History loves a hero. And Vincent Lingiari is the genuine article. While he could not read or write, he was able to wear down the establishment, without any use of arms. His battle was won purely by the power of words and ideas.
It’s well known that Lingiari led the Wave Hill walk off. And that he pursued the Gurundji land claim of the late 1960s. This, latterly, is due almost entirely to that folk anthem of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, “From Little Things Big Things Grow.” Add to this the unforgettable image of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring the red dust of Lingiari’s own land into that gentleman’s hands, invoking some appropriately Biblical language as he did so:
“Vincent Lingiari and men and women of the Gurindji people.
“On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of the Australian people-all those who honour and love this land we live in.
“For them I want to say to you:
“First, that we congratulate you and those who shared your struggle, on the victory you have achieved nine years after you walked off Wave Hill Station in protest.
“I want to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the loss of Black Australians.
“I want to promise you that this act of restitution which we perform today will not stand alone-your fight was not for yourselves alone and we are determined that Aboriginal Australians everywhere will be helped by it.
“I want to promise that, through their Government, the people of Australia will help you in your plans to use this land fruitfully for the Gurindji.
“And I want to give back to you formally in Aboriginal and Australian Law ownership of this land of your fathers.
“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.”
Lingiari may be regarded as the first solidier of the Indigenous rights movement to actually take territory. He was the was the first to successfully claim for traditional Aboriginal land in Australia.
But while he may be a hero, he was no lone hand. Lingiari worked across a complex series of partnerships with other Aboriginal leaders, with communists, with politicians and with churchmen – both black and white. It was their writing of books, articles and letters to the editor that put the Gurindji claim on the national agenda.
The Wave Hill strike was a long fight. It started on August 22, 1966. The prompt came when the Wave Hill Station manager, Tom Fisher, refused Lingiari’s request for a weekly wage of $25 for Aboriginal stockmen. (Never mind that this was still a good deal lower than the wage paid to whitefellas doing the same job.) 2 It’s said that 200 stockmen and domestic hands walked off the station, and camped at Wattie Creek, 13km away.
This action stretched not for a week or two – like your average public transport conflagration – but for eight determined years. And while it started as a stand against unfair pay, it eventually became a claim for the land that was rightfully theirs.
Lingiari was able to build strong friendships that helped. Frank Hardy, the communist writer, became a great ally. But equally, and, perhaps, oppositely, so did conservative Christians. Graham Paulson, the first Aboriginal to be ordained as a Baptist minister, served the Gurindji people at Wave Hill from 1970 on. He was a firm supporter of the strike action. But more relevantly, Lingiari believed that God himself wanted him to lead the exodus away from the cattle station. 3
But it was a strong friendship with an Indigenous man from the Anglican mission at Roper River, that really gave his story exposure. 4 Phillip Roberts was the man the newspapers interviewed – and represented the Gurindji struggle to liberal minds.