Forty-seven years ago the Aboriginal people of Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory of Australia walked away from a situation that had oppressed them for over half a century. Settler Australians had taken over the traditional Aboriginal homelands and placed a grid of cattle properties across Indigenous country. Those Aboriginal people who survived the early years became an unfree, unpaid labour force that kept the industry alive. They were not citizens of Australia, but rather ‘wards of the state’. In fact, Hobbles Danaiyarri, one of the men who taught me about the history of the region, said that during the long era from conquest to walk-off people had been ‘prisoners in their own country’.
The walk-off was meant to change all this, and its impacts were far-reaching. Locally, it brought the cattle business to a halt, and over the next few years the original mob was joined by Aboriginal people from most of the other properties in the region. From their walk-off camp at Daguragu they waited out the long-term negotiations that would enable them to return home with the prospect of land rights, and with decent wages if they still had jobs to return to.
This momentous event is now celebrated as Gurindji Freedom Day. It remains important because it continues to re-affirm people’s desire for freedom. Equally, the celebrations ask us to pause and consider what freedom might mean in a society that seems determined to equate that term with a neo-liberal vision of individuated self-interest and competition.
Historians have expended huge amounts of thought, research, and publications in debating a set of questions that to me are false dichotomies. The research questions, in brief, go like this: did the ‘Gurindji’ go on strike or did they walk off? Were they dissatisfied with the poor (almost non-existent) wages they received, or did they aspire to larger issues of land rights? Were they seeking to become integrated into the labour market, or did they want to regain possession of their traditional homelands? Did they want to assimilate, or were they holding out for a separate but equal status?
I call these false dichotomies because they assume that in each either-or proposition, only one answer could be right. But life is rarely so simple, and I think all these propositions are correct to some degree. Of course people wanted equal wages. Of course they wanted their land back. Of course they wanted to maintain their own way of life in the midst of their on-going adaptation to the Australian nation. Of course they wanted to be citizens, to vote, to have a share in the society of which they had forcibly become a part. And of course they wanted to continue to be themselves.
The walk-off was a moment of refusal, and at the same time it worked toward new forms of accommodation. Aboriginal people have not only survived white conquest and colonisation, they continue to refuse total colonisation. This refusal lies at the heart of the walk-off, as I came to understand the story under the tutelage of some of the great leaders, including Tommy Vincent Lingiari (also known as Tommy, Vincent, and Lingiari in various combinations) and Hobbles Danaiyarri. Hobbles was a historian and story-teller. He had walked off from Wave Hill with the others, and he told his accounts with the conviction of a participant. His re-telling of an encounter between Tommy Vincent, the leader of the walk-off, and the Welfare agents and others who tried to persuade the Aboriginal people to return to work gives a vivid sense of the disparate views Settler and Indigenous people held about what was going on. Lingiari’s words stand today as one of the great expressions of Indigenous eloquence, made more powerful by the fact that the nation continues, day by day, and year by year, to treat Aboriginal people as a problem to be solved, and, perhaps in consequence, as yet another industry.
In Hobbles’s words:
Lotta welfare mob came up, trying to get strike mob back.
‘You can’t get your money’ (European speaker)
‘No. We don’t worry for money ’ (Tommy Vincent)
‘How you going to get a feed?’
‘Lotta feed in the bush’
‘Bring back the children for school’
‘We’ll find a school’
‘How about medicine?’
‘Don’t worry about medicine’
‘You might be hungry. You must gotta come back.’
‘No. My mind is to stay on strike. I can’t go back.’
‘Flour and sugar?’
‘We don’t worry.’
‘You must going to be hungry.’
‘I can’t go hungry here at the river – fish, turtle, goanna, that tucker grew me up. I’m not going back.’
‘But what about for money?’
This is where the story becomes most eloquent, as Tommy Vincent makes the final pronouncement, directed toward the wealth and power of the nation and of the property owners:
‘You can keep your gold. We just want our land back.’
As Hobbles tells this story, it is rich in irony. ‘Welfare’ is offering people goods and services that for decades been denied, or doled out in miserly fashion. The ‘Welfare’ position casts Aboriginal people as helpless and hopeless. Vincent Lingiari’s responses indicate that over the long decades when Aboriginal people had had to get along without adequate food, medicine, and wages, their knowledge of country, bush tucker and bush medicine kept them alive. And in the same decades, knowledge was added: how to ride horses and manage cattle, how to build fences and how to face up to white men.
A short documentary film made in 1966 is wonderfully instructive. In spite of language that is now dated, the story shows this same set of misunderstandings. White people talk about ‘giving’ land to Aboriginal people, as if the Aborigines were supplicants. Aboriginal people talk about remaining in country (or on land) that has always been theirs, clearly turning the ideas back around to show just who it was who had been taking other people’s country.
I have been privileged to work on Aboriginal claims to land across the Northern Territory over the course of many years. I have visited many sacred sites, heard many stories, and witnessed many people giving evidence about the matters that are dearest to their hearts. By now it is clear that getting the land back doesn’t solve all the problems of how to live well in the midst of enormous social and ecological pressures arising both externally and internally. But at the same time, Tommy Vincent Lingiari’s statement continues to articulate an enormous and enduring truth. If country, or land, is where the meaning of your life is located, then all the gold in the world is no substitute.
Gurindji Freedom Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect upon how and where we find and sustain meaning in our lives, not only as individuals but as participants in the entangled relationships of land and country.
Hokari, Minoru 2011 Gurindji journey : a Japanese historian in the outback, Sydney: UNSW Press.
Rose, Deborah 1991 Hidden Histories. Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. Winner of the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature.
Film clip: Gurindji Strike: The Wave Hill Walk-Off
Australian Geographic Blog