Wave Hill walk-off
Coordinates: Wave Hill walk-off or The Gurindji strike was a walk-off and strike by 200 Gurindji stockmen, house servants and their families in August 1966 at Wave Hill cattle station in Kalkarindji (formerly known as Wave Hill), Northern Territory, Australia.
The Gurindji people's traditional lands are approximately 3,250 km² of the Northern Territory. Gurindji first encountered Europeans in the 1850s, when explorer Augustus Gregory crossed into their territory. Several other explorers traversed the area over the following decades until the early 1880s, when large pastoral operations were established.
- 1 Gurindji and the pastoralists
- 2 Conditions on the station
- 3 The walk off
- 4 1966–75 – The strike years
- 5 1975 – Handback
- 6 Legacy of the strike
- 7 The Gurindji Strike in popular culture
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Gurindji and the pastoralists
Wave Hill cattle station, which included the Kalkaringi and Daguragu area, was first stocked in 1883.
Gurindji – along with all Aboriginal groups in this predicament – found their waterholes and soakages fenced off or fouled by cattle, which also ate or trampled fragile desert plant life, such as bush tomato. Dingo hunters regularly shot the people's invaluable hunting dogs, and kangaroo, a staple meat, was also routinely shot since it competed with cattle for water and grazing land. Gurindji suffered lethal "reprisals" for any attempt to eat the cattle – anything from a skirmish to a massacre. The last recorded massacre in the area occurred at Coniston in 1928. There was little choice to stay alive but to move onto the cattle stations, receive rations, adopt a more sedentary life and, where possible, take work as stockmen and domestic help. If they couldn't continue their traditional way of life, then at least to be on their own land – the foundation for their religion and spiritual beliefs – seemed crucial.
In 1914, Wave Hill Station was bought by Vesteys, a British pastoral company comprising a large conglomerate of cattle companies owned by Baron Vestey. Pastoralists were able to make use of the now landless Aboriginal people as extremely cheap labour. On stations across the north, Aboriginal people became the backbone of the cattle industry, working for little or no money, minimal food and appalling housing.
Conditions on the station
There had been complaints from Indigenous employees about conditions over many years. A Northern Territory government inquiry held in the 1930s said of Vesteys:
It was obvious that they had been ... quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights.
However, little was done over the decades leading up to the strike. While it was illegal up until 1968 to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money, a 1945 inquiry found Vesteys was not even paying Aboriginal workers the 5 shillings a day minimum wage set up for Aborigines under a 1918 Ordinance. Non-Indigenous males were receiving £2/8/- a week in 1945. Gurindji lived in corrugated iron humpies without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, who lived on Wave Hill Station at the time said
We were treated just like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock. The Vesteys mob were hard men. They didn't care about blackfellas.
Gurindji who received minimal government benefits had these paid into pastoral company accounts over which they had no control. In contrast, non-Aboriginal workers enjoyed minimum wage security with no legal limit on the maximum they could be paid. They were housed in comfortable homes with gardens and had full control over their finances.
The walk off
On 23 August 1966, led by spokesman Vincent Lingiari, the workers and their families walked off Wave Hill and began their ten-year strike. Lingiari led Gurindji, as well as Ngarinman, Bilinara, Warlpiri and Mudbara workers to an important sacred site nearby at Wattie Creek (Daguragu). Initially, the action was interpreted as purely a strike against work and living conditions. However, it soon became apparent that it was not just – or even primarily – improved conditions Gurindji were campaigning for. Their primary demand was for return of their land. Novelist Frank Hardy was one of the many non-Indigenous Australians who supported the Gurindji struggle through the strike years as was Darwin based trade unionist Brian Manning.
"This bin [been] Gurindji country long time before them Vestey mob," Vincent Lingiari told Hardy at the time.
While Hardy records Pincher Manguari as saying:
We want them Vestey mob all go away from here. Wave Hill Aboriginal people bin called Gurindji. We bin here long time before them Vestey mob. This is our country, all this bin Gurindji country. Wave Hill bin our country. We want this land; we strike for that.
The Gurindji strike was not the first or the only demand by Aborigines for the return of their lands – but it was the first one to attract wide public support within Australia for Land Rights.
1966–75 – The strike years
The Gurindji established a settlement near by at Wattie Creek, which Gurindji have always called Daguragu. These were hard years, but they held strong to their belief in their right to the land.
Gurindji efforts during the strike years
While living at Daguragu, Gurindji drew up maps showing areas they wanted excised from pastoralist land and returned to them. In 1967, Gurindji petitioned the Governor-General, claiming 1,295 km² of land near Wave Hill. Their claim was rejected. While Dagaragu would eventually become the first cattle station to be owned and managed by an Aboriginal community, today known as the Murramulla Gurindji Company, it would be many years before the Gurindji achieved this.
In this period, Vincent Lingiari, Billy Bunter Jampijinpa and others toured Australia, with the support of workers' unions, to give talks, raise awareness, build support for their cause and have meetings with major lawyers and politicians. Frank Hardy recalled one fundraising meeting at which a donor gave $500 after hearing Vincent Lingiari speak. The donor – who said he had never before met an Aboriginal person – was a young Dr Fred Hollows, the eye surgeon and Communist activist.
Attempts to entice and stymie Gurindji
Billy Bunter Jampijinpa was 16 at the time of the walk-off:
The Vesteys mob came and said they would get two killers (slaughtered beasts) and raise our wages if we came back. But old Vincent said, 'No, we're stopping here'. Then in early 1967 we walked to our new promised land, we call it Daguragu (Wattie Creek), back to our sacred places and our country, our new homeland.
In late 1966 the Northern Territory government offered a compromise pay rise of 125 per cent, but the strikers still demanded wages equal to those of white stockmen and return of their land. The Government also made moves to cut off means of Gurindji obtaining food supplies and threatened evictions. Offers of houses, which the Government had built for them at Wave Hill Welfare settlement, were resisted. The Gurindji persisted with their protest and stayed at Daguragu.
Support for the Gurindji grows
However, the tide of public opinion was beginning to turn in Australia. There were demonstrations and arrests in southern Australia in support of the walk-off, and many church, student and trade union groups gave practical and fundraising support to the Gurindji struggle. Several significant events marked the change in opinion in Australia.
An overwhelming majority of Australians – over 90 per cent of voters and a majority in all six states – voted "Yes" to giving the Federal Government power to make laws for Indigenous Australians.
1972–75 Whitlam Labor Government
In 1972 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) came to power. Aboriginal land rights was an issue high on its agenda, and it was quick to set up an Inquiry, and subsequently draft legislation, to this end. The Labor Government called a halt to development leases granted by the Northern Territory Land Board that might damage Indigenous rights, suspended mining exploration licences, and gave a small grant of land at Daguragu/Wattie Creek, as an initial step towards the final land handback.
1972 Woodward Royal Commission
The Whitlam government established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, headed by Justice Woodward. The Inquiry's task was to examine the legal establishment of land rights. The Commission recommended government financial support for the creation of reserves and incorporated land trusts, administered by traditional owners or land councils.
1973–74 Gove land rights case
Meanwhile, the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land were taking their grievances to the courts, in the case of Milirrpum v Nabalco, after unsuccessfully petitioning the Commonwealth government with a bark petition. The judge's decision in Gove had relied on the doctrine of terra nullius to deny the Yolngu rights to their land and ensure the security of a bauxite mine by Nabalco. Coupled with the ongoing Gurindji strike, this case highlighted the very real need for Aboriginal land rights in Australia.
1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act
As a result of the recommendations of the Woodward Inquiry, the Whitlam government drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Bill. The legislation was not passed by parliament prior to the Whitlam government's dismissal in 1975. The subsequent Fraser government passed effectively similar legislation – the Aboriginal Land Rights Act – on 9 December 1976.
1975 – Handback
In 1975, the Labor government of Gough Whitlam finally negotiated with Vesteys to give the Gurindji back a portion of their land. This was a landmark in the land rights movement in Australia for Indigenous Australians. The handback took place on 16 August 1975 at Kalkaringi. Gough Whitlam addressed Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, saying:
On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people – all those who honour and love this land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians.
Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.
Legacy of the strike
Vincent Lingiari confronted the vast economic and political forces arrayed against him and his people. The walk-off and strike were landmark events in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights in Australia. For the first time recognition was given of Indigenous people, their rights and responsibilities for the land, and their ability to practise their law, language and culture. In August every year, a large celebration is held at Kalkaringi to mark the anniversary of the strike and walk-off. Known as Freedom Day, people gather from many parts of Australia to celebrate and re-enact the walk-off.
In 2006 an Australian Senate report looked into the matter of underpayment of indigenous workers in the past. A group of those involved in the Wave Hill walk-off have said that they would be prepared to make a reparation claim for underpaid and stolen wages as a test case.
The walk-off route has been entered on the Australian National Heritage List.
The Gurindji Strike in popular culture
|Single by Galarrwuy Yunupingu|
|B-side||"The Tribal Land"|
|Length||Introduction by Vincent Lingiari – 1:06|
Gurindji Blues – 2:30
|Label||RCA Victor 101937|
Poor Bugger Me, Gurindji
Me bin sit down this country
Long before no Lord Vesty
All about land belong to we
In 1971 the song was recorded by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a Yolngu man actively involved in land rights for his own people through the bark petition and Gove land rights case. Ted Egan says he was moved to write "Gurindji Blues" after he heard Peter Nixon, then Minister for the Interior, say in parliament that if the Gurindji wanted land, they should save up and buy it, like any other Australian. In 1991, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody recorded "From Little Things Big Things Grow". The words to the first verse are:
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 words to the last verse are:
That was the story of Vincent Lingiari
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.
Irish folk musician Damien Dempsey's song "Wave Hill Walk Off" commemorates the Gurindji strike and the struggle for Aboriginal land rights.
The words to the first verse are:
In the year of Lord Jesus nineteen and sixty six,
A great rumbling sound came from up in the sticks,
All these gentle black warriors they dreamed of a Bill,
And enough was enough, so they walked off Wave Hill.
The words to the last verse are:
For nine hungry years they kept up their bold stand,
And took off with and poured land into Vincent's hand
For indigenous land rights it was finally time,
For to make reparations for a giant of a crime.
- "Aborigines walk off jobs". The Canberra Times. Australian Capital Territory: National Library of Australia. 27 July 1968. p. 3. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
- Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into hand of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975
- "Wave Hill group prepares stolen wages claim". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 8 December 2006. Retrieved 9 December 2006.
- Lingiari Foundation
- Freedom Day
- Daguragu Council
- MP Warren Snowdon's Speech to Parliament in honour of Vincent Lingiari
- GreenLeft Weekly transcript of an oral history of the Wave Hill Station Strike
- ABC interview with Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody
- Listen to a clip from 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' and read more about it on australianscreen online
- 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' was added to the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia registry in 2010
- Collaborating for Indigenous Rights 1957–1973, National Museum of Australia