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A landmark event that inspired national change

On the 23rd of August 1966, Vincent Lingiari led 200 courageous Indigenous stockmen and their families to walk off Wave Hill Cattle Station in the Northern Territory protesting against the work and pay conditions.

The Walk-Off took place 80 years after the British invaded Gurindji lands, bringing cattle and farming that destroyed Aboriginal water and food sources, and livelihoods. These 80 years included massacres and killings, stolen children and other abuses by the early colonists.[1]

Initially, the British pastoralists believed the workers would return when offered improved wages and conditions. But Lingiari had another vision for his people and wanted nothing more than the rightful return of their lands.

 

"Wave Hill Aboriginal people bin called Gurindji. This is our country. All this bin Gurindji country. We bin here long time before them Vestey mob", Vincent Lingiari, 1968

The group walked some 30 kilometers from Wave Hill Station to Wattie Creek where they stayed in protest for nine long years. During the years of struggle and protest, which made headlines across the nation, Vincent Lingiari toured Australia to lobby politicians and galvanise support. Victory was achieved in 1975!

The nation witnessed the first piece of Australian soil being returned to Indigenous hands when the Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, ‘handed-back’ the land to the Gurindji people. You may remember this symbolic photo (Image - Mervyn Bishop, Art Gallery NSW):

A wave of change…

At the time the Gurindji strike was taking place in Australia, the worldwide civil rights movement was in full swing. Whilst many Australians are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, the history of the Indigenous Australian civil rights movement and its heroes, like Vincent Lingiari, is still largely unknown in our country.

Across the nation things were starting to change for Indigenous people. The Wave Hill Walk-off started just one year after Charlie Perkins led The Freedom Ride across NSW to protest against discrimination Indigenous people faced. And a year later, in 1967 over 90% of Australians voted in favour of counting Indigenous people in the census. On Australia Day of 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up outside Parliament House in Canberra.

Australian people were starting to take notice and think differently.[3]

  • British pastoralists exploit Gurindji people (1880 – 1966)

    In the 1880’s British pastoralists invaded Gurindji lands and established the massive Wave Hill Cattle Station 800kms south of Darwin.[4]

    Cattle and farming destroyed Indigenous water, food sources and livelihoods. Indigenous people were forced to work on the Station in order to receive rations and avoid starvation.

    In 1914, the Station was leased by the government to a large British food production company, the Vestey Brothers, who used 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 terribly abused.

  • The strike (1966 – 1975)

    On the 23rd of August 1966, Vincent Lingiari led 200 courageous Wave Hill workers and their families, to walk off the Station and begin their strike. The group formed a new settlement at nearby Wattie Creek (Daguragu).

    Initially, the pastoralists believed the workers would return with improved wages and conditions. But the focus of the strike moved from workers' rights to land rights.

    In 1967 the Gurindji submitted a petition to the Governor General asking for their land back. The petition included a map of sacred places on the land claimed and detailed the evolution of Gurindji myths and dreaming associated with these sites.[5] This petition was unsuccessful.

    But, this is a great story of courage and resilience.

    Despite extremely difficult conditions, the workers and their families continued to strike. They did not waiver for nine years.

    While his people camped, and waited, Lingiari toured Australia to lobby politicians and galvanise support. The strike made headlines all over Australia.

    The campaign broke through racial barriers, with Gurindji people receiving support from workers’ unions and non-Indigenous Australians – financial, material and political. There was a readiness amongst non-Indigenous communities to stand alongside Indigenous people and demand justice.

  • Paul Kelly's song 'From Little Things Big Things Grow'

    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.

    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 

  • The battle was won

    In 1975, the Whitlam government finally negotiated a deal with the Vesteys to return part of the traditional lands to the Gurindji people.

    On the 16th of August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed over title to the land to the Gurindji people, by pouring soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hands. This has become a defining moment in Australia’s history and this period of time was the start of the land rights movement.

  • Since then

    In 1976, Vincent Lingiari was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. He passed away in 1988 and is remembered as one of the strongest and most inspirational Indigenous leaders ever.[6]

    2006, the Northern Territory government heritage listed the route of the walk-off. And in 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the walk-off, a track was opened to share the historic journey with visitors.[7]

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