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A landmark event that inspired national change

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

The Walk-off took place 80 years after the British took over Gurindji lands, bringing cattle and farming that destroyed water and food sources, and Gurindji People’s 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 no less than the rightful return of Gurindji land.

"I bin thinkin’ this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob." – Vincent Lingiari, 1966[2]

The group walked some 30 kilometres 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 land, in the form of soil, being returned to First Nations hands when then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam ‘handed-back’ the land to Gurindji People. You may remember this symbolic photo (Image source: Mervyn Bishop © Commonwealth of Australia, National Indigenous Australians Agency):

 

A wave of change …

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

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

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

Find out more

  • British pastoralists Gurindji People (1880–1966)

    In 1883, a British pastoralist took over Gurindji Country when the government granted him almost 3,000 square kilometres of land, on which the massive Wave Hill Cattle Station was established, 800 km south of Darwin.[4]

    Cattle and farming destroyed the water and food sources and Gurindji People's livelihoods. First Nations 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, Vestey Brothers, who exploited First Nations people as labourers to increase the Station’s size and capacity.

    The working conditions for First Nations labourers were extremely poor; they rarely received wages, were beaten or even killed for defying the landowners, and women were often terribly abused.

  • The strike (1966–1975)

    On 23 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 Gurindji People 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 didn’t waiver for nine years.

    While his people camped and waited, Vincent 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 among non-Indigenous communities to stand alongside First Nations people and demand justice.

  • Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s ‘From little things big things grow’

    Today, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s song is well known across the nation, although few people know the story it tells of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji strikers.

    You can access and read the song lyrics on the National Museum of Australia website, here.

    The song lyrics are © Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. 

  • The battle was on

    In 1975, the Whitlam government finally negotiated a deal with Vestey Brothers to return part of the ancestral lands to Gurindji People.

    On 16 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed over title to the land to Gurindji People, by pouring soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hands. This became 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 named a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to Aboriginal Peoples. He passed away in 1988 and is remembered as one of the “strongest and most inspirational Aboriginal leaders ever."[6]

    In 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]

Learn more about our shared history...