The Gurindji Walk Off
Our Gurindji elders are renowned for the day they bravely walked away from the pastoral industry which had controlled their lives for eighty years. The work and living conditions they endured on the British Vestey Company’s Wave Hill station were appalling. The old people worked for meat scraps, tea and sugar, and lived:
‘In little humpies, crawl inside. Little bit of rag on the side and little bit of tin from rubbish dump’ (Marie Jaban, 2000).
When unionists in Darwin offered our elder Vincent Lingiari their assistance, he enacted the plan he and other tribal leaders had made, to leave Vestey’s Wave Hill:
‘We bin gone to the [manager’s] office, morning time. We been all stand up behind Old Vincent. He said “We just finished now, right now. That’s all we can tell you”’ (Violet Wadrill, 2000).
On 23 August 1966, two hundred Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri people took their belongings and walked from old Wave Hill station (Jinparrak), the place they had been stuck for forty years. Other strikes broke out elsewhere. Our people’s action stoked the biggest challenge the Northern Territory cattle industry had faced since the whitefellas took our land. Our old people knew the risks. Some of their own parents had been killed for resisting white cattlemen, and many of them had themselves been beaten or threatened with guns:
‘We weren’t game to walk along the road. We were really frightened.’ (Billy Bunter, 2000).
Lingiari was strong, and refused the Vestey company’s requests to return.
‘Donald Nangiari, Vincent Lingiari and Captain Major—they been talk really hard to the Vestey’s. Because Vestey’s been treating these people all over Australia just like a dog’. (Mick Inverway, 1998).
Lingiari had another vision for his people:
‘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).
Us track mob wanted our land. From 1967–75, we lived illegally by our sacred Daguragu waterhole on Wave Hill Station. Lingiari and other old men took our message to the people of Australia, campaigning for the return of our land. At the same time, our elders built up our community and cattle business with the help of supporters.
The old people’s bravery and determination showed the plight of thousands of Ngumpit people across north and central Australia, and forced Aboriginal land rights onto the national political agenda. Their battle ended when Vincent Lingiari accepted a pastoral lease over our traditional country from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam during a special ‘handback’ ceremony in 1975.
Us descendants and surviving members of the ‘track mob’ who built up Daguragu and fought for land rights will host you at the Walk Off’s 50th anniversary celebrations at Kalkaringi & Daguragu in August 2016.
Courtesy of Darrell Lewis
In our communities are ‘one mob’ with Gurindji, Malngin, Bilinara, Mudburra and Ngarinyman speakers from nearby. Together, we call ourselves Ngumpit, and share most of our languages and culture. Warlpiri people have also lived with us for generations.
Our country is richly varied and includes the headwaters of the Victoria River. According to our elders, the land is alive with the spirit ancestors who created our country. Jurntakal (snake) is a major Dreaming for us. In the Dreamtime, Jurntakal travelled from Spring Creek in the west, across upper Wattie Creek, and into Mudburra country at Gordie Springs. Before our land was taken up by European settlers, our old people shared our world with Kurraj (Rainbow Snakes), Karukany (mermaids) and other spirits.
Today, people at Daguragu and Kalkaringi mostly speak Gurindji, Kriol and English. Everyone inherits a skin-name at birth. There are four for boys, like Janama and Japarta, and four for girls, like Nangala and Nawurla. We keep our skin names for life and they determine how all Ngumpit relate to each other.
Many of us are successful practising artists, using our art to tell stories about our land, Dreamings and history. The Karungkarni Art and Cultural Centre is a focal point for our community. Local ceremonial life is secret-sacred, though people here say that senior men and women will lead the young in a special wajarra (public) dance at the 50th Freedom Day.
The Kawarla book team: (L-R) Felicity Meakins (linguist), Penny Smith (photographer), Violet Wadrill, Biddy and Jimmy Wavehill (Gurindji language experts, painters and coolamon makers)