“It’s just a great honour to be here,” iconic singer-songwriter Paul Kelly told Green Left Weekly. “What happened here is a fascinating and amazing story.”
Kev Carmody, another legend of Australian music, added: “It’s brought all these people together from diverse backgrounds and from all across the country and it’s an honour to the strength of Gurindji people.”
Kelly and Carmody, whose song “From little things, big things grow” commemorates the heroic struggle of the Gurindji people, were among the thousands who gathered at the twin communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu, 800 kilometres southwest of Darwin, for the 45th anniversary of the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill station.
This event, which gave birth to the land rights movement, was commemorated with three days and nights of discussion, music and protest.
The official program kicked off on August 26 with a march to the Victoria River.
Banners paid homage to the original strikers and protested the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal communities through the Northern Territory intervention.
Michael George, a leader of the Kalkaringi and Daguragu communities, welcomed the crowd, which included several current and former government ministers.
He invoked the words of strike leader Vincent Lingiari saying: “We are not a people that can be trodden on”.
Brian Manning, a former wharfie and leader of the NT Council of Aboriginal Rights who played a critical role supporting the strikers, also addressed the crowd.
Jack Phillips, who worked on the Melbourne wharfs when the strike began in 1966, said the struggle evolved from a strike for wages to a movement for land rights.
At one stage, the Gurindji used their skills acquired as stockmen to fence off their land.
Phillips said the fence was “strong and straight and defiant. It was out in the middle of nowhere but it was making a statement ‘this is our land’ and I thought to myself — this is the most important fence in Australia, more important than the rabbit proof fence.
“This fence is taking on the government, [and Wave Hill station owner] Lord Vestey.”
While the Gurindji never fenced off all their land, their stand, and ultimate success, inspired other Aboriginal groups to make similar land claims.
Phillips called on those present to support political alternatives such as the First Nations Political Party, headed by Gurindji community leader Maurie Ryan Japarta.
Kerry Gibbs, another union leader, also addressed the crowd. Gibbs said that as a young teenager he persuaded his whole family to travel from Darwin to support the strikers.
The heroic stand taken by the Gurindji in 1966 was celebrated, but the present day injustice of the intervention was clearly on the agenda.
Several community elders addressed the meeting. Gus George told the crowd: “The intervention took everything away from Aboriginal people, on Freedom Day we need to speak up strongly.
“We need to start fighting all over again. We want the government to listen.”
Veteran Aboriginal activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said: “We have the right to access housing. We have the right as Australian citizens to access education and all other knowledge from within the safety of our own culture.”
Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Henderson also spoke. He received a polite response when he said his government would not approve any new policy that used “the intervention word”.
However, discussion over the next two days showed that people want much more from politicians than promises to use different words.
Former 60 Minutes reporter and Aboriginal rights advocate Jeff McMullen told those who gathered on August 27 for a series of keynote addresses that “we didn’t hear the chief minister yesterday say one little thing about taking down those (prescribed area) signs, there was no offer of conciliation.
“There was an offer of more talk, but let’s start by taking down those shameful signs that still reduce people to servitude.”
Gurindji woman, historian and author Sue Stanton said: “It seems a lifetime ago that Gough Whitlam came to Daguragu and poured that handful of Daguragu soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, telling him, ‘Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand 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’.
“Well that was all good and well Mr Whitlam, but since then, and especially since the Howard government introduced the NT Emergency Response — the intervention — things have slipped a long way backwards for Gurindji people.”
She called on “that great fighting spirit of the Gurindji people to once again lead the way.
“Show Aboriginal people the way, the right way. We don’t need all the expert good natives who seek favour and approval and large cash payments to speak on our behalf.
“It is not only time to break free again, it is time to really fulfill the wishes of our elders.
“They showed us the way in 1966 but I think we slackened off a bit and became complacent somewhat. Let’s show white Australia what Gurindji can do.
“Let’s not allow any further dilution of individual rights and privileges. Let’s not allow white Australia to control us.
“Let us admire today the resilience of all our family members who walked off Wave Hill 45 years ago so that we could be together today and enjoy each other’s company.
“I stand proud among you today, my Gurindji family and all those who are here supporting us and commemorating with us.
"The proud legacy left to us by a strong and true talking Gurindji countryman, and may the strong words and actions of 1966 keep us all strong as we look towards a better future.
“I still dream that better days are ahead for all of us.”
If, in the run-down community hall at Daguragu, the crowd needed the tragic human consequences of government policies spelt out even more clearly, Josie Crawshaw did just that.
She recounted the tragic 2006 death of her uncle, a local Gurindji man, who was taken to Katherine hospital to be treated for pneumonia, with no interpreter and no escort.
When he was returned to the community, the medical bureaucracy and pilot failed to communicate with the man’s family. This resulted in him dying alone in the bush while his family were unaware he was even missing for several days.
Many wept as Crawshaw concluded her uncle’s story, saying: “This is a man who had walked off [as part of the 1966 strike]. He was a law man, he was an accomplished stockman and what we’ve got is how they’ve always treated this bloody community.
“Look at the poverty here, the lack of infrastructure. They [the politicians] come in like they did yesterday. This happens every year. They fly in.
“Can’t they take their blinkers off? You can go to every other Aboriginal community which is pretty much in poverty but the infrastructure is 5 million times better than this place and this is where the land rights movement started.”
Crawshaw also highlighted the injustice of the intervention and the system of income management. She said: “We’re working for rations again. Can you believe it in 2011 our mob are back working for rations? Shame on this country!”
She pointed out that the government is now expanding the system of income management to other non-Aboriginal communities, but said this does nothing to reduce the injustice done to Aboriginal communities.
“They’ll say that the racial discrimination act is back but it doesn’t help us,” Crawshaw said. “It keeps us and our people absolutely in poverty.”
Monica Morgan, a Yorta Yorta woman and Amnesty International Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights Programs Manager, said every state in Australia now has a trial of income management.
“How did they decide where to do these trials?” asked Morgan. “They looked on their map and asked: ‘Where is the highest concentration of Aboriginal people on single parent benefits?’
“It’s happening in Blacktown. It’s happening in Shepparton. It is going to affect everybody.”
Following the weekend’s events, on August 31, Gurindji people at Kalkaringi and Daguragu announced a strike.
They demanded Sandra Cannon, the CEO of the Victoria Daly Shire, step down immediately. They also called for the removal of the shire’s housing manager, Mark Wilson.
Gurindji spokesperson John Leemans said shire workers had stopped work and would continue action until their demands are met. He said living conditions are rapidly deteriorating due to “the appointment of abusive, racist staff and incompetent management” and called for control over local administration to be returned to the local people.
The struggle for justice by the Gurindji people and Aboriginal people across Australia continues.