Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Truth beyond written records of the Wave Hill walk off

  • 23 August 2016


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