Wave Hill:  From Little things big things grow

December 1991

Land Rights News Vol 2, No 23 Dec 1991

Twenty five years ago it was regarded as just a minor new story - a few hundred Gurindku people walked off Wave Hill station in protest at the appalling living conditions and zero wages being paid by Vesteys, the giant British corporation which was then Australia's largest landowner. Now that event is recognised as the start of the Land Rights movement - a little thing that grew to something much bigger.

On 25 August, over 500 people gathered at Victoria River to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Walkoff and the victories it sparked. Victor Vincent, whose father led the Walkoff, told the crowd about the strength that led to Gurindji to freedom in their own land.

"My father couldn't read and write but he was really clever and he talked to the manager really strong," said Mr Vincent.

"He knew the tribal law and fought for the tribal law. "

He told the station manager: 'I think we need to work more good way and with more wages.' but the station just offered him tow dollars a week. "You know tow dollars? You can't buy clothes you can't buy anything. So he said 'No - I'm gone. I'm gonna take all the people and go. I'm finished with Wave Hill'."

In the years that followed, Victor's father became a national figure who travelled around Australia building support for the Gurindji struggle. He died in 1988 and, as a mark of respect and grief, his name is no longer spoken by the Gurindji. In 1966 many believed the Gurindji were fighting simply for improved living conditions and decent wages but eventually white Australians understood that the Gurindji wanted their traditional lands returned. The walkoff began a long and bitter struggle.

The Gurindji and their supporters were threatened with rifles and shotguns, and at one stage were near starvation. But despite enormous pressure from pastoralists and politicians they never returned to work at Wave Hill. Billy Bunter Jampijinpa was a young stockman when the strike began. "We were treated just like dogs," said Mr Bunter.

"We lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out of 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. "Victor's father came back from hospital in Darwin and he had decided that he would pull us out. He pulled everyone out that Tuesday and we walked with the kids and our swags to the Victoria River where we camped until Christmas.

"The Vesteys mob came and said they would get two killers (slaughtered cattle) and raise our wages if we came back. But old Victor's father said, 'No, we're stopping here.'

Then in early 1967 we walked to our new promised land, we call it Daguragu, back to our sacred places and our country, our new homeland." Many of the original leaders of the walkoff have now passed away, but Mick Rangiari was there at the beginning and remains a community leader today. he was there to lead the celebrations.

Now, says Mr Rangiari, the fight for land rights is led by the land councils, but in 1966 things were very different: "There was no legal aid, no welfare, no government that time - only the union was supporting us." Brian Manning became involved with the strike through writer and activist Frank hardy and Aboriginal union leader Dexter Daniels.

He lent his truck to deliver badly needed supplies. "I got involved in the issue as a unionist and saw the utmost solidarity of the Gurindji," said Mr Manning. "Twenty five years down the track they are as they were then. They're just as resolute about the things in their life that are important."

Frank Hardy told the celebration that the walkoff "was the most important thing I ever got involved in." "Sometimes I was quite afraid that people would come with guns to get them out, but they stayed there and finally they got the land. "Maybe they've still got problems and worries, but the Gurindji never yet struck a worry they couldn't beat or a problem they couldn't get round."

Hardy and Manning joined former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner, and Central Land Council delegates at the celebrations. The Gurindji first wrote to the Government asking for the return of their lands in 1967, but it was another 8 years before Gough Whitlam handed back leasehold title to the Gurindji.

"In August 1975," Mr Whitlam told the celebration, "I bent down and picked up the earth and I poured that earth into your leader's hand. "On behalf of all Australians I handed the earth, the soil, the land, back to the leader of the Gurindji people." On 10 April 1986 the Gurindji received a stronger title to their land following a successful claim under the Land Rights Act.

Gough Whitlam told the celebration that this law, which was drafted by his government and later amended and passed by the Fraser government, remains the strongest land rights legislation in Australia. Singer Paul Kelly joined the celebrations at Daguragu and sand From little things big things grow, a song which he wrote about the walkoff for his latest album.

Daguragu band Lipbangu followed with a set of their own songs about the strike and the victories of their people. Led by the children who now enjoy the hard won rights that their grandparents won, the Gurindji and their supporters then retraced part of their original walk in a re-enactment that they have observed since 1984.

As the sun set Gurindji men and women, and women from Lajamanu and Papunya danced and sang to celebrate the land that has been won back and the struggle that began it all. .

While a lot has been achieved by the Gurindji in the last 25 years the fight to control their own lives still continues. Like many other Aboriginal people, the Gurindji are keen to establish outstations where smaller family groups can live on their traditional country. Setting up a resource centre to service these outstations is a major priority.

Community plans for the Karu Bulungkarni (Child's Dreaming) Resource Centre have come up against bureaucratic obstacles caused by ATSIC boundaries and state/territory borders. the Gurindji are currently forced to rely on the Wulaign Resource Centre which is based 110 kilometres away at Lajamanu and which serves the region's Warlpiri communities. Roslyn Frith, who is Chairperson of the Victoria River ATSIC Regional Council, wants to see Karu Bulungkarni up and running.

"We're not separating ourselves from the Warlpiri but our community wants to control its own business and its won resource centre." Ms Frith said that the centre would serve communities around Daguragu, Mistake Creek and Pigeon Hole in the Northern Territory as well as communities across the Western Australian border.

"We've been fighting for six years to get this going but ATSIC officials keep making excuses," she said. "What I'd like to see is an Aboriginal person coordinating the centre with training and backup from ATSIC. "There is money there. Our voice has to be heard hard." Ms Frith said that senior men and women from the communities are expecting to meet with ATSIC officials soon to put their case for the centre.

1883 Wave Hill Station is taken up by the Buchanan family and cattle are brought in.

1888 A Police Station is established at Wave Hill. Mounted constable W.H. Wilshire begins reprisal killings against the Gurindji which continue until at least the 1920s. 1914 Vesteys buys Wave Hill and builds up the station with Aboriginal labour which they pay for with meagre rations.

23 August 1966 The Gurindji Walkoff Wave Hill Station.

April 1967 The Gurindji Petition the Governor General for the return of their traditional lands.

1967 More than 90 percent of Australians support a referendum to give the Commonwealth Government power over Aboriginal Affairs.

December 1972 The Gurindji are granted a living area of just 8 square miles.

16 August 1975 Gough Whitlam visits Dagaragu to handover a lease to 3236 square kilometres. 26 February 1979 CLC lodges a claim over the area on behalf of the traditional landowners.

October 1979 The NT Government notifies the Gurindji that the Government will resume the lease in 28 days but then does not proceed with its action.

15 July 1981 Hearing of the Dagaragu Land Claim begins.

18 November 1981 Land Commissioner Toohey delivers his report.

10 April 1986 The Gurindji are handed title to their land by the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Clyde Holding.

30 August 1991 Australian Aboriginal Affairs council meets in Alice Springs to discuss proposal for "New Federalism" under which the Commonwealth would back away from its responsibilities to Aboriginal people.

Speaking at Victoria River former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam outlined the political events that finally led the Australian government to recognise Aboriginal Land Rights.

He expressed his disappointment that so many Aboriginal people are still denied real land rights and his optimism that recent changes might provide an international forum for Aboriginal people to continue their fight. "Less than a year after your walkoff it became possible for the Australian Parliament to make laws for people of the Aboriginal race.

There's never been a referendum that had such an immense majority. ".By November 1975 my government had passed an Aboriginal Lands Act for the Northern Territory through the House of Representatives. There was a revolution by some of the big shots in Canberra, and another government came in.

It made amendments to that Act, and then it went through the House of Representatives and the Senate. That is the Act has been there since 1976. It's not perfect, but it's the best piece of Aboriginal land legislation in Australia. "The Federal Parliament cold pass such an Act for the whole of Australia now - but it hasn't. "But another thing has been done.

The present Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Robert Tickner, in July, announced in Geneva that Australia was going to become a party to what is called the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

"It will be possible for anyone in Australia who believes that his civil and political rights, despite his own best endeavours have not been given to him Australia. That person or group can bring the matter to the attention of the Human Rights Committee which has representatives from all parts of the world. "

And it was very significant that this statement was made in Geneva on behalf of the Australian Government by Robert Tickner, because there can be no mistake anywhere in the world that the human rights in Australia which are most in jeopardy, most in question, are the rights of the Aboriginal people. "

And there have been some shameful delays in Aboriginal people getting their rights.

There have been those delays in Cape York, in the Torres Strait Islands, in the North West of Western Australia, in Perth itself. there have been delays of years. And now I believe it is possible in those cases of delay where the High Court itself has given rulings - and all the High Courts rulings have been in favour of Aborigines.

"It's now possible where Aborigines or groups of Aborigines or other Australians believe that they are not getting their rights under this international convention which is as old as your walkoff at Wattie Creek.

It was made in 1966, 25 years ago. The same year that the walkoff over land rights occurred at Wattie Creek. It's now possible to get the benefits of that covenant.

"There has over the years been case after case where the Northern Territory Government has tried to defeat the Land Rights legislation.

"It's lost every time. It has wasted millions of dollars, but the legislation is still the best in Australia and if the benefits are denied ever again or if they're still being denied - Aborigines will be able to go to an international forum and seek justice."