Wave Hill walk-off

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Coordinates: 17°23′13″S131°06′59″E / 17.38698°S 131.11641°E / -17.38698; 131.11641 Wave Hill walk-off or The Gurindji strike was a walk-off and strike by 200 Gurindji stockmen, house servants and their families in August 1966 at Wave Hill cattle station in Kalkarindji (formerly known as Wave Hill), Northern Territory, Australia.

Geographic coordinate system Coordinate system

A geographic coordinate system is a coordinate system that enables every location on Earth to be specified by a set of numbers, letters or symbols. The coordinates are often chosen such that one of the numbers represents a vertical position and two or three of the numbers represent a horizontal position; alternatively, a geographic position may be expressed in a combined three-dimensional Cartesian vector. A common choice of coordinates is latitude, longitude and elevation. To specify a location on a plane requires a map projection.

The Gurindji are a group of Indigenous Australians living in northern Australia, 460 km southwest of Katherine in the Northern Territory's Victoria River region.

Stockman (Australia) person who looks after the livestock on a large property in Australia

In Australia a stockman is a person who looks after the livestock on a large property known as a station, which is owned by a grazier or a grazing company. A stockman may also be employed at an abattoir, feedlot, on a livestock export ship, or with a stock and station agency.


The Gurindji people's traditional lands are approximately 3,250 km² of the Northern Territory. Gurindji first encountered Europeans in the 1850s, when explorer Augustus Gregory crossed into their territory. Several other explorers traversed the area over the following decades until the early 1880s, when large pastoral operations were established.

Gurindji and the pastoralists

Wave Hill cattle station, which included the Kalkaringi and Daguragu area, was first stocked in 1883.

Gurindji – along with all Aboriginal groups in this predicament – found their waterholes and soakages fenced off or fouled by cattle, which also ate or trampled fragile desert plant life, such as bush tomato. Dingo hunters regularly shot the people's invaluable hunting dogs, and kangaroo, a staple meat, was also routinely shot since it competed with cattle for water and grazing land. Gurindji suffered lethal "reprisals" for any attempt to eat the cattle – anything from a skirmish to a massacre. The last recorded massacre in the area occurred at Coniston in 1928. There was little choice to stay alive but to move onto the cattle stations, receive rations, adopt a more sedentary life and, where possible, take work as stockmen and domestic help. If they couldn't continue their traditional way of life, then at least to be on their own land – the foundation for their religion and spiritual beliefs – seemed crucial.

Billabong Australian term for a seasonal oxbow lake

A billabong is an Australian term for an oxbow lake, an isolated pond left behind after a river changes course. Billabongs are usually formed when the path of a creek or river changes, leaving the former branch with a dead end. As a result of the arid Australian climate in which these "dead rivers" are found, billabongs fill with water seasonally; they are dry for a greater part of the year.

Bush tomato Solanum species native to Australia

Bush tomatoes are the fruit or entire plants of certain nightshade (Solanum) species native to the more arid parts of Australia. While they are quite closely related to tomatoes, they might be even closer relatives of the eggplant, which they resemble in many details. There are 94 natives and 31 introduced species in Australia.

Dingo Canid species native to Australia

The dingo is a dog that is native to Australia. The species name is debated: it is variously called Canis familiaris, Canis familiaris dingo, Canis lupus dingo, or Canis dingo. It is either a purebred, if breeding only in the wild, or a hybrid of a dingo and a domesticated dog. It is a medium-sized canid that possesses a lean, hardy body adapted for speed, agility, and stamina. The dingo's three main coat colours are: light ginger or tan, black and tan, or creamy white. The skull, the widest part of the dingo, is wedge-shaped and large in proportion to the body. It differs from that of the domestic dog by its larger palatal width, longer rostrum, shorter skull height, and wider sagittal crest.

In 1914, Wave Hill Station was bought by Vesteys, a British pastoral company comprising a large conglomerate of cattle companies owned by Baron Vestey. Pastoralists were able to make use of the now landless Aboriginal people as extremely cheap labour. On stations across the north, Aboriginal people became the backbone of the cattle industry, working for little or no money, minimal food and appalling housing.

The Vestey Group is a privately owned UK group of companies, comprising an international food product business and significant cattle ranching and sugar cane farming interests in Brazil and elsewhere. Union International, the former core of the Vestey family business, went into receivership in 1995.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Historical sovereign state from 1801 to 1921

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a sovereign state established by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.

Samuel Vestey, 3rd Baron Vestey British Baron

Samuel George Armstrong Vestey, 3rd Baron Vestey, is a British peer, landowner, and businessman.

Conditions on the station

There had been complaints from Indigenous employees about conditions over many years. A Northern Territory government inquiry held in the 1930s said of Vesteys:

Northern Territory federal territory of Australia

The Northern Territory is an Australian territory in the central and central northern regions of Australia. It shares borders with Western Australia to the west, South Australia to the south, and Queensland to the east. To the north, the territory looks out to the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria, including Western New Guinea and other Indonesian islands. The NT covers 1,349,129 square kilometres (520,902 sq mi), making it the third-largest Australian federal division, and the 11th-largest country subdivision in the world. It is sparsely populated, with a population of only 245,800, making it the least-populous of Australia's six states and two territories, with fewer than half as many people as Tasmania.

It was obvious that they had been ... quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights.

However, little was done over the decades leading up to the strike. While it was illegal up until 1968 to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money, a 1945 inquiry found Vesteys was not even paying Aboriginal workers the 5 shillings a day minimum wage set up for Aborigines under a 1918 Ordinance. Non-Indigenous males were receiving £2/8/- a week in 1945. Gurindji lived in corrugated iron humpies without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, who lived on Wave Hill Station at the time said:

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.

Gurindji who received minimal government benefits had these paid into pastoral company accounts over which they had no control. In contrast, non-Aboriginal workers enjoyed minimum wage security with no legal limit on the maximum they could be paid. They were housed in comfortable homes with gardens and had full control over their finances.

The walk off

On 23 August 1966, led by spokesman Vincent Lingiari, the workers and their families walked off Wave Hill and began their ten-year strike. Lingiari led Gurindji, as well as Ngarinman, Bilinara, Warlpiri and Mudbara workers to an important sacred site nearby at Wattie Creek (Daguragu). Initially, the action was interpreted as purely a strike against work and living conditions. However, it soon became apparent that it was not just – or even primarily – improved conditions Gurindji were campaigning for. Their primary demand was for return of their land. Novelist Frank Hardy was one of the many non-Indigenous Australians who supported the Gurindji struggle through the strike years as was Darwin based trade unionist Brian Manning.

"This bin [been] Gurindji country long time before them Vestey mob," Vincent Lingiari told Hardy at the time.

While Hardy records Pincher Manguari as saying:

We want them Vestey mob all go away from here. Wave Hill Aboriginal people bin called Gurindji. We bin here long time before them Vestey mob. This is our country, all this bin Gurindji country. Wave Hill bin our country. We want this land; we strike for that.

The Gurindji strike was not the first or the only demand by Aborigines for the return of their lands – but it was the first one to attract wide public support within Australia for Land Rights.

In 1968, 60 Aboriginal workers at another Vestey's property, Limbunya, also joined the strike when they walked off the job. [1]

1966–75 – The strike years

The Gurindji established a settlement near by at Wattie Creek, which Gurindji have always called Daguragu. These were hard years, but they held strong to their belief in their right to the land.

Gurindji efforts during the strike years

"Vincent, May 1968" (Vincent Lingiari); charcoal on paper, by Frank Hardy, drawn while researching his book, The Unlucky Australians. Vincent Lingiari, 1968.jpg
"Vincent, May 1968" (Vincent Lingiari); charcoal on paper, by Frank Hardy, drawn while researching his book, The Unlucky Australians .

While living at Daguragu, Gurindji drew up maps showing areas they wanted excised from pastoralist land and returned to them. In 1967, Gurindji petitioned the Governor-General, claiming 1,295 km² of land near Wave Hill. Their claim was rejected. While Dagaragu would eventually become the first cattle station to be owned and managed by an Aboriginal community, today known as the Murramulla Gurindji Company, it would be many years before the Gurindji achieved this.

In this period, Vincent Lingiari, Billy Bunter Jampijinpa and others toured Australia, with the support of workers' unions, to give talks, raise awareness, build support for their cause and have meetings with major lawyers and politicians. Frank Hardy recalled one fundraising meeting at which a donor gave $500 after hearing Vincent Lingiari speak. The donor – who said he had never before met an Aboriginal person – was a young Dr Fred Hollows, the eye surgeon and Communist activist.

Attempts to entice and stymie Gurindji

Billy Bunter Jampijinpa was 16 at the time of the walk-off:

The Vesteys mob came and said they would get two killers (slaughtered beasts) and raise our wages if we came back. But old Vincent said, 'No, we're stopping here'. Then in early 1967 we walked to our new promised land, we call it Daguragu (Wattie Creek), back to our sacred places and our country, our new homeland.

In late 1966 the Northern Territory government offered a compromise pay rise of 125 per cent, but the strikers still demanded wages equal to those of white stockmen and return of their land. The Government also made moves to cut off means of Gurindji obtaining food supplies and threatened evictions. Offers of houses, which the Government had built for them at Wave Hill Welfare settlement, were resisted. The Gurindji persisted with their protest and stayed at Daguragu.

In 1969 the Liberal-National Country Coalition government was given a proposal to give eight square kilometres back to the Gurindji. Cabinet refused even to discuss the issue.

Support for the Gurindji grows

However, the tide of public opinion was beginning to turn in Australia. There were demonstrations and arrests in southern Australia in support of the walk-off, and many church, student and trade union groups gave practical and fundraising support to the Gurindji struggle. Several significant events marked the change in opinion in Australia.

1967 Referendum

An overwhelming majority of Australians – over 90 per cent of voters and a majority in all six states – voted "Yes" to giving the Federal Government power to make laws for Indigenous Australians.

1972–75 Whitlam Labor Government

Gough Whitlam and Vincent Lingiari Whitlam Lingiari Image 3.jpg
Gough Whitlam and Vincent Lingiari

In 1972 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) came to power. Aboriginal land rights was an issue high on its agenda, and it was quick to set up an Inquiry, and subsequently draft legislation, to this end. The Labor Government called a halt to development leases granted by the Northern Territory Land Board that might damage Indigenous rights, suspended mining exploration licences, and gave a small grant of land at Daguragu/Wattie Creek, as an initial step towards the final land handback.

1972 Woodward Royal Commission

The Whitlam government established the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, headed by Justice Woodward. The Inquiry's task was to examine the legal establishment of land rights. The Commission recommended government financial support for the creation of reserves and incorporated land trusts, administered by traditional owners or land councils.

1973–74 Gove land rights case

Meanwhile, the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land were taking their grievances to the courts, in the case of Milirrpum v Nabalco, after unsuccessfully petitioning the Commonwealth government with a bark petition. The judge's decision in Gove had relied on the doctrine of terra nullius to deny the Yolngu rights to their land and ensure the security of a bauxite mine by Nabalco. Coupled with the ongoing Gurindji strike, this case highlighted the very real need for Aboriginal land rights in Australia.

1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act

As a result of the recommendations of the Woodward Inquiry, the Whitlam government drafted the Aboriginal Land Rights Bill. The legislation was not passed by parliament prior to the Whitlam government's dismissal in 1975. The subsequent Fraser government passed effectively similar legislation – the Aboriginal Land Rights Act – on 9 December 1976.

1975 – Handback

In 1975, the Labor government of Gough Whitlam finally negotiated with Vesteys to give the Gurindji back a portion of their land. This was a landmark in the land rights movement in Australia for Indigenous Australians. The handback took place on 16 August 1975 at Kalkaringi. Gough Whitlam addressed Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, saying:

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.

Mervyn Bishop's photograph of Whitlam pouring sand into Lingiari's hand on that day, has become an iconic one in Australian history. [2]

Legacy of the strike

Vincent Lingiari confronted the vast economic and political forces arrayed against him and his people. The walk-off and strike were landmark events in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights in Australia. For the first time recognition was given of Indigenous people, their rights and responsibilities for the land, and their ability to practise their law, language and culture. In August every year, a large celebration is held at Kalkaringi to mark the anniversary of the strike and walk-off. Known as Freedom Day, people gather from many parts of Australia to celebrate and re-enact the walk-off.

In 2006 an Australian Senate report looked into the matter of underpayment of indigenous workers in the past. A group of those involved in the Wave Hill walk-off have said that they would be prepared to make a reparation claim for underpaid and stolen wages as a test case. [3]

The walk-off route has been entered on the Australian National Heritage List.

"Gurindji Blues"
Single by Galarrwuy Yunupingu
B-side "The Tribal Land"
Format7" Single
LengthIntroduction by Vincent Lingiari1:06
Gurindji Blues – 2:30
Label RCA Victor 101937
Songwriter(s) Ted Egan
Producer(s) Ron Wills

Ted Egan wrote the "Gurindji Blues" in the 1960s with Vincent Lingiari. The words to the first verse are:

Poor Bugger Me, Gurindji
Me bin sit down this country
Long before no Lord Vesty
All about land belong to we

In 1971 the song was recorded by Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a Yolngu man actively involved in land rights for his own people through the bark petition and Gove land rights case. Ted Egan says he was moved to write "Gurindji Blues" after he heard Peter Nixon, then Minister for the Interior, say in parliament that if the Gurindji wanted land, they should save up and buy it, like any other Australian.

In 1991, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody recorded "From Little Things Big Things Grow". The words to the first verse are:

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 words to the last verse are:

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.

Irish folk musician Damien Dempsey's song "Wave Hill Walk Off" commemorates the Gurindji strike and the struggle for Aboriginal land rights.

The words to the first verse are:

In the year of Lord Jesus nineteen and sixty six,
A great rumbling sound came from up in the sticks,
All these gentle black warriors they dreamed of a Bill,
And enough was enough, so they walked off Wave Hill.

The words to the last verse are:

For nine hungry years they kept up their bold stand,
And took off with and poured land into Vincent's hand
For indigenous land rights it was finally time,
For to make reparations for a giant of a crime.

In the Gurindji language, the "Freedom Day" song set celebrates the walk-off and is performed by Gurindji singers at the annual Freedom Day festival at Kalkarindji. It is an example of wajarra, popular songs performed for fun and entertainment. [4]

See also

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William Vestey, 1st Baron Vestey was an English shipping magnate.

1967 Australian referendum (Aboriginals)

The Australian referendum of 27 May 1967, called by the Holt Government, approved two amendments to the Australian constitution relating to Indigenous Australians. Technically it was a vote on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967 Act, which became law on 10 August 1967 following the results of the referendum. The amendments were overwhelmingly endorsed, winning 90.77% of votes cast and carrying in all six states. These amendments altered sections 51(xxvi), and 127, having the immediate effect of including Aboriginal Australians in determinations of population, and also empowering the Federal Parliament to legislate specifically for this racial group. The other question put in the referendum, to allow the number of seats in the House of Representatives to be increased without increasing the number of senators, was rejected. It received majority support in only one state – New South Wales – and received about 40.25% "yes" votes nationwide.

Division of Lingiari Australian federal electoral division

The Division of Lingiari is an Australian electoral division in the Northern Territory.

The Central Land Council is an Indigenous Land Council that represents the indigenous people of the southern half of the Northern Territory of Australia, predominantly in land issues. The head office is located in Alice Springs.

The Northern Land Council (NLC) is in the Top End of the Northern Territory of Australia. It has its origins in the struggle of Australian Aboriginal people for rights to fair wages and land. This included the strike and walk off by the Gurindji people at Wave Hill, cattle station in 1966. The head office is located in Darwin. It was established in 1973.

Wave Hill is an estate and garden in New York.

Vincent Lingiari AM was an Australian Aboriginal rights activist and member of the Gurindji people. In his earlier life he worked as a stockman at Wave Hill Station. He also played the didgeridoo. Lingiari was elected and became the leader of the Gurindji communities in August 1966. On 7 June 1976, Lingiari was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to the Aboriginal people. The story of Lingiari was celebrated in the song "From Little Things Big Things Grow".

Kalkarindji town in the Northern Territory, Australia

Kalkarindji is a small township in Northern Territory of Australia, located on the Buntine Highway. At the 2006 census, Kalkarindji together with Daguragu had a population of 544. At the 2016 census, Kalkarindji by itself had a population of 334. Daguragu, Kalkarindji and outstations had a population of 510.

Gordon Bryant Australian politician

Gordon Munro Bryant was an Australian politician. A member of the Australian Labor Party, he represented the Division of Wills from 1955 until his retirement in 1980.

Gurindji Kriol is a mixed language which is spoken by Gurindji people in the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory (Australia). It is mostly spoken at Kalkaringi and Daguragu which are Aboriginal communities located on the traditional lands of the Gurindji. Related mixed varieties are spoken to the north by Ngarinyman and Bilinarra people at Yarralin and Pigeon Hole. These varieties are similar to Gurindji Kriol, but draw on Ngarinyman and Bilinarra which are closely related to Gurindji.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, also known as the Woodward Royal Commission, existed 1973 to 1974 with the purpose to inquire into appropriate ways to recognise Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Commission was chaired by Justice Edward Woodward, who was appointed to the role by Gough Whitlam.

Gurindji is a Pama–Nyungan language spoken by the Gurindji and Ngarinyman people in the Northern Territory, Australia. The language of the Gurindji is highly endangered, with about 592 speakers remaining and only 175 of those speakers fully understanding the language. There are in addition about 60 speakers of Ngarinyman dialect. Gurindji Kriol is a mixed language that derives from the Gurindji language.

Wave Hill Station

Wave Hill Station, mostly referred to as Wave Hill, is a pastoral lease in the Northern Territory operating as a cattle station. The property is best known as the scene of the Wave Hill Walk-Off, a strike by Indigenous Australian workers for better pay and conditions, which in turn was an important influence on Aboriginal land rights in Australia.


Limbunya Station is a pastoral lease that operates as a cattle station in Northern Territory.

Brian Thomas Manning was an Australian trade unionist and political activist. He was active in supporting the Gurindji Strike at Wave Hill, a pivotal event in the early Australian Aboriginal land-rights movement. He was also heavily involved in the campaign for an independent East Timor as well as the anti-racism movement and a number of other causes. He was a dedicated trade unionist, a Secretary of the Northern Territory branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia and a co-founder of the Northern Territory Trades and Labor Council.

Dexter Daniels (Aboriginal activist)

Dexter Daniels was a pioneering activist in the struggle for Aboriginal rights and land rights in Australia during the 1960s and 1970s. Daniels came to public attention as the breakaway Aboriginal Organiser of the North Australian Workers' Union (NAWU) in 1966 and was integral in supporting the Wave Hill Walk-off.

Felicity Meakins is a linguist specialising in Australian Indigenous languages, morphology and language contact, who was one of the first academics to describe Gurindji Kriol. She holds an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship focusing on language evolution and contact processes across northern Australia.


  1. "Aborigines walk off jobs". The Canberra Times . Australian Capital Territory: National Library of Australia. 27 July 1968. p. 3. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
  2. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into hand of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975
  3. "Wave Hill group prepares stolen wages claim". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 8 December 2006. Retrieved 9 December 2006.
  4. Turpin, Myfany, 1972-. Songs from the stations : Wajarra as sung by Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpnga, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal and Dandy Danbayarri at Kalkaringi. Meakins, Felicity,. Sydney, NSW, Australia. ISBN   9781743325858. OCLC   1089228854.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)