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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
You probably know these as the opening lyrics to the 1991 Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody song, From little things big things grow. It is one of Australia’s most important songs and most Aussies will know it if not from its radio play or performances from Paul and Kev around the nation, but also from its use by grass-roots movements around Australia and in advertising campaigns.
Two of our finest, Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly
“Paul Kelly and I had gone away on a camping trip in about ’91 or something and we just kind of pulled it out around the campfire. Paul had a good chord progression and I thought it would be good to tell a little story over it. So, by about 2 o’clock in the morning, we had a six-minute song.”—Kev Carmody, 2008
The story told by the song is one of the greatest this wide brown land has known and one that sadly too few Australian’s know. It’s a story that is everything we lionise in Australia, mateship, courage, the battler, a fair go, the under dog getting one over the powerful and a happy ending where the hero wins. This is the story of the Gurindji Stike! The hero; Aboriginal man Vincent Lingiari as he led the Gurindji, Ngarinman, Bilinara, Warlpiri and Mudbara peoples on a long, courageous battle for justice.
In the late 1800’s the lands of many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and Western Australia were being forcibly taken over (invaded) by pastoralists eager to exploit the large areas of grazing land the Indigenous Peoples had called home for thousands of years. In the 1880’s Gurindji land was taken and Wave Hill cattle station was establish with huge numbers of cattle brought into the area. A police station was built and Mounted constable W.H. Wilshire began a process of killing the Aboriginal people who dared to stand up against the invasion of their lands. In 1914 the Vestey Brother’s group, a large British food production company, took over Wave Hill station and used Aboriginal labour to increase the size and capacity of the station. The term labour is not as we know it today, the Aboriginal people were used as slaves on the land and they only received rations for their work.
Over the next 50 years the Gurindji were treated appallingly, the women often used as sex slaves, men who would not bow to the command of the land owners beaten or killed and no wages ever provided to the workers. Throughout this period the people were often isolated from the change taking place in the rest of the nation by the geographical distance and the dictatorial manner in which the area was managed. However through meetings with visiting anthropologists, union officials and the message coming from other Indigenous people the Gurindji began formulating their plan to free themselves from Vesteys.
After the second World War and the collapse of centuries of colonialism the fight for independence, civil rights and rights to traditional lands was well under way for people around the world. Gandhi in India, Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in the US and many many more took their fight for justice and equality to the streets and the courts. Many believe no such fight took place in Australia, but this is far from true. In 1965 the brilliant Aboriginal Activist, Sports Star and Public Servant Dr Charles Perkins led a brave group on a bus trip around NSW known as “The Freedom Ride”. The main focus of the ride was to protest the discrimination Aboriginal people faced in rural and regional NSW, but the significance of the journey and the leadership of Perkin’s meant the Freedom Rides became a driving force for awareness and a campaign for Indigenous rights across Australia.
In American they had Dr King and Malcolm X, in Australia we had Dr Perkins and Vincent Lingiari (pictured)
A year later, On 23 August 1966, led by spokesman Vicent Lingiari, the workers and their families walked off Wave Hill Station and began their strike. A report by the Northern Territory Government had found about Vesteys “It was obvious that they had been … quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights.” Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, who worked on Wave Hill Station – “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.”
Vincent Lingiari, The Gurindji and other Aboriginal Peoples from the area left the station and formed a new settlement at nearby Wattie Creek (Daguragu). Many believed the action by the Aboriginal people would not last and was simply an attempt to gain slightly improved workers rights. There were many cynical attempts by Vestys, other pastoralist companies and those in Government to convince the people back to work. But they wouldn’t be moved and the price they sort was and would be nothing more than the rightful return of their lands. During the years of the strike, conditions were not easy for the Aboriginal people, but they did not waver. Vincent, Billy and others toured Australia with the assistance of a number of workers unions to educate the broader Australian community on the issues they faced and lobby politicians for changes that would improve the lives of all Aboriginal people. So impressed by a speech given by Vincent Lingiari one man who had never met an Aboriginal before, was moved to give $500 to the cause. This was a very sizeable donation at the time, that donor was a young Dr Fred Hollows.
Gurindji elder Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, with grandson Selwyn, at the site where he and other stockmen camped before they walked off Wave Hill cattle station on August 23, 1966.
During the period of the strike the cause of Aboriginal people was becoming, for the first time in the nation, an issue of national significance in politics. There was the 1967 Referendum in which 90.77% of all votes cast were in favour of the question on Aboriginal people, while the other question on the ballot raising issues on the composition of parliament was soundly defeated. Aboriginal people and many students, unions and other groups began large protests in the Southern States, not only to raise awareness of the strike in the North, but on broader issues facing Aboriginal people.
Many in the political establishment would ignore or go out of their way to sabotage these efforts and heavy-handed police tactics were used. With the election of the Whitlam Government Aboriginal people for the first time had a Prime Minister interested in their cause and willing to make changes. There was the 1972 Woodward Royal Commission, 1973–74 Gove land rights case in which the Yolngu people fought the mining of their land through the courts and finally the passing of the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
But it was on 16 August 1975 when victory for the Gurindji arrived in the form of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. After nearly a decade of strike action, facing down one of the World’s largest land owners at the time, police brutality, Government interference and the ignorance of much of the broader community on the issue…, victory was won!
The rightful return of land
The Government had struck a deal with Vesteys to give the Gurindji a portion of their land back and in front of a crowd at Kalkaringi then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam rose to speak.
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.
Now please take a few minutes to listen to the song and ponder the lessons we can learn from this tale of the Gurindji, from all Aboriginal people and from the legacy of one of our true Nation hero’s to both Black and White, Vincent Lingiari.
Excellent piece. Thanks for posting. I have retweeted and sincerely hope that this interesting and important blog continues to gain supporters.
Thank you so much. This was the story in Australian history that inspired me to start this blog. This is simply my view of the strike and there are many great tales of the Gurindji, but I think it really important we all share in the learning of our Nation’s history.
Great article. As an Aboriginal man there is not always much positive to read in the media.
Hey! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post
reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this.
I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
Thank you for sharing!
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