The main players in the Wave Hill story were the Gurindji people, Englishman Lord Vestey and the Wave Hill Station managers, Aboriginal union organiser Dexter Daniels, the Commonwealth government and author Frank Hardy and other ‘friends in the South’.
In 1966 there were about 200 Gurindji people living and working on Wave Hill’s pastoral lease.
Many of the men were stockmen who did the majority of the work on the huge station, which included mustering cattle for sale in Darwin.
Some of the women worked as mostly unpaid domestic staff in the Wave Hill homestead.
The stockmen were paid much less than white stockmen and in some cases paid only in meagre food rations, mostly salty beef and flour.
Vincent Lingiari, community elder and head stockman at the station
Vincent Lingiari was born around 1919 at Victoria River Gorge, Northern Territory. Both his mother (name unknown) and father, also Vincent Lingiari, were employed on Wave Hill. Called Tommy
Vincent by his employers, he received no formal education. At about age 12 he was absorbed into station work at the stock camps, where cattle were mustered, branded and drafted into mobs to be
driven to meatworks at Port Darwin.
Although Lingiari became a head stockman at Wave Hill, he initially received no cash payment for his work. The first time he handled money was in about 1953 when he lined up with the other stockmen at the Negri River races and was given £5 pocket money. It was at about this same time that he was becoming a highly respected Gurindji law boss.
Source: National Museum Australia
Dexter Daniels, Aboriginal organiser with the North Australia Workers’ Union
Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal man from Roper River in the Northern Territory, was a central figure in the Aboriginal pastoral workers’ strikes of 1966. Dexter was president of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, formed in 1962, as well as being an organiser with the North Australian Workers’ Union.
In 1966, together with Gurindji man Lupna Giari (also known as Captain Major), Dexter toured east coast capital cities, speaking to unionists at public meetings to put the case for equal wages. Together Daniels and Giari spoke at more than 60 meetings over five weeks. Those who heard them speak had been unaware of the meagre wages paid to Aboriginal stock workers and gave generously to the strike fund. Daniels and Giari’s trip was paid for by the Building Workers Industrial Union and Actors’ Equity.
Source: National Museum Australia
Commonwealth government: a blind eye turned to inequality for decades
The government in Canberra had many roles in the Wave Hill events. In 1966, the Northern Territory was administered by Canberra as it was not a state and because it did not get responsible government until 1978.
Despite reports in the 1930s that Aboriginal workers were working without pay, Canberra turned a blind eye to the situation for fear of jeopardising the northern cattle industry.
At the time of the walk-off, the Commonwealth administered pensions and child endowment (a regular allowance paid to families with children). For some Aboriginal mothers and elderly people payments were often made to the station owners, so the money was never seen by the Aboriginal people it was intended for.
Aboriginal people living on settlements such as Wave Hill were administered by Commonwealth welfare officers. Bill Jeffrey, who was the welfare officer at the time, provided food and supplies at the early stages of the walk-off and strike, especially to families with children.
The Federal Arbitration and Conciliation Commission, which set wages for all employees, awarded Aboriginal stockmen equal wages in 1965 but decided to give the employers until 1968 to start paying the higher pay (see National Archive Fact Sheet).
The Holt and McMahon Liberal governments refused the Gurindji land requests. Minister for Interior Peter Nixon said that if Aborigines wanted land they should buy it [like everybody else].
A 1967 referendum to change the Constitution and remove clauses that excluded Aboriginal people was overwhelmingly carried. The referendum saw the highest YES vote ever recorded in a federal referendum: 90.77 per cent of the Australian population voted for change (see National Archive Fact Sheet).
By 1972, Aboriginal land rights had become a hot topic and an issue in the election held in December that year. Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party won the election and set about changing the laws on Aboriginal land rights.
In 1975, Whitlam handed back an area of Gurindji land to the traditional owners. During this now famous ceremony, Whitlam symbolically poured a handful of sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.
Vestey, Lord Vestey and station managers
Wave Hill cattle station was leased by the government to Vestey, a large English company with worldwide interests in cattle and refrigeration. Vestey began running the pastoral lease in 1914.
Vestey paid Aboriginal stockmen much less than whites. For many years the only payment was food, mostly salty beef, flour and tea. The people were housed in ramshackle humpies, temporary shelters made from bark and tree branches. Welfare payments and child endowment were controlled by government officers and station bosses.
The Wave Hill pastoral lease was about 27,000 square kilometres (about one-third the size of Tasmania). The Vestey Group sold its Australian pastoral holdings in early 1992.
Frank Hardy and other friends in the south
Frank Hardy was a controversial Australian writer, best known for his novel Power Without Glory.
During World War 2 he was stationed with the Army in the Northern Territory. Falling on hard times after the war, he travelled to the outback in 1965 looking for inspiration for new writing.
In Darwin he met people – including Dexter Daniels – who were concerned about the treatment of Aboriginal people.
Hardy travelled to Wave Hill, where he became friends with the Gurindji leaders. Hardy was invited to help them enlist support from the south.
Hardy wrote the now famous Gurindji Mining Lease and Cattle Station sign at the request of the elders, who had never seen their names in writing but saw that white people always had signs. He also helped the Gurindji petition Governor-General Casey for ownership of their land.
Hardy’s book, The Unlucky Australians, published in 1968, documents the Wave Hill walk-off.
Hardy used his connections in Melbourne and Sydney unions and politics to organise speaking tours for Aboriginal people. Aboriginal spokespeople, including Dexter Daniels and Lupna Giari, addressed over 60 meetings.
The speaking tours were funded largely by Actors’ Equity and building unions. Donations collected at the meetings helped to buy food and contributed to the purchase of a much needed truck.
A young eye doctor, Fred Hollows, attended one of the meetings. It inspired him to devote himself to improving the situation of Aborigines.
The stories from the Gurindji prompted a wide range of people to offer support. University students collected money from the public to support the Gurindji and the National Union Australian University Students set up an Aboriginal scholarship scheme (ABSCHOL). School students and church groups also held fund raising events and sent the money to the community. There were also protest marches in major cities.
Land rights march in Melbourne, 1968
Students, Aboriginal activists and others respond to Cabinet’s refusal to make tribal lands available to the Gurindji of Wave Hill.
Source: Courtesy Melbourne Sun, 13 July 1968