In August 1966 Indigenous pastoral workers of Wave Hill station went on strike, walking away from poor conditions they had experienced for more than 40 years.
The protest was not resolved as an industrial issue. The Gurindji sought to establish a community and run it as a pastoral enterprise on their own land. On 15 August 1975 the Gurindji became the first Aboriginal community to have land returned to them by the Commonwealth Government.
Conditions before the walk-off
Wave Hill Station had been owned since 1914 by Vestey, a British conglomerate of cattle companies owned by Lord Vestey.
In 1966 conditions for Indigenous workers and their families on cattle stations around Australia were generally very poor. Special low rates of pay applied to Aboriginal workers and Aboriginal populations lived remote cattle stations, under poor conditions and subject to welfare policies.
On Wave Hill Station Indigenous employees had complained for many years about conditions, which included living in tin humpies, no running water and poor quality food. An inquiry during the 1930s was critical of Vestey's employment practices, but little was done over the decades leading up to the events of 1966.
In March 1966 the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission decided to delay until 1968 the payment of award wages to male Indigenous workers in the cattle industry.
Aboriginal pastoral workers on Newcastle Waters Station went on strike in May 1966 in response to this decision but eventually returned to work.
In August 1966 Vincent Lingiari led a group of mostly Gurindji pastoral workers and their families off Wave Hill Station. The group walked along a fence line to Gordy Creek before setting up camp on the Victoria River near the Wave Hill Welfare Station. They camped on higher ground during the wet season and in early 1967 moved to Wattie Creek, where they established the community of Daguragu.
Striking initially for wages and living conditions equal to their non-Indigenous colleagues, the struggle of the Gurindji developed into a rejection of their former dependency and inspired development of a community enterprise on their own land.
Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people waited for the next nine years at Daguragu before achieving title to their land under a pastoral lease. During this period, they experienced pressure to abandon their new community and rejected government offers to build accommodation for them at Wave Hill Welfare Settlement.
Support around Australia
The Gurindji received assistance from government officers and material and political support from unions and, in particular, from the author Frank Hardy. Hardy played a key role in the 19 April 1967 petition sent to the Governor General, requesting the traditional lands be returned to the Gurindji.
Demonstrations were held in southern Australia and at one fundraising meeting a donor gave a cheque for $500 after hearing Vincent Lingiari speak. The donor was Fred Hollows who later made an enormous contribution to treating eye disease in Indigenous Australians and continued as a strong supporter of the Wave Hill Walk-Off protest.
Transfer of title
On 15 August 1975, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam transferred leasehold title of 3236 square kilometres of land purchased from Wave Hill to the Gurindji. In the ceremony at Daguragu, the transfer was symbolised by Whitlam placing a handful of soil in Vincent Lingiari hands.
At the handover over ceremony, Vincent Lingiari said
"Let us live happily together as mates, let us not make it hard for each other... We want to live in a better way together, Aboriginals and white men, let us not fight over anything, let us be mates..."
In 1976, Vincent Lingiari was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to his people. He died in 1988.
Results of the protest
The Gurindji struggled to achieve a way of life that respected their Aboriginal identity, their traditions and their rights to their traditional lands. Their example, combining Aboriginal autonomy and land rights, influenced the direction of government policy following the 1967 referendum, which granted new powers to the Commonwealth Government to make laws for Aboriginal people.
The Gurindji protest was an important influence on the events leading to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory), 1976.
The events of the protest have been immortalised in Australia's popular culture, including the song performed by Paul Kelly 'From little things, big things grow'.
"...That was the story of Vincent Lingiari
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege can not move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law
From little things big things grow..."
The Wave Hill walk-off route
The Wave Hill walk-off route, now included in the National Heritage List, is made up of the locations associated with the action:
- Old Wave Hill Station homestead area and the Gurindji camp from which the Gurindji walked off on 22 August 1966
- The fence line they followed and their resting point at Junani waterhole on Gordy Creek
- The first camp at Lipanangu in the bed of the Victoria River near Wave Hill Welfare Settlement, where many important meetings were held
- The higher ground at Bottom Camp, where the Gurindji spent the 1966-67 wet season
- The nutwood tree that marks the establishment of Daguragu, in March 1967, and
- The adjacent area where Gurindji received the historic handover of the title to their land on 15 August 1975.
Before you download
Some documents are available as PDF files. You will need a PDF reader to view PDF files.
List of PDF readers
If you are unable to access a publication, please contact us to organise a suitable alternative format.
Links to another web site
Opens a pop-up window