- by Hannah Middleton
- The Guardian
- Issue #1977
Fifty-five years ago, on 23rd August, 1966, about 200 stockmen and their families walked off the Wave Hill cattle station, owned by British Lord Vestey, in protest at the appalling wages and conditions they were forced to endure. The walk-off also followed more than eighty years of massacres and killings, stolen children and other abuses by early colonists
Wave Hill station had relied on forcing Aboriginal people to work for rations since 1883, when the station was first established. Across the Northern Territory, even where Aboriginal workers did receive wages, they were much lower than those white workers got.
The story of the first days is still often told – a column of men, women and children, the older children and adults helping to carry the babies and the younger ones when they got tired, their blankets and what little other possessions and food they had been able to bring with them; a noisy crowd, excited, some happy, some frightened, some worried, surrounded by their dogs as they walked through kilometre after kilometre of rough bush country.
By the end of the month most of the strikers had moved to a temporary camp on the banks of the Victoria River near the Wave Hill Welfare Settlement. In March 1967, they moved 11 kms to Daguragu on the banks of Wattie Creek. The place they chose is land traditionally owned by the Gurindji and is close to several important sacred sites. There is also a permanent supply of good water.
It became clear that they wanted more than equal wages and working conditions. They had never given up their land and now they wanted it back and they wanted control of their lives.
Their initiative, consistent courage, dignity, perseverance, and determination to win their struggle were amazing. Bribes, trickery, delaying tactics, threats, and every other manoeuvre did not move them.
ROLE OF CPA
The Communist Party of Australia played a critical role, using its considerable influence to mobilise and educate support for the Gurindji. Prominent among them were Darwin CPA members and union activists Brian Manning and George Gibbs.
However, the cold war and anti-communism were still influential. Many in government and the cattle industry were racist and did not believe Aboriginal people could organise a strike on their own. Describing the people at Daguragu as tools in the hands of manipulative political agitators gave the government an excuse to dismiss their demands.
HISTORY OF RESISTANCE
The Gurindji struggle did not come out of a void – Aboriginal protest actions had been developing since the late 1930s.
The first-ever mass strike of Aboriginal people took place in 1939 when over 150 people left Cummeragunja Station in protest at their cruel treatment and exploitation. They walked 66 km, crossing the border from New South Wales into Victoria, defying the rules of the New South Wales Protection Board.
On May Day 1946 Aboriginal people walked off pastoral stations in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. The strike leaders and organisers were Aborigines – the best known were Dooley and Clancy McKenna – but also included one white man, the communist Don McLeod. Station owners were shocked by the organisation, solidarity and determination of the strikers.
Similar actions were attempted in the Victoria River Downs region in 1946-47 and 1951. Protest actions were taken at Wave Hill Station in 1949, 1952 and 1955; Coolibah Station in 1947; Victoria River Downs Station in 1947; Montejinnie in 1948 and Camfield Station in 1965.
In December 1950 and again in January 1951 Aboriginal workers in Darwin went on strike. The North Australian Workers’ Union in Darwin, with the Darwin CPA branch at the forefront, organised financial and other support from throughout the continent for the striking Aborigines and their families and for the legal costs of their defence.
The government and pastoralist bosses assumed that the Gurindji would not be able to survive. But thanks to their spirit and to solidarity, they were able to stay camped at Daguragu.
CPA members made an essential contribution to developing the movement in solidarity with the Gurindji. Working people, students and others were brought together and given leadership by the Communist Party. Two communists, Frank Hardy and Hannah Middleton, wrote books about the walkoff, helping to publicise and popularise the Gurindji struggle.
The struggle lasted for nine years until finally, in 1975, the Labor Government handed the Gurindji the lease over a fraction of their traditional land. Gough Whitlam travelled to Daguragu to hand the deeds to Vincent Lingiari. pouring sand into his hands to symbolise the return of land.
The success of the Gurindji land claim was a victory against a powerful industry and a hostile government. Without their courage and determination, the ongoing struggle for land rights would be far less advanced.
However, after some years of gradual improvement, things have gone backwards. Many of the reforms the Gurindji fought for with great personal sacrifice and with the support of many Australians is being negated by governments ostensibly committed to Close the Gap.
Despite the Labor Government’s reforms and funding programs, self-determination on the ground often did not result in real consultation, let alone Aboriginal control over Aboriginal futures.
The Gurindji made it clear they wanted a school at Daguragu. They believed that western education, supplemented by education in traditional law, was essential for the community. However, in late 1974, the government approved a major expansion of the existing school at Kalkaringi. This continued the policies of the previous Liberal governments to develop Kalkaringi as the preferred alternative to Daguragu.
As Professor Jon Altman points out: “Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory are once again being mistreated and exploited […]. People’s labour is again exploited, they live in poor housing, their welfare entitlements are insecure and they have limited means to appeal as their community organisations are depoliticised and disempowered.”
In June 2007 Daguragu and other Northern Territory Aboriginal communities were massively damaged by the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act – the Intervention. The government sent police and soldiers into Aboriginal communities. The Intervention was replaced by the similar Stronger Futures policy in February 2012.
Governments, mining corporations, pastoralists, and other powerful forces were intent on destroying self-determination and Aboriginal control over land. Their aim was to regain ultimate control over the land and resources. Governments took steps to drive communities out of their homelands and smash land rights.
They had always wanted to wipe Daguragu off the map and to move the Gurindji to Kalkaringi. Services were funded at Kalkaringi – a school, clinic, store and more – to make it a magnet for the Gurindji. The idea was promoted that the Gurindji would inevitably abandon Daguragu. This was then used to justify rejecting or delaying projects that the Gurindji themselves wanted to develop. At the same time, Daguragu was described as an unproductive camp of “fringe dwellers” who did not deserve support.
There was a multi-million dollar theft from Aborigines as their land, buildings, assets and authority were stolen from their community councils. The two communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu lost up to 250 jobs as a result of the Intervention. Almost no women from Daguragu now have jobs.
Much of what was lost was vital for the provision of essential services – road grading equipment, backhoes, grass cutting equipment, buses, tractors and even fire trucks. There are no longer bus rides into centres for shopping, firewood collection for the elderly or latrine-digging at ceremony camps.
THE FIGHT CONTINUES
True to form and despite everything they had lost, the Gurindji still resisted. A one-day strike at Kalkaringi in 2010 briefly brought the employment crisis to national attention. Gurindji leaders toured southern cities and union workplaces to appeal for support. Others led protests in Darwin.
After fifty-five years Gurindji families still live at Daguragu and their struggle for survival and independent development has not died. The new generation may have different dreams but they revere the heroes of the Walk-Off.
Australian governments have tried again and again to destroy their hopes and to force the people to move to Kalkaringi or further afield. They have not succeeded. A community remains at Daguragu. Their resilience and tenacity are amazing.
The fight continues!