I had been in Western Australia for exactly a year when the local newspaper reported that a white guy had led about 200 people off Wave Hill station, on strike for better working conditions. It wasn't a big headline, and it wasn't followed up.
I had already been instructed in the way of the West and its attitude to 'blackfellers' by my nice new Australian friends. I had seen their wretched living conditions on the outskirts of Perth and the railway lines of its eastern inner city and parks.
Coming out of the comfortable myth that my home country of New Zealand was not racist — even taught in my Dunedin school that 'the Maori' was noble, respected, warlike and assimilated, and generously protected with four guaranteed seats in parliament — I was amazed to learn that Australia's Indigenous people were — and will be — obliged to work without industrial protections such as occupational health and safety or workers compensation insurance, holiday and sick pay.
In 1966 it was the British Vesteys Group that had been exploiting Aboriginal people as servants, jackaroos and skilled labour: today it is the Australian state in the guise of 'community development', aka work for the dole.
The Gurindji people of the walk-off on 23 August 1966 drew attention to their appalling living conditions; sparked equal wage laws and Australia's first land rights act, long before Mabo. They were the first to reclaim their traditional lands.
What was not publicised, but it is about to be, is the dreadful oral history of these people of sustained violence, child-stealing, rape, enslavement, casual murder and deliberate massacres.
There are two books we, and all Australian children particularly, should read. One is A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-Off, by Charlie Ward, published by Monash University Publishing 2016. The other, Yijarni: True Stories From Gurindji, is especially important.
The book, launched last weekend at Kalkaringi by Pat Dodson, is the written/fixed and previously unknown record of a collaboration between the Gurindji elders, linguists, photographers, visual artists from Karungkarni Arts and the Murnkurrumurnkurru Central Land Council rangers. It is the background to the walk off and the unacknowledged basis of Australians' self-image, today.
"Like the Gurindji I respect and require truth. And as a born New Zealander I now fully understand that a written record is only one 'truth' of many."
As Yijarni (or 'Truth') records, 'One of the first things the Gurindji did after the walk-off was to take the bones of those massacred at Blackfellows Knob and accord them with the respect of a traditional burial, by interring them in the caves of the Seale Gorge.' Nobody wrote that up in 1966. And though they and all Aboriginal people 'won' the right to equal pay on paper, that was not what happened on the ground. Fifty years on, Aboriginal workers in regional and remote Australia will be paid less than award wages for a mandatory 25 hours work a week without workplace protections, or undergo 'training' without work attached, or live off the land without income for months.
They didn't even really win ownership rights to their land. It was a symbol which, as Gary Foley, a Black Power anarchist from those days and bitter critic of Mabo and the legislation that followed, enriched law firms and frustrated and hurt claimants since the 1976 NT Act, which has been constantly attacked, limited and used for the 'rights' that capitalists recognise, such as fee simple land ownership for individuals. Ian Viner, who was the WA based Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Fraser government from 1975-78, wrote in the Northern Land Council Land Rights News (April 2016):
'I fear that governments since 1976, Territory and Commonwealth, CLP, Liberal and Labor have never really come to terms with the act, always wanting to amend it, restrict its operation, cut down freehold land ownership, diminish the traditional communal basis for recognition of Aboriginal land, restrict and reduce the role and responsibilities of the Land Councils, give miners, developers and Government easier access to Aboriginal land.
'The act has suffered review after review. It must be one of the most reviewed pieces of legislation ever: by Toohey (1983), Reeves (1998), House of Representatives Standing Committee (1999), Manning (1999), Gray (2006) and most recently, Mansfield in 2013 — as well as the infamous 2007 Intervention by the Howard Government. Always the Act has been amended to increase access to Aboriginal land, change tenure, remove permits, and weaken the veto power.'
I don't subscribe to Howard's infamous slur on 'the black arm band' view of history. Like the Gurindji I respect and require truth. And as a born New Zealander I now fully understand that a written record is only one 'truth' of many. I have read beyond my family's oral tradition and the official transcript of the defamation action in 1883 that silenced the many critics of my great grandfather, the Minister for Native Affairs in NZ. John Bryce was, according to family tradition, a friend of the Maori, NZ's first people. He was also a thief of their land, a persecutor of the great Maori prophet, Te Whiti, whose passive resistance helped inspire Gandhi's, and a powerful Glaswegian who laid waste and stole Te Whiti's traditional lands and destroyed Parihaka and deliberately enabled the arbitrary apprehension, indefinite detention without trial and loss of the Maori's most basic civil right on the basis of race.
Let us remember the dignity of the walk off, and the betrayal of the Gurindji people's rightful claims, because it is a true record of our nation's shared past.
Moira Rayner is a barrister and writer.
23 August 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill walk off.
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23 August 2016
There is also the earlier strike in 1946 around Port Hedland. Several books including Don mcLeood's "How the West Was Lost", " Yandi", a film and a play. They are well worth a bit of research.
23 August 2016
A powerful reminder of the responsibility of government to respond to our first nation's people in a more dignified, truthful and fair manner. I am continually outraged at the manner in which we can so
easily dismiss and override other people's rights to suit our own financial rewards and benefits.
23 August 2016
That "white man" was Frank Hardy, a publicity seeking member of the Communist Party of Australia. Despite the efforts of the Liberal/Country Party government to label the
Gurindji walk off a communist-led plot, the publicity Hardy obtained for the Gurindji cause proved superior to government propaganda. Whether or not Hardy acted with mixed motives is beside the point. The fundamental denial by Vestey's of a fair basic wage and decent conditions of employment could not avoid the sunlight of Hardy's exposure.
23 August 2016
Louise is correct: McLeod and seven indigenous leaders were arrested by the Federal Police in the 1948 walkout in the Pilbara. That Australia's richest woman has inherited and built her wealth based on mining iron ore in that region of WA while the indigenous whose country has enabled her to build that wealth still go unrecognised and unrewarded is an indictment on us all. "How the West Was Lost" was filmed and a copy used be held in the film library of the DAA in West Perth. It needs to be screened on TV. Moira is right too: we need to acknowledge the truth of the past.
24 August 2016
Well said Moira! We need more confession and speaking truth to power! PS- a pity the editor missed the two typos! "Wave Rock" in the second line should read "Wave Hill" - very different places from one another. And the walk off date was 1966 not "1963" as stated in the fifth para.
Tim Kroenert, Editor
24 August 2016
Thanks Paul, and apologies. I've made those corrections.
28 August 2016
Those of us who were fortunate to be present at the 50th Freedom Day Festival will, I am sure, never forget the experience. "Yijarni" is an extraordinary book as is Charlie Ward's "A Handful of Sand" also launched at Kalkarinji last weekend. The other must read is Deborah Wilson's "Different White People" (UWAP, 2015) which details the Pilbara and Wave Hill Walkouts as well as campaign against nuclear testing in Central Australia. Busy reading all three at once!
01 September 2016
thanks for this article Moira which I have come across a week later. Wave Hill - A great occasion celebrating a great people. What a country we could be!
In SA the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunyjatjara Land Rights legislation of the early 80s has also been subjected to a number of 'reforms' in later years No need to guess which way the 'reforming' went and who didn't benefit.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
25 October 2016
This is a great article. I am very interested in this history as I have also been working in solidarity with the Aboriginal movement for many years.
When I lived in Sydney in the early 1970s, I attended a number of meetings of the Save the Gurindji Campaign and I can verify the passion that Frank Hardy put into this cause. His book was crucial in combatting the lies and distortions of Lord Vestey and the governments that supported him.
Don McLeod was also a member of the CPA and was so loved by Aboriginal tribes in the Pilbara that he was initiated by them and he was chosen to read the Proclamation of Noonkanbah.
McLeod was a bushie and a fossicker and his dream was to teach local Aborigines to identify ores, so that they could stake mining claims and receive profits from the mining of them for health and education programs.
His book, "How the West Was Lost", showed how WA governments helped European Australians to jump the claims that McLeod helped Aborigines to claim.
He tried to help them claim the asbestos ore at Wittenoom (not knowing how dangerous it was) and it was jumped by the postmaster at Wittenoom. His name was Laing Hancock and his first big profits came from Wittenoom asbestos before selling the mine to CSR.
And we should not forget the left wing Brian Manning, the Darwin wharfie, wo drove his truck full of supplies to Wave Hill to help the strikers there. He also had a radio receiver installed in his back yard to receive messages from the East Timorese resistance during the Indonesian occupation. He was also involved with sending messages to Timor as well.
History should remember these heroes who gave so much solidarity to those struggling for social justice and independence.