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‘From little things big things grow’

1966: Gurindji strike (or Wave Hill Walk-Off) led by Vincent Lingiari

National Archives of Australia F1, 1968/2735O
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Listen to the song ‘From little things big things grow’ or read the lyrics:

National Museum of Australia

(a) Who wrote and performed this song?

(b) What is the song about?

(c) How does the song make you feel?

(d) Why do you think the chorus and the title use the words ‘From little things big things grow’?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the Gurindji strike is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of red soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, by Mervyn Bishop, 1975</p>
Photo: Mervyn Bishop

In a snapshot

On 23 August 1966 200 Gurindji stockmen, domestic workers and their families walked off Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory and refused to keep working for the station owners. The disagreement over wages and land ownership lasted for seven years. In 1974 some of the Gurindji people’s homelands were returned to them. This influenced the first legislation, passed in 1976, that allowed Aboriginal people to claim land titleIn September 2020 the Gurindji claim for native title to Wave Hill station was granted, 54 years after the walk-off that helped to spark Australia's Indigenous land rights movement.

Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of red soil into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, by Mervyn Bishop, 1975

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What was the experience of Aboriginal people on pastoral stations up to the 1960s?

2. What did the Gurindji people start to demand from 1967 and what did they do to try to achieve this?

3. What did Prime Minister Gough Whitlam do in 1975 and why was this so important?

Wave Hill’s location in the Northern Territory.

How did the Gurindji people lose their land?

The Gurindji people had lived in the Victoria River area of the Northern Territory for tens of thousands of years.

In 1883 the colonial government leased almost 3000 square kilometres of the Gurindji people’s country to a white pastoralist. Soon thousands of cattle were moved onto the land. This damaged the environment and disrupted the Gurindji’s traditional land management practices.

Like many other Aboriginal groups around Australia, the Gurindji wanted to stay on their land despite these changes. Pastoralists took advantage of their desire to stay and used Aboriginal people as cheap labour on their stations.

<p>A sticker reading ‘Gurindji land rights now’</p>

National Museum of Australia

<p>A sticker reading ‘Gurindji land rights now’</p>

How were Aboriginal people exploited by pastoralists?

In 1913 a new law meant that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory would receive food, clothes, tea and tobacco for their labour. But Aboriginal people often were not given enough food or clothing, nor were they given access to safe drinking water. Aboriginal children were forced to work. Many Aboriginal women were sexually abused.

In 1953 the Northern Territory Government set wage and rations standards for Aboriginal employees. But these wages were sometimes less than half of the wages paid to white employees for the same work. Some pastoralists still refused to pay Aboriginal workers anything at all.

By the 1960s attitudes were beginning to change. There were plans to make it illegal to pay Aboriginal people less than white workers, but pastoralists convinced the government to delay the new laws.

Research task

 

Research Vincent Lingiari and write a short summary of his life and achievements. Include information about when and where he was born, his occupation, his family, how he become a land rights activist, the challenges he faced and what he achieved in his lifetime.

‘I bin thinkin’ this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob.’

Vincent Lingiari, 1966
Vincent Lingiari addressing the media after Prime Minister Gough Whitlam officially returns Aboriginal land at Wattie Creek, Northern Territory, August 1975.

Why did the Gurindji people strike?

In the 1960s Wave Hill station was owned by an international company called Vestey Brothers. Vestey Brothers paid the Gurindji people working on the station very low wages. On 23 August 1966 the Gurindji people stopped working and walked off Wave Hill station in protest. They were led by elder Vincent Lingiari.

In 1967 the Gurindji set up a camp at Daguragu (also known as Wattie Creek). It soon became clear that the Gurindji did not simply want fair wages. More importantly they wanted the government to return some of their land. For seven years the Gurindji stayed at Daguragu and sent letters and petitions to the Northern Territory Government and the Australian Government asking that their land be returned to them.

How was the dispute resolved?

In 1972 the Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam came to power. The Whitlam government was interested in establishing Aboriginal land rights. Around the same time, Vestey Brothers finally agreed to hand over a small section of Wave Hill station around Daguragu to the Gurindji people.

In 1975 Prime Minister Whitlam visited Daguragu and in a ceremony he returned the land to the Gurindji people. Whitlam famously poured a handful of soil through Vincent Lingiari’s hand and said, ‘Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people’.

Research task

 

Research Brian Manning. Who was he and how did he contribute to the Gurindji strike?

National Museum of Australia

Vincent Lingiari beside a plaque marking the handing over of the lease, in Wattie Creek, Northern Territory, 16 August 1975.

In September 2020, 54 years after the Wave Hill Walk-Off, the Gurindji claim for native title to Wave Hill station was granted.

The Gurindji strike helped to make the Australian public aware of Aboriginal land ownership claims. It also influenced the first legislation in Australia that allowed Aboriginal people to apply for ownership of their traditional lands, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What was the experience of Aboriginal people on pastoral stations up to the 1960s?

2. What did the Gurindji people start to demand from 1967 and what did they do to try to achieve this?

3. What did Prime Minister Gough Whitlam do in 1975 and why was this so important?