In a remote part of Australia, at a time before social media and internet was around, one lndigenous man was able to stand up, be heard and change the course of Australian history. His name was Vincent Lingiari.
On the 23rd of August 1966, Vincent Lingiari led 200 courageous Indigenous stockmen and their families to walk off Wave Hill Cattle Station in the Northern Territory protesting against the work and pay conditions.
The Walk-Off took place 80 years after the British invaded Gurindji lands, bringing cattle and farming that destroyed Aboriginal water and food sources, and livelihoods. These 80 years included massacres and killings, stolen children and other abuses by the early colonists.
Initially, the British pastoralists believed the workers would return when offered improved wages and conditions. But Lingiari had another vision for his people and wanted nothing more than the rightful return of their lands.
“Wave Hill Aboriginal people bin called Gurindji. This is our country. All this bin Gurindji country. We bin here long time before them Vestey mob”, Vincent Lingiari, 1968
The group walked some 30 kilometers from Wave Hill Station to Wattie Creek where they stayed in protest for nine long years. During the years of struggle and protest, which made headlines across the nation, Vincent Lingiari toured Australia to lobby politicians and galvanise support. Victory was achieved in 1975!
The nation witnessed the first piece of Australian soil being returned to Indigenous hands when the Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, ‘handed-back’ the land to the Gurindji people. You may remember this symbolic photo (Image – Mervyn Bishop, Art Gallery NSW):
A wave of change…
At the time the Gurindji strike was taking place in Australia, the worldwide civil rights movement was in full swing. Whilst many Australians are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, the history of the Indigenous Australian civil rights movement and its heroes, like Vincent Lingiari, is still largely unknown in our country.
Across the nation things were starting to change for Indigenous people. The Wave Hill Walk-off started just one year after Charlie Perkins led The Freedom Ride across NSW to protest against discrimination Indigenous people faced. And a year later, in 1967 over 90% of Australians voted in favour of counting Indigenous people in the census. On Australia Day of 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was set up outside Parliament House in Canberra.
Australian people were starting to take notice and think differently.
In 1975, the Whitlam government finally negotiated a deal with the Vesteys to return part of the traditional lands to the Gurindji people.
On the 16th of August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed over title to the land to the Gurindji people, by pouring soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hands. This has become a defining moment in Australia’s history and this period of time was the start of the land rights movement.
In 1976, Vincent Lingiari was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. He passed away in 1988 and is remembered as one of the strongest and most inspirational Indigenous leaders ever.
2006, the Northern Territory government heritage listed the route of the walk-off. And in 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the walk-off, a track was opened to share the historic journey with visitors.