Wave Hill Walk Off header image

The strength of this important movement in our national history and its champions is a rich part of our country’s history and character, and one worth celebrating as a nation.

The well-known song 'From Little Things Big Things Grow" by Australian artists, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, tells the uplifting story of the Gurindji people's struggle for equality and land rights in the 1960’s and 70’s.

"Paul Kelly and I had gone away on a camping trip in about '91 or something and we just kind of pulled it out around the campfire. Paul had a good chord progression and I thought it would be good to tell a little story over it. So, by about 2 o'clock in the morning, we had a six-minute song."

Kev Carmody, 2008 


The Wave Hill Walk-off

Wave Hill Station was established on the Gurindji lands by British pastoralists in the 1880’s. Mounted police assisted in settling the lands by killing any Indigenous people who dared to resist the invasion of their home. In 1914, the station was bought by a large British food production company, the Vestey Brothers, who used unpaid Indigenous labour to increase the station’s size and capacity.

The working conditions for the Indigenous labourers were extremely poor; they rarely received wages, were beaten or even killed for defying the landowners, and the women were often used as sex slaves. The geographic isolation of the station allowed this treatment to continue for the next 50 years, despite changes taking place in the rest of the nation.

Over the years, visiting anthropologists and union officials, along with news of Indigenous activism in other parts of Australia, gradually inspired the Gurindji people to stand up to the Vesteys. On the 23rd of August 1966, the Wave Hill workers and their families, lead by Gurundji spokesman, Vincent Lingiari, walked off the Station and began their strike.

Many believed the Gurindji strikers would be easily satisfied by improved working conditions, but the Gurundji people were seeking the rightful return of their traditional lands from the Vesteys. Gurindji workers at Wave Hill. The 200 protestors established a settlement at Wattie Creek (Daguragu), and continued their strike for eight years.

During this time, Vincent Lingiari toured Australia with the assistance of several workers’ unions to raise awareness of the issues faced by his people, and to lobby politicians for recognition of Indigenous rights.

In 1975, the Whitlam government finally negotiated a deal with the Vesteys to return part of their traditional lands to the Gurindji people. On the 16th August 1975, Prime Minister Whitlam presented the deeds to Vincent Lingiari, and poured sand into his hands to symbolise the return of the country. Gurindji workers at Wave Hill.

The Gurindji campaign was an important influence on the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976. Today, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s song is known across the nation, although fewer people know the story of the Gurindji strikers it tells of.

To find out more see the ABC article Lingiari's legacy: from little things big things grow

 

  • From Little Things Big Things Grow - lyrics

    Gather round people I'll tell you a story

    An eight year long story of power and pride

    'Bout British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiarri

    They were opposite men on opposite sides

     

    Vestey was fat with money and muscle

    Beef was his business, broad was his door

    Vincent was lean and spoke very little

    He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor

     

    From little things big things grow

    From little things big things grow

     

    Gurindji were working for nothing but rations

    Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land

    Daily the oppression got tighter and tighter

    Gurindji decided they must make a stand

     

    They picked up their swags and started off walking

    At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down

    Now it don't sound like much but it sure got tongues talking

    Back at the homestead and then in the town

     

    From little things big things grow

    From little things big things grow

     

    Vestey man said I'll double your wages

    Seven quid a week you'll have in your hand

    Vincent said uhuh we're not talking about wages

    We're sitting right here till we get our land

     

    Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered

    You don't stand the chance of a cinder in snow

    Vince said if we fall others are rising

     

    From little things big things grow

    From little things big things grow

     

    Then Vincent Lingiarri boarded an aeroplane

    Landed in Sydney, big city of lights

    And daily he went round softly speaking his story

    To all kinds of men from all walks of life

     

    And Vincent sat down with big politicians

    This affair they told him is a matter of state

    Let us sort it out, your people are hungry

    Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

     

    From little things big things grow

    From little things big things grow

     

    Then Vincent Lingiarri returned in an aeroplane

    Back to his country once more to sit down

    And he told his people let the stars keep on turning

    We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

     

    Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting

    Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land

    And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony

    And through Vincent's fingers poured a handful of sand

     

    From little things big things grow

    From little things big things grow

     

    That was the story of Vincent Lingiarri

    But this is the story of something much more

    How power and privilege can not move a people

    Who know where they stand and stand in the law

     

    From little things big things grow

    From little things big things grow

     

    Copyright: Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody 


Stop and think: have you ever felt that something simply had to change?

Imagine living your whole life in an isolated situation in which you were unjustly treated. Now imagine outsiders arriving and telling you to stand up for yourself. What mix of feelings and reactions might that cause in you? How might other members of your community react?

Imagine campaigning for justice for eight years! What kind of obstacles do you think the protestors would have had to overcome to continue their campaign and achieve their goals?

Whilst many Australians are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr and the African-American civil rights movement, the history of the Indigenous Australian civil rights movements and its heroes like Vincent Lingiari is still largely unknown in our country. The strength of this important movement in our national history and its champions is a rich part of our country’s history and character, and one worth celebrating as a nation.