Celebrating 50 years since Wave Hill

Libby Stewart

Poor bugger me, Gurindji
My name is Vincent Lingiari,
came from Daruragu, Wattie Creek station.Me bin sit down this country
Long time before the Lord Vestey
Allabout land belongin' to we
Oh poor bugger me, Gurindji.

Poor bugger blackfeller; Gurindji
Long time work no wages, we,
Work for the good old Lord Vestey
Little bit flour; sugar and tea
For the Gurindji, from Lord Vestey
Oh poor bugger me.

How it all began

These two verses, from the poem (later song) ‘Gurindji Blues’ were written by singer and songwriter Ted Egan in 1967. The poem was Egan’s creative response to one of the largest and most important Aboriginal strikes, the Wave Hill walk off, which took place 50 years ago.

On 22 August 1966 Vincent Lingiari, a Gurindji spokesman, led a walkout of 200 Aboriginal stockmen, house servants, and their families from Wave Hill cattle station as a protest against the atrocious work and pay conditions they had endured for years. The Gurindji people had lived on their homelands in the Victoria River area of the Northern Territory for tens of thousands of years. By the late 1800s, however, white settlers had introduced thousands of head of cattle into the area, putting pressure on the environment and threatening Gurindji land management systems established over thousands of years. In 1914 the international meat-packing company, Vestey Brothers, purchased Wave Hill station and employed local Aboriginal people to work on the property. In 2006 former Wave Hill stockman Mr Jampijinpa recalled: ‘We were treated like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in humpies you had to crawl in … There was no running water, the food was bad…’

Vincent Lingiari and Mick Rangiari at the sign they asked Frank Hardy to construct, 1967. NAA barcode 60184850.

Vincent Lingiari and Mick Rangiari at the sign they asked Frank Hardy to construct, 1967. NAA barcode 60184850.

Tensions rose during the 60s over workers’ claims for better pay and conditions, with pastoralists strongly resisting any change. The Wave Hill walk off was the culmination of years of simmering tension. It began as a claim for fairer working conditions, but lasted for eight years and marked the beginning of Australia’s land rights movement.

Throughout the rest of 1966 the striking workers held consultations; with other Gurindji members, with members of the North Australian Workers Union, and with the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal rights. No agreement was reached and the workers did not return to Wave Hill.

Move to Daguragu

In April 1967 the group moved their camp 20 kilometres away to Wattie Creek, which they called Daguragu, a significant place for the Gurindji people. They enlisted the help of author Frank Hardy, a major supporter of their cause. He made a sign saying ‘Gurindji’, which they erected on the land, with Lingiari stating their claim in clear and unequivocal language: ‘I bin thinkin’ this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob’. (from Hardy’s account of the strike, The Unlucky Australians)

After the move to Daguragu the group’s white supporters, including Frank Hardy, gradually came to see that the strike was about more than just wages and conditions, and had become a much larger claim concerning land rights. Unions played an increasingly important role in supporting the strikers – ensuring they had a food supply and use of a vehicle. The camp became a settlement, with structures and fences erected.

Vincent Lingiari at his home at Wattie Creek. NAA barcode 60184849.

Vincent Lingiari at his home at Wattie Creek. NAA barcode 60184849.

Petition to the Governor-General

In April 1967, on behalf of Gurindji men Vincent Lingiari, Pincher Manguari, Gerry Ngalgardji and Long-John Kitgnaari, Frank Hardy drafted a petition to Governor-General Lord Casey outlining the men’s desire to regain tenure of their tribal lands in the Wave Hill area. They requested a lease of 500 square miles, to be run cooperatively as a mining lease and cattle station. The petition stated: ‘we feel that morally the land is ours and should be returned to us’. The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) supported the petition, pledging to support ‘the possible legal action to establish their rights to their traditional lands and sacred places’. Federal Cabinet rejected the interpretation of land rights contained in the petition, and Governor-General refused the request for the lease of land.

The Gurindji remained at Daguragu for the next eight years, although under Australian law they were illegally occupying a portion of the land leased to Vestey Brothers. They circulated petitions and requests between the Northern Territory Administration and the federal government, with no resolution of their claims. Unions, the Communist Party and many others continued to support the Gurindji during this long period.

The handback

The election of the Whitlam government in 1972 brought new hope to the Gurindji. In his election policy speech at Blacktown Town Hall Gough Whitlam pledged that his government, if elected, would ‘establish once and for all Aborigines’ rights to land’. In 1973 the original Wave Hill lease was surrendered and two new leases were issued: one to Vestey Brothers and one to the Murramulla Gurindji Company, a lease of about 3300 square kilometres which included important sacred sites.

In August 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam memorably travelled to Daguragu and ceremonially poured a handful of Gurindji soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, saying ‘Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people’.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam ceremonially pours a handful of Gurindji soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari. MoAD collection and Mervyn Bishop.

Significance of the walk off

The Wave Hill walk off paved the way for the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, and in 1986 the Gurindji gained freehold title to Daguragu. Today, approximately 700 Gurindji live in the communities of Daguragu, on the banks of Wattie Creek, and Kalkarinji, formerly known as Wave Hill. In Canberra, Vincent Lingiari is remembered on a memorial in Reconciliation Place. The poem, Gurindji Blues, was recorded as song in 1971 by Ted Egan, accompanied by a young Yolngu spokesman, Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Then, in 1991, Kev Carmody composed a song with Paul Kelly, commemorating the Wave Hill walk off in the iconic song, ‘From little things, big things grow’:

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 Freedom Day Festival is an annual celebration of the Wave Hill walk off. It is a key event for the Aboriginal communities and recognises the contribution made by the Gurindji, Mudbara and Walpiri families to Australia’s land rights history.