the good old Lord Vestey
Little bit flour; sugar and tea
For the Gurindji, from Lord Vestey
..."

The From little things, big things grow song was composed by Kev Carmody with Paul Kelly in 1991, to commemorate the Wave Hill walk-off. The opening lines of the song immediately set out the struggle:
“Gather round people let me tell you a story
An eight year-long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari
Were opposite men on opposite sides”

The Gurindji struggle for the return of their land ignited the Aboriginal Land Rights movement and steered First Nations to campaign not only for civil rights, but for Sovereignty and eventually for a genuine and just Treaty. Under capitalism no victory is ever permanent and the First Nations' peoples well and truly know that with the bitter experience of the NT Intervention, closing of the community out stations - which are in effect land grabs - "Black deaths in custody", "Stolen generation" and the list of oppression goes on and on. 

Non-indigenous Australians must acknowledge the history of the invasion of the First Nations' lands, their subsequent oppression and exploitation and finally make reparations that are acceptable to and demanded by indigenous Australians. This is something the capitalist state in Australia will never fully accede to nor accomplish and will have to be achieved in another stage of Australia's history!

 

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