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From wage rights to land rights

In August 1966 Aboriginal pastoral workers walked off the job on the vast Vesteys' cattle station at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory.

At first they expressed their unhappiness with their poor working conditions and disrespectful treatment. Conversations between stockmen who had worked for Vesteys and Dexter Daniels, the North Australian Workers' Union Aboriginal organiser, led to the initial walk off.

Black and white photo of two men beside a sign reading ‘Gurindji mining lease and cattle station’.
Vincent Lingiari and Mick Rangiari beside the sign they asked Frank Hardy to make, 1966

The next year the group moved to Wattie Creek, a place of significance to the Gurindji people. They asked Frank Hardy to 'make a sign' which included the word 'Gurindji', their own name for themselves. Their disaffection was deeper than wages and working conditions.

Although these stockmen and their families could not read, they understood the power of the white man's signs. Now their name for themselves, written on a sign, asserted a claim to Gurindji lands.

Vincent Lingiari:

I bin thinkin' this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob.

'Gurindji Blues'

Courtesy Ted Egan. Recording date unknown.
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Presenters: Vincent Lingiari

In 1967 after hearing Minister for the Interior Peter Nixon's plan to dismiss the Gurindji claim to their land, Ted Egan wrote 'Gurindji Blues'. A singer/songwriter who had a long association with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, Egan listened to the Gurindji people and recorded their views about land in the song.

'Gurindji Blues' was recorded by RCA records in 1971 with a young Yolngu spokesman, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, accompanying Egan.


Frank Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, One Day Hill, London, 1981, p. 131.

Following the walk off by Aboriginal pastoral workers employed on Vesteys' Wave Hill station, the Gurindji men had important conversations amongst themselves and with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal supporters.

Vincent Lingiari, Mick Rangiari (also known as Hoppy Mick), Lupna Giari (also know as Captain Major), Pincher Manguari (also known as Pincher Nyurrmiyari) and others voiced their discontent at working for Vesteys. They decided they would not return.

Black and white photo of an aerial view of a river lined with trees and sparse bush land beyond.
Gurindji Camp at Wattie Creek, mid-1960s

Among the supporters to speak with these stockmen were Dexter Daniels, the Aboriginal organiser for the North Australian Workers Union, Brian Manning, a founding member of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and some unions.

In addition, the communist author Frank Hardy went to the Northern Territory in June 1966. He spent time with the strikers camped at the welfare settlement and became involved in trying to understand their grievances. At this stage, most white supporters were unionists, members of the Communist Party of Australia or others engaged in addressing economic injustice.

These Aboriginal workers were not eligible for the safeguards provided to other workers through the industrial relations system. However, the focus on economic injustice initially prevented many white supporters from understanding the deeper matters which concerned the Gurindji.

At a meeting of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights at Rapid Creek, Hardy helped members to set out their grievances in a document titled 'Program for improved living standards for Northern Territory Aborigines'. Wages and working conditions were only a part of a wider and deeper discontent.

In April 1967 the pastoral workers, along with their wives and children, picked up their cooking pots and clothes and other meagre belongings and moved camp, walking to Daguragu (Wattie Creek). 'This bin Gurindji country' is how Pincher Manguari described Wattie Creek to Frank Hardy.

Mick Rangiari, speaking to Frank Hardy, recalled the day they moved:

Mick Rangiari interviewed by Jack Doolan

Northern Territory Archives Service. Recording date unknown.
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Presenters: Mick Rangiari

In Australian law, however, these men and their families were illegally occupying a part of the 6158 square miles leased to Vesteys — a group of private companies controlled by the wealthy English Vestey family, the biggest leaseholders in the Northern Territory. The company paid rent to the government at a rate of between 10 and 55 cents per square mile per year.

Daguragu was chosen because it was near several important Gurindji sacred sites and had a permanent source of water.

Wattie Creek, 1968

This move demonstrated the gap between the white supporters, who believed the dispute to be about wages and conditions, and the Aboriginal pastoral workers, who had decided to stop working for Vesteys altogether. Frank Hardy, and then other supporters, gradually came to understand this.

Unions began to play an essential support role ensuring that the new independent settlement had a food supply and other necessities such as the use of a truck. A new community began, with gardens, buildings and fences.


Vincent Lingiari at his house, Wattie Creek

Wattie Creek store, 1968

Wattie Creek kitchen with oven, 1968

Wattie Creek garden, mid-1960s


Peter D'Abbs, The Vestey Story, Melbourne, about 1969 or 1970, pp. 6–15.

Frank Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, One Day Hill, London, 1981, p. 140 and p. 220.

Frank Hardy cast about for a strategy to bring the plight of these pastoral workers to public attention. He learned that section 112 of the Crown Land Ordinance allowed for the Governor-General to grant a lease to Aboriginal people over land with which they were traditionally associated.

This seemed to imply some recognition of Aboriginal attachment to traditional lands. Given that the Gurindji were squatting on land which they regarded as theirs before the Vesteys arrived with their cattle and horses, Hardy was sufficiently encouraged to draft a petition to the Governor-General.

Drawn up on behalf of Vincent Lingiari, Pincher Manguari, Gerry Ngalgardji and Long-John Kitgnaari, it began:

We, the leaders of the Gurindji people, write to you about our earnest desire to regain tenure of our tribal lands in the Wave Hill-Limbunya area of the Northern Territory, of which we were dispossessed in time past.

They requested a lease of 500 square miles to be run cooperatively as a mining lease and cattle station. The fact that the request concerned leased rather than Crown land, added another legal dimension to the land question.

A moral claim to land

In August 1967 the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) wrote to the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, supporting the petition by the Gurindji for a return of their tribal lands.

A press statement in September, couched not in the language of industrial dispute, but in the new language of land rights, pledged support for 'the possible legal action to establish their rights to their traditional lands and sacred places'.

The argument had changed. It no longer lay within the boundaries laid out by the Arbitration and Conciliation Commission and designed to ensure justice in the Australian workplace. It had moved into territory without precedent in Australia. The Gurindji petition simply stated, 'we feel that morally the land is ours and should be returned to us'.

The Governor-General's reply was about laws, not morals.

As a result of the Gurindji claim, the debate about Indigenous rights to land was no longer limited to Aboriginal reserves such as Yirrkala or Lake Tyers. Cabinet, however, rejected this interpretation and the Governor-General refused the request set out in the petition.


Gurindji petition to Lord Casey, Governor General, 19 April 1967, National Archives of Australia, Darwin.

Minutes of FCAATSI executive meeting, 23–24 September 1967, Barrie Pittock personal papers.

During these confusing times, letters and telegrams flew back and forth between the Northern Territory Administration and the ministers of the Interior, Social Services, and Territories, and the Northern Territory Cattle Producers Council, a powerful lobby group.

Black and white photo of people standing amongst rickety structures constructed from logs in dry looking bush land.
Gurindji general camp, mid-1960s

The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) sent food and blankets by air to the people on strike. Brian Manning of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights drove supplies in with Dexter Daniels, a North Australian Workers Union organiser.

Brian Manning, in the 2002 Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, recalled these events.

Actors Equity and the Building Workers Industrial Union sponsored Dexter Daniels, President of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, and Lupna Giari, also known as Captain Major, on a five-week speaking tour of southern states.

Black and white photo of a man speaking to a large group of trades people.
Dexter Daniels addressing Sydney unionists, October 1966

People travelled from Wave Hill to Darwin to demonstrate against a Bill before the Northern Territory Parliament which, if passed, would lead to a loss of Aboriginal reserve land.

The North Australian Workers Union and the Waterside Workers Federation collected money to support the Gurindji, and Abschol sent working parties to assist in the building of the community.


Equal wages campaign: Captain Major speaking to unionists in Sydney

Just as the writing of their name on a sign gave the group credibility in the white man's world, white supporters acknowledging the group as 'Gurindji' gave the community the confidence to reject the demoralising attitude of the pastoralists, who had called them 'boys' and given them names such as Hoppy Mick (Mick Rangiari).

On National Aborigines Day in July 1970 more than 500 people turned up at a meeting in the Teachers Federation Auditorium in Sydney to listen to Frank Hardy, recently returned from Wattie Creek.

In an impassioned speech he outlined events at Wattie Creek over the previous four years, finishing with a plea for public support to assist them in maintaining their demands for a right to the land they were occupying.

The meeting set up a 'Save the Gurindji' committee which aimed to 'confront Vesteys and the Federal Government in the North at Wattie Creek' and 'to demonstrate, boycott and agitate in major cities in the South'.

The purpose of these activities was 'to achieve the aims of the Gurindji to ownership of 500 square miles of Wave Hill land occupying Wattie Creek'. This committee, supported by members of Sydney Abschol, began its campaign with a demonstration outside Vestey offices on 31 July and a boycott of Vestey products on 28 August.

The Gurindji struggle for their land, and the legal case being prepared to assist the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in their efforts to gain title to the Arnhem Land Reserve, became two of the most potent symbols of the land rights movement (see Campaigning for land rights).


Publicity Subcommittee, 'Save the Gurindji' press statement, 15 July 1970, FCAATSI papers, MS 2999, Y600, press folder, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The coming to power of the Whitlam government in 1972, on a platform which promised to legislate for land rights, brought new hope to the Gurindji.

The original Wave Hill lease was surrendered and two new leases were issued: one to the Vesteys and one to the Murramulla Gurindji Company. The Gurindji lease of approximately 3300 square kilometres included important sacred sites.

Vincent Lingiari and other Gurindji men

On 16 August 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came to Daguragu. As he poured a handful of Daguragu soil into Vincent Lingiari's hand, he said:

Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.
Two men are standing under a canvas roof in outback terrain. One man is Gough Whitlam who is shaking Vincent Lingiari's hand.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Vincent Lingiari, Wattie Creek, 1975
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