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Gurindji Freedom Day Festival Celebrates Unity and Commitment

Nick G.

Ngumpin, kartiya karru-la jintaku-la. 

These words, in the Gurindji language, expressed the theme of the celebrations held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill cattle station. 

In English they mean “Blackfella, whitefella unite as one”.

The celebration of this landmark event took the form of a three-day festival of sporting events, music and political activity.

Walk-Off Track

The first official event of the Festival was the opening of the Wave Hill Walk-Off Track, a national heritage listed tourist trail, which begins at Jinparrak, the site of the original Wave Hill Station homestead, and culminates at Daguragu where the Gurindji set up camp and at which Whitlam’s handover of the lease to part of the Vestey land occurred eight years later.

The walk-off track is signposted, but basically follows a fence line from Jinparrak to the Buntine Highway at Gordy’s Creek, then along the Highway to Kalkaringi, the main administrative centre for the Gurindji Corporation, and from there to Daguragu. 

The Gurindji walked across country to avoid Vestey’s management.  Remembering earlier massacres of their people, they feared being shot and horse-whipped by station staff. One plaque records the statement of walk-off participant Michael “Nutwood” George that “We was worried Vestey mob gonna cut us off and shoot us. We had boomerang, spear and nulla nulla ready. We was real frightened.”

The opening ceremony, at Kalkaringi, was addressed by Jimmy Wavehill, an elder who had participated in the walk-off as a child.  He said Vesteys had always given the Gurindji a hard time, but that he was happy that such a large mob of people had come to the Festival to show their support.

Several granddaughters of Vincent Lingiari also welcomed visitors to country.

Celuia Mabo, (left), youngest daughter of Eddie Mabo brought greetings from her family and Torres Strait Islander people, symbolically linking the two great struggles for land rights (Gurindji) and native title recognition (Mabo).

Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony for the Freedom Day Festival followed. 

A Bedford truck of the same vintage as that used by Darwin wharfie Brian Manning to bring food and blankets to Daguragu during the eight year strike, with the copper-coloured Eureka flag logo of Unions NT on its front door, was used to lead a roughly one kilometre walk from Kalkaringi to the Lipanangku waterhole on the Victoria River, one of the spots at which the Gurindji had camped.

Immediately behind the truck came Gurindji community members, followed by union members from the Maritime Union of Australia, the CFMEU, Electrical Trades Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, United Voice, Australian Education Union and the National Tertiary Education Union.

Together with organisations like the Northern and Central Land Councils, and the Fred Hollows Foundation, and with all the other supporters, the march swelled to about 1500 people.

At Lipananku, Gurindji elders from Daguragu and Kalkaringi sat on a stage with Land Councils representatives and politicians.  The only moment of discord occurred when the very unpopular Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, was confronted by four Indigenous women holding a banner that read “No justice, just us!” and a drawing of a young Indigenous child looking out from a jail cell.

The women stood to one side of the main stage, holding their banner towards Scullion and turning their backs on him.  They remained silent during his speech until he made the mistake of accusing them of turning their backs on the elders on stage and disrespecting the traditional owners of country.  This, from a man who said he couldn’t be interested enough in the plight of young Aboriginals in custody to bother to watch the Four Corners program exposing abuse at the Don Dale Detention Centre, sparked outrage.  All of a sudden, the line had grown to about twenty strong and spontaneous heckling and interjections came from every section of the crowd.  Chants of “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” drowned out the remainder of Scullion’s speech, and he left soon afterwards.

Festive atmosphere

For the remainder of the three days, a real spirit of mutual respect and shared commitment to continue the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty prevailed.

Celuia Mabo was invited to Vincent Lingiari’s grave where she stood with Vincent’s descendants and simply said “Thank you, thank you, thank you” to the old man who had been her father’s inspiration.

Teams from remote communities such as Lajamanu, Yuendumu, Ali Curong played football and basketball; discussion groups at Daguragu focussed on topics like Collective Action, Two Way Law, and Protecting Country Today; films were shown such as The Unlucky Australians and How the West Was Lost (the latter linking the Gurindji struggle to the massive Pilbara-wide strike by Aboriginal stockmen in 1946); books were launched – the bilingual oral history Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country, and Charlie Ward’s A Handful of Sand; and each evening saw great musical performances by the likes of the Lajamanu Teenage Band, the Tjupi Band, Shane Howard, the Mills Sisters, Dan Sultan, the Lipanangku Band, Neil Murray and Robbie Mills.

Nothing better epitomised the celebratory atmosphere than all of the performers gathering on stage on Sunday night, together with the Lingiari family and Celuia Mabo, to sing the Paul Kelly-Kev Carmody song “From Little Things Big Things Grow”, including teaching the audience to sing the chorus in Gurindji.  

From the opening chord to the song’s rousing end, a massive fireworks display served as a backdrop to the song, lighting up this remote community in spectacular fashion.

We’re still walking….

In 1966 Vincent Lingiari said the reason for the walk-off was that “We want to live on our land, our way”. 

The big mining companies and agricultural corporations, mostly foreign owned, and a succession of State, Territory and Federal governments, also mostly foreign owned, have never reconciled to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination and sovereignty.
Health, education, housing and employment to meet the needs of Indigenous Australians on their land and in their way, remains a goal yet to be achieved.

The walk-off took place half a century ago, but the walk to justice and freedom for all Australians, for blackfella and whitefella Australians united as one, continues step by patient and determined step.



Gurindji Freedom Day Festival Celebrates Unity and Commitment
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