NACCHO 50 Year Tribute Gurindji mob and #WaveHillWalkOff : From little things big things grow

Wave

 Gather round people I’ll tell you a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
‘Bout British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiarri
They were opposite men on opposite sides

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the oppression got tighter and tighter
Gurindji decided they must make a stand

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

What started as a protest for better pay and conditions became a test case for Aboriginal land rights. This protest became known as the Wave Hill Walk Off and Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people became immortalised in Australia’s popular culture through the song written and performed by musicians Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody From Little Things Big Things Grow. Words in full below

Photo above by Aboriginal Mervyn Bishop In 1975, the Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam met with the Gurindji at Daguragu and transferred leasehold title of 3236 square kilometres of land purchased from Wave Hill back to the Gurindji. At a ceremony, the transfer was symbolised by Whitlam placing a handful of soil in Vincent Lingiari hands.

Please note NACCHO is one of many sponsors/partners for this event

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Background from AIATSIS

In August 1966, 200 Aboriginal stockmen and domestics, employed on Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, went on strike for better pay and conditions. The workers, mainly Gurindji were led by Vincent Lingiari. Wave Hill Station was owned by British cattle company owner, Lord Vestey.

Wavehill

Ted Egan wrote the Gurindji Blues in the 1960s with Vincent Lingiari. Some words are:

"Poor Bugger Me, Gurindji
Me bin sit down this country
Long before no Lord Vestey
All about land belong to we
[...]
Long time work no wages, we,
Work for the good old Lord Vestey
Little bit flour; sugar and tea
For the Gurindji, from Lord Vestey

The workers set up camp at Wattie Creek, part of Wave Hill Station and 13 km from the Wave Hill settlement, established the community of Daguragu. The Gurindji were supported by the North Australian Workers Union, who took the struggle to the nation through demonstrations in southern Australia. At one fundraising meeting a donor gave a cheque for $500 after hearing Vincent Lingiari speak. The donor was the highly respected Ophthalmologist, Dr Fred Hollows.

Australian author, Frank Hardy also helped the Gurindji with a petition to the Governor-General of Australia claiming 1290 square kilometres to develop their own cattle station. The claim was refused.

In July 1968, the government decided to establish a township at Wave Hill, as a centre for Gurindji and other Aboriginal people. Most Gurindji remained at Daguragu, despite the lack of facilities and Vesteys agreed to leave them undisturbed.

In 1972, the Australian Government made funds available for the purchase of properties not on reserves and Lord Vestey offered to surrender 90 square kilometres to the Gurindji people.

Nearly a decade later, in 1975, the Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam met with the Gurindji at Daguragu and transferred leasehold title of 3236 square kilometres of land purchased from Wave Hill back to the Gurindji. At a ceremony, the transfer was symbolised by Whitlam placing a handful of soil in Vincent Lingiari hands.

On 9 August 2007, the Wave Hill walk-off route the Gurindji people took was included in Australia’s National Heritage List.

mob

The Wave Hill Walk Off shifted the nation.

” And it is a great legacy because while the trigger for the Wave Hill Walk Off was equal wages, the gun powder was the systemic racism, poor living conditions, a legislative environment which allowed for the theft of children from their families and the theft of Aboriginal people having any agency over their own lives.”

Address by ACTU Indigenous Officer Kara Keys
To the ACTU Executive and Indigenous Leadership Conference
Tuesday, 16 August 2016

My name is Kara Keys, I am a decedent of the Yiman and Gangulu peoples of Central Qld.  I work at the ACTU as the National Indigenous Officer.

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet the mighty Larrakia Nation and pay my respects to the elders of this nation, past & present.

I acknowledge all of my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sisters and brothers in the room, our Conference Elder Jo Willmot and extend a warm welcome to our Maori cousins and pay my respects to their delegation Kuia (Elder) Georgina Kerr.

I’d also like to pay my respect to all of you – the leadership of the Australian trade union movement – who are committed to protecting and advancing the rights of all Australian workers.

One of the great things about being Australian is that the story of our country is truly remarkable.

We think of our nation today as a product of many layers – layers of traditions and cultures and institutions, like unions, that make us who we are.

And the founding layer – the bedrock and the thing that is most unique about Australia among the nations of the world – is the long story of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.

This story stretches back through tens of thousands of years and hundreds of generations.

A history that is an impressive story of daring and courage, ingenuity, of resilience and resourcefulness.

This story is one of cultures that have not only managed to outlive many other ancient civilisations – the ancient Greeks and Romans – but also pre-dated them by thousands of years.

This story is one of people who have lived and survived in this land through the last ice age on this continent. Our presence here stretches back to a time when mega fauna roamed the land.

This is a story of the longest unbroken thread of human culture on the planet.

This layer of our nation’s story is not often recounted, until recently wasn’t taught in the Australian school’s curriculum and hasn’t generally been seen as an integral part of our nation’s history and identity.

Another layer of our story, the layer of the trade union movement and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ fight for wage justice and civil rights is also not a history that many people know.  But this history – our story – is so important and relevant to the work we do today as trade unionists.

And today, we are here on the lands of the Larrakia, and in the honourable presence of the descendants of Vincent Lingiari, to celebrate a significant part of that story: the story of the Wave Hill Walk Off.

We have heard parts of this story already this morning. We heard from Ged and the Gurindji delegation here today.

And like any good story, there is a moral: lessons that have been learned along the way. Indeed this story is an epic saga, one where the outcomes have rippled through generations and see us – Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander union members and the leadership of the trade union movement – sitting here today.

We are not just here today, in the sense that we gather to celebrate this epic saga. We are here because the Wave Hill Walk Off triggered a great evolution. An evolution in the industrial rights for Indigenous workers, and an evolution in the union movement. We are here because of the legacy of the women and men who both fought and supported this dispute.

I have learnt a number of hard lessons in researching this dispute. And in all honesty, it is from the tougher elements of this story, the uncomfortable truths, where I draw the conclusion of the great legacy that has been left to us.

In light of the environment at the time, a key reason for the NAWU to pursue a claim through the Arbitration Commission for the inclusion of Aboriginal stockmen in the Cattle Industry Award, was because the union felt that having a cheap Aboriginal labour force would undermine the wages, conditions and jobs of white workers.

At the October 1964 NAWU Central Council two significant things happened:

  • The union made a historic decision to appoint an Aboriginal organiser;
  • The union still saw Aboriginal workers as a threat. In a resolution named, “The Aboriginal Question” the union argued:

“The existence of a large non union force lends itself to a general depression of living standards for all and in the event of industrial conflict could conceivably place non union aborigines in the position of becoming potential scabs.”

The union at the time was also experiencing extreme pressure from the Aboriginal run and lead Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, whose key platform was equal wages for Aboriginal workers.

There was great tension between the union and NTCAR.  At the time the union refused NTCAR affiliation – citing paternalistically, “We believe in assimilation but not isolation” and that Aboriginal workers would be best served by joining the union and the Labor Party. Even though, on the wages they were earning, they couldn’t afford the full union rate and the NAWU refused to introduce a concession rate for those workers. Basically locking them out of union membership.

And these tensions had a direct impact on the Wave Hill strike. Dexter Daniels, who was an organiser for the NAWU was on leave at the time of the Wave Hill Strike, largely because he was intensely feeling the pressure of the tension between the union and the NTCAR – of which he was a member and his brother Davis Daniels was the Secretary.  He felt pulled in opposite directions and decided to take a break. But still, on his own time, organising Aboriginal workers.

Perhaps, if Dexter was working for the union at the time, things would have turned out differently.  Why? Because the NAWU Secretary expressly instructed Dexter and other supporters not to take the Wave Hill workers out on strike. And the union could not support them.

These may be some uncomfortable truths. It may not sound very much like a great legacy. But it is.

It is a great legacy because, once the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill, the NAWU gave them their 100% support.

It is a great legacy because the union movement nationwide galvanised around the workers and gave them great support.

It is a great legacy because it fundamentally shifted the NAWU and other unions in the country. It showed unions that Indigenous workers were willing to fight for wage equality and it shifted unions to the role of supporting and fighting for all workers.

And it is a great legacy because while the trigger for the Wave Hill Walk Off was equal wages, the gun powder was the systemic racism, poor living conditions, a legislative environment which allowed for the theft of children from their families and the theft of Aboriginal people having any agency over their own lives.

The Wave Hill Walk Off shifted the nation.

And For the Gurindji it was about their right to be Gurindji. And how wonderful it is to be joined here by the direct descendants of Vincent Lingiari who still live and thrive as Gurindji on their ancestral lands.

So here we are, the direct beneficiaries of that legacy. I can stand here and proudly say that I am a descendant of the Yiman and Gangulu peoples and I am a proud Aboriginal unionist. And every single union leader and Indigenous worker in this room can proudly inherit what has been won in this dispute.

Here we stand on the shoulders of those giants. We give them our Respect. We Honour their courage and determination in the face of adversity. And we resolve to continue to stand in Solidarity.

Given the occasion, and the unique opportunity that is present to us here, a full meeting of the ACTU Executive and Indigenous Unionists, surely our question becomes:  what will our legacy be?

We, who are the next generation in this epic saga:  what chapters will we write?

Are we ready to evolve to the face our modern challenges and stand shoulder to shoulder with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers and their communities?

We should not be under any illusions: these challenges are great. Our communities are in crisis.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, workers and organisations are facing some of the worst attacks to community, civil and industrial rights in a generation.

Youth suicide has increased dramatically – they are at crisis levels. Health, education, employment and mortality outcomes for Indigenous Australians have in some cases worsened.

There is a broad systemic failure in our justice system recently evidenced by the circumstances which have led to the formation of the NT Royal Commission into Youth Detention.

The incarceration rates of Indigenous peoples and in particular youth are at their highest in decades, largely orchestrated by regressive legislation which criminalises Indigenous people for everyday behaviour.  Meanwhile, those who are there to care have been under resourced to a level  we have not seen in decades.

Here in the NT under the paperless arrest system an elderly Aboriginal artist of great esteem, who was simply gathering with others under a tree, died in custody. And he is one of too many Indigenous people who come into contact with the justice system for minor matters and end up dying in a prison cell.

While the federally mandated maximum wage that oppressed the workers at Wave Hill is gone, the Community Development Program remains. A program which indentures remote Indigenous workers into forced labour, offers no wage, no federal OHS and Workers’ compensation protection, no superannuation and no conditions of employment.

As Pat Dodson so succinctly said, back in 1999 at the Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture:

“Be warned, there is a serious move afoot in this country, by very powerful forces at the highest level of Government, business and society to return the position of Indigenous Australians to the situation that existed in Australia before the Wave Hill strike in 1966.”

Pat warned us, “the hard men of Vesteys still walk the corridors of power.”

Given the approach to remote Indigenous workers under the CDP and the fact that the broader crisis in our communities is being overseen by a Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister who is either incompetent or complicit, it is clear that the hard men of Vesteys have just been re-elected for another term of government.

Comrades, these are great challenges we face.  As Ged said in her speech, we must fight on every front. But do not be overwhelmed.

The Gurindji and the unions that supported them stood in the face of even greater challenges, they stood together and they won.

And so too will we.

As the descendants and beneficiaries of that great legacy, together we will stand on the shoulders of our union and community giants.

Together we will stand, together we will fight, and together we will win.

From little things big things grow

From Little Things Big Things Grow
by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody

Gather round people I’ll tell you a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
‘Bout British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiarri
They were opposite men on opposite sides

Vestey was fat with money and muscle
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the oppression got tighter and tighter
Gurindji decided they must make a stand

They picked up their swags and started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now it don’t sound like much but it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead and then in the town

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Vestey man said I’ll double your wages
Seven quid a week you’ll have in your hand
Vincent said uhuh we’re not talking about wages
We’re sitting right here till we get our land
Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered
You don’t stand the chance of a cinder in snow
Vince said if we fall others are rising

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiarri boarded an aeroplane
Landed in Sydney, big city of lights
And daily he went round softly speaking his story
To all kinds of men from all walks of life

And Vincent sat down with big politicians
This affair they told him is a matter of state
Let us sort it out, your people are hungry
Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiarri returned in an aeroplane
Back to his country once more to sit down
And he told his people let the stars keep on turning
We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent’s fingers poured a handful of sand

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

That was the story of Vincent Lingiarri
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
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Copyright: Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody

Read more about the Wave Hill walk off, 1966-75 on the Collaborating for Indigenous Rights website

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