Vincent Lingiari AM (13 June 1908 – 21 January 1988), was an Aboriginal rights activist and was a member of the Gurindji people. In his earlier life he worked as a stockman at Wave Hill Station. He also played the didgeridoo. Lingiari was elected and became the leader of the Gurindji communities in August 1966. On 7 June 1976, Lingiari was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to the Aboriginal people. The story of Vincent Lingiari was celebrated in the song "From Little Things Big Things Grow".
Wave Hill walk-off
Wave Hill Cattle Station is located approximately 600 km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. From the late nineteenth century it was run by the British pastoral company, Vesteys. Vesteys employed the local Indigenous people, the Gurindji, to work on Wave Hill. But working conditions were extremely poor and wages were very low when compared to those of non Indigenous employees.
In 1966, Lingiari, a member of the Gurindji had worked at Wave Hill, and recently returned from a period of hospitalisation in Darwin, led a walk-off of indigenous employees of Wave Hill as a protest against the work and conditions. While there had been complaints from Indigenous employees about conditions on Wave Hill over many years, including an inquiry during the 1930s that was critical of Vestey's employment practices, the walk-off had a focus that was aimed at a wider target than Vestey's. Before 1968 it was illegal to pay an indigenous worker more than a specified amount in goods and money. In many cases, the government benefits for which Indigenous employees were eligible were paid into pastoral companies’ accounts, rather than to the individuals.
The protesters established the Wattie Creek Camp and demanded the return of some of their traditional lands. Speaking on this Lingiari said, "We want to live on our land, our way". So began the eight-year fight by the Gurindji people to obtain title to their land.
Land Rights Act and handback
The Wave Hill strike would eventually reshape the agenda of relationships between Indigenous Australians and the wider community. Although initially an employee-rights action, it soon became a major federal issue when the Gurindji people demanded the return of their traditional lands.
The strike lasted eight years. Over that time, support for Aboriginal rights grew as the struggle intensified. The protest eventually led to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This act gave indigenous Australians freehold title to traditional lands in the Northern Territory and, significantly, the power to negotiate over mining and development on those lands, including what type of compensation they would like.
An important and symbolic event in Australian history occurred when, during an emotional ceremony in 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured the local sand into Vincent Lingiari's hands, symbolically handing the Wave Hill station back to the Gurindji people. A photograph of the moment captured by Mervyn Bishop was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and is displayed in Old Parliament House.
Vincent Lingiari died on 21 January 1988. Every year until then he attended the Gurindji’s annual re-enactment of the walk-off.
Vincent Lingiari was a leader and holder of the cultural authority of the Gurindji people. His fight for his people’s rights – to the custodianship and ownership of their land and the capacity to practise their law, culture and language – made him a national figure.
He confronted the vast economic and political forces that were arrayed against him and his people. In doing so, he won a victory that is one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the struggle for the recognition of Indigenous people, their rights and responsibilities in the land, and their ability to practice their law, language and culture. One of Australia's largest electorates is named after Lingiari. The Division of Lingiari encompasses nearly all of the Northern Territory as well as Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands. It includes Daguragu and traditional Gurindji lands.
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- "Vincent's victory". Deadly Vibe. August 2004.
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- Kent, Ellen (June–August 2007). "A handful of sand". Portrait Magazine. National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
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- "Profile of the electoral division of Lingiari (NT)". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 7 January 2019.