An oral history from the Wave Hill strike


DAGURAGU — Aboriginal women and men built the cattle industry in Australia with little recognition, providing the cheap labour for the profits of pastoral leaseholders like Lord Vestey at Wave Hill. These leases were granted on Aboriginal people's homelands and hunting grounds. Massacre and government restrictions on every facet of life forced Aborigines from their traditional way of living to working for the stations.

IDA BERNARD is an important elderly Gurindji woman at Daguragu in the Northern Territory. In 1966 she was working at Vestey's Wave Hill station in the kitchens. Ida and her fellow countrymen — stockmen and other workers — "walked off" the cattle station demanding decent wages and living conditions. They walked 13 kilometres to Wattie Creek, a place of spiritual significance, and named their new community Daguragu. Their eight-year strike evolved as a battle for the return of stolen land and became the inspiration for the Aboriginal land rights movement.

Ida Bernard talked to Green Left Weekly's CAROLINE TAPP and SALLY MITCHELL about her experiences working for Vestey.

We went to the station to wash plates and work in the kitchen, milking cows too. They [the men] were working with the cows and horses in the stock camp.

That station had a killer [cow to be killed and eaten]. That for him [manager]. Nothing for we, black bela [fella], we only got bones. That's all! Cook him in the charcoal. Just the bones of the limbs and shoulder blade. Meat — nothing! Nothing! That meat is just for them. Butcher cut it up and chuck it on the floor. Just the bones, that's all I take.

Water. We carted it long way with a ute. Only one tank. He never make a tap for our camp, nothing. Carry it. And he never made homes like here now for us, with electricity. We were in little humpies. And we had to get firewood long way. That firewood that the wagon bring, that for him. Not black bela, nothing.

When we have little babies we never get money. No child endowment for children. Only we got clothes, that all. All that money, they bin hide it, never gave it, nothing!

He just liked us for work, ladies and stockmen, that's all. We were happy to walk off.

That mulaga* [older man], my daddy that one, from my father's brother, I call him uncle — [Vincent Lingiari] — he came from Darwin with some tucker for we bela. He came in the plane. He came to the station and talked to us mob: "Right oh, we got to get rid of this". He said like that. "We got to get rid of it. We not work for him now like a dog." He wanted us to work like a dog.

And that mulaga [Frank Hardy] came from Darwin and he told us, "You mob got to walk off to the river tomorrow". All big mob and my husband were out on stock camp and then they came back there. That mulaga [Vincent Lingiari] bin come up and walked up and said: "You mob my people and you mob my stockman — we mob got to walk off tomorrow".

Right oh then, that garrdia [white person] the manager came up from station at about eight o'clock. That mulaga [Vincent Lingiari] walked up [and said to him], "Right oh, I am finished up. Today I am going to take all my people because you never give me money and I bin go to hospital. You never give me good clothes, nothing!" That's when we people walk off now. He asked all the young blokes, "You mob going to follow me now?". They went then.

Right oh, that mulaga bin pick 'em up all them woman from the station. "Come on, come on, you gotta do the right thing. You mob never seen proper money. Come on all my people and children. I got to take you mob." Right oh, all them woman came down from the station. We were there washing plates, everything, feeding the children for them garrdia. That's it, we never work there again — nothing!

We were working there from young and we never got anything when we had children. That's why we got sick of it. Mulaga too. No matter how much he humbug us or cold weather or rain time — we sit there [Wattie Creek] ourselves getting that dole.

When we were all together there were plenty black bela people. Manager bin frightened. Nobody looked after him. Nobody bin go back there and muster bullock, branding and putting on the road train — nothing. He came there. "Can you fellas come? I want them young boys to come and shift the cattle there at the bore."

"Na! You got to truck you cattle. You got plenty of countrymen there, colour like you, garrdia. Them mob can work now for you. We not going back for you. You never treat us proper way. We can't go back to you because you rob we bela. You never paid we bela proper wages, you never do good thing for we mob." Like that we say. That's that. Last time, we told him. "No, we not going back. We not working any more you station."

Them garrdia, they like us now, proper way. We got land back, everywhere. Out station, this way, that way, here. We got our land back. That's all I can say!

*Aboriginal people don't speak the names of people who have died — hence "mulaga".