Sunday, September 4, 2011

Still Walking… by Jeff McMullen

45 years after the Wave Hill Walkoff  the story of 
Vincent Lingiari proves again that 
From Little Things Big Things Grow…
Sometimes it seems that only artists know how to help people paint their dreams.  As the song by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody goes, “gather round people, I’ll tell you a story.” This is a story of Vinent Lingiari and the fight by his people for Land Rights. It is also the story of how a remarkable band of artists, activists, writers, publishers, musicians and dreamers, worked with an Aboriginal community to create a book and an Art and Culture Centre to honour one of the finest Australians and one of the most courageous struggles in our history.

On the 23rd August 1966, at Wave Hill Station, about 800 kilometres southwest of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, the Gurindji/Malgnin leader, Vincent Lingiari, a stoic and most dignified man and surely one of Australia’s greatest true leaders, led about 200 stockmen and 400 of their family members in the strike against British Lord Vestey’s family which had run cattle on this Aboriginal land since 1914.

Recently hundreds of Australians travelled from far and wide to gather at Kalkarindji to honour the 45th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walkoff, a milestone along the long road to freedom and equality. They joined the Aboriginal survivors of that original protest march and wandered cheerfully along part of the 20 kilometre route to the banks of the Victoria River and then later on to Wattie Creek near today’s settlement of Daguragu, population about 400.

Among the visitors was Peter Hudson, the renowned Queensland artist who has been painting the people and the place for many years. Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody were there to play for the Gurindji. Under the stars one night, surrounded by the children on stage, they sang like angels their great battle hymn, From Little Things, Big Things Grow.Now it’s not only one of our country’s most stirring anthems, it is a powerful children’s history book and a boost to the fierce expression of Cultural pride which distinguishes the Gurindji.

A merry band of people have supported the Gurindji struggle to keep their language and Culture strong in the face of unsympathetic Government policies that again are trying to push people away from their homelands.  Some years ago a simple plan was drawn in the dust.Tell the story with heart and build the dream.

The lyrics of the song became the text of the book. The Gurindji children, supervised by teachers Yvonne Werner and Leah Leaman, illustrated the story. Peter Hudson painted the famous portraits and the stunning landscape of this red dirt country with its rounded hillsand brilliant green gullies still breathing the stories of the Ancestors.. The  Gurindji elders added their language version of the story in the back of the book and author, Martin Flanagan wrote a moving preface about what he called “an Australian anthem of hope.”

Lots of other s joined in.  Frank Hardy, the legendary Australian author had been with the Gurindji from the start of their struggle and now his daughter, Shirley Hardy-Rix and son, Alan and their families were determined to see the story captured as an art project and a children’s history book. Tom Uren, the first person to raise his voice in Parliament after the Walkoff began, became patron of the project. Brian Manning, the union man who helped feed the strikers, contributed  the historic photograph of Vincent Lingiari as well as years of support for the struggle for Gurindji rights. The Publishers, One Day Hill and Affirm Press combined in a rare collaboration to bring the story to tens of thousands more Australians.

Bernadette Waters of One Day Hill made this book a true labour of love. She travelled around the country arranging performances by the musicians to push the story deeper into our national consciousness. Schools, public libraries and literary festivals celebrated the little book as one of the most outstanding children’s histories in a very long time. It also grew into a longer term project to add other iconic Australian songs that carry the stories of the heartland. Shane Howard’s Uluru song, Solid Rock, Sacred Ground, Neil Murray’s My Island Home and Archie Roach’s They Took the Children, have all been published by Bernadette Waters. The musicians often travel together in a wonderful spirit to share their stories.

The Calvert Jones Foundation and the Music Outback Foundation also contributed to the original  book and the linguists and translators at the Katherine Regional Aboriginal Language Centre helped a group of dedicated people complete a Gurindji version of the song.

At Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth we decided to put up the funds to publish this series of great Australian stories in song because we knew stories would be a tremendous support for all children, an essential slice of history told in authentic fashion. It is a powerful expression of Culture and literacy. In every case the books demonstrate that people can take action, work together in the struggle for justice and live the respect for one another we have in our hearts.

As Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody played together on stage at Kalkarindji with a big crowd up on their feet, singing and dancing, I smiled at the thought of how these gifted and generous troubadours had made this happen. From Little Things, Big Things Grow has sold brilliantly and our group issteering all of the profits into ongoing support of the Gurindji children and their community.

At the school at Kalkarindji there’s a growing enthusiasm to read, write and paint their stories.  Authors Jared Thomas, Anita Heiss and others, were among a passionate group of Aboriginal writers to work with the children on their own stories of what Gunrindji Freedom Day means to them. The effort may produce some other stories in print. The  school came up with a new freedom song and Dan Sultan performed the piece on stage during the 45th anniversary celebrations.

From Little Things, Big Things Grow, quite remarkably, has also helped fund the creation of Kalkarindji’s first Art and Culture Centre.

Using an old abandoned power station, the Gurindji and their supporters have built a place to gather and share all of their stories, to paint and craft their work and to connect with visitors who roll down the narrow, single-lane highway.

Crucial in this work was the contribution of another Queensland artistic talent, Penny Smith. For the past five months Penny has worked as a volunteer to steer the art centre towards an official opening.  It wasn’t only the painting and improvements she handled, but the long distance paperwork to register a brand new Aboriginal corporation and get things running in such an isolated place.  The local artists, especially the older women, simply loved her eternal good cheer and this is how you get things done. She has lived rough at Kalkarindji. Most of the people are often hungry, frequently ill and putting up with overcrowded houses. The longer you walk with the Gurindji, the more you deeply appreciate their struggle.

 Pic by Jeff McMullen
Many years have flown since Jimmy Wavehill and Gus George were part of the Wave Hill Walkoff but every time we wander the ruins of the old Vestey’s cattle station, past, present and future are hard to separate.

Jimmy, now 74, was a strong young stockman then and Gus was the boy he carried on his back as the mob walked off the station and camped first on the banks of the Victoria River near what is now Kalkarindji. Later they settled near the serene Wattie Creek, creating the community of Daguragu.

There is silence, a hushed reverence for those who walked before us, as we stand under a midday sun, amid the ghostly timbers and tin shed ruins of the old station.

At Jimmy’s feet lies a rusted drum. He stares at it and his eyes fill with tears as he describes how his wife, Bidy Wavehill Nangala, when just a slender young girl, worked as a domestic servant inside that homestead. She bowed and scraped at the table spread with white linen and later was made to carry buckets of the white man’s shit on a yoke across her shoulders, stumbling across the red dirt for over half a mile.  Jimmy loved that young woman and felt her shame.

“They treated us like slaves,” Jimmy says. “That’s why we had a meetin’ and told Tom Vestey you mob bin using us like a slave. We had enuff.”

A Vestey’s station man carried a .303 rifle and barked that if they didn’t do what they were told he would shoot them. It was brutal for the Aboriginal people. From around 1882 when the Gurindji land was taken by the pastoralists until well into the 1920’s, Aboriginal people here claim that there were reprisal killings led first by Mounted Constable W.H. Wilshire, as well as unrecorded slaughter of people in camps.

At nearby Blackfeller Creek we walk among two circular areas of strangely scattered stones. Jimmy glares with his hands on his hips and Gus George at this point is trembling. “A lot of people killed here,” Gus whispers. “Old people, women and babies.”

Author of Blood on the Wattle, Bruce Elder, has investigated hundreds of such oral history accounts of the brutality on the frontier and tells me that he still stands by his conclusion that  virtually “every hectare of land in Australia has seen some kind of atrocity.”

Now along the road from Kalkarindji, a few hundred Aboriginal people and their supporters are marching with banners that say, OUR LAND IS OUR LIFE, LAND RIGHTS – NOT LEASES, STOP THE INTERVENTION and GURINDJI DEMAND COMMUNITY CONTROL. 45 years have passed but what has really changed?

After almost 9 year s of campaigning in the Sixties for equal pay and land rights, part of their land, 3236 square kilometres of Wave Hill Station was excised and with great ceremony handed to the Gurindji with a lease.  Yet today the Government has its hands on their throats and their community land. The NT Intervention imposed a mandatory 5 year lease. Unless they fight most of these remote communities will be subjected to a 40 year Government lease.

Maurie Japarta Ryan, one of Vincent Lingiari’s grandsons and leader of the FIRST NATION’S POLITICAL PARTY, says the communities have very little say on anything. Control is with Government and the Shire Council. The community of Daguragu is struggling as government money is directed to the 20 so-called growth towns. People on the homelands are on a slow drip, as government hopes that they will give up and move to the hubs for the promise of better schools, health care and shelter.  Such promises are likely to go the way of the rest.

Whatever happened to Gough Whitlam’s famous promise as he poured the red dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hands on 16th August 1975?

“I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

Forever ?  How can this be when the very ground where the Prime Minister stood in Daguragu all those years ago is now, along with 71 other ‘prescribed communities’, under the boot-heel of the Intervention?  Aboriginal people have again lost real control of their community lands.  The blue Intervention signs mark another milestone in oppression.

 “The wheel has turned full circle,” says Brian Manning. The old union man and his mates, Jack Phillips and Kerry Gibbs, have made the 10 hour journey from Darwin, just as they once did in a 1960’s J-Series Bedford truck to carry food supplies to the Gurindji.  They helped the Aboriginal people outlast Vestey’s attempts to bribe the stockmen back to work with “something better than fifty quid a month and a humpy so rough you had to crawl into it on your knees.” Manning is old, leaning on a cane, but he is here like Gaby Hollows and Frank Hardy’s son, Allen, and many Aboriginal people from around the country, to give support to the on-going struggle for Land Rights. “The Gurindji are no longer at the mercy of Lord Vestey but at the government and its withdrawal of funding for the homelands in favour of hub towns. But remember this,” says Manning. “The Wave Hill Walkoff succeeded because many people and their leaders stuck together.”

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, the much respected elder from Utopia who has travelled the land and to the United Nations to oppose the Intervention, comes to Kalkarindji to honour a man of extraordinary courage and vision.  “Once more,” she says, they are “trying to yard us and put us in a paddock. We are fighting for our right to housing, health and education… We don’t have to be whitewashed to solve these problems.”

The Cape York leader, David Leader, Traditional Owner of the Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju people, says the government everywhere is still trying to turn Aboriginal people into white people. There is “no real recognition that this land belongs to someone else” and that being on the homelands is the only way many will escape the disadvantage and dependency inflicted on them in the central townships. He points to his remote homelands as a way forward to self-sufficiency.

“We have survived, “ says Gurindji spokesman, John Leemans, “ because we have Law, language and governance.” He stands in the old hall at Daguragu pleading with eminent visitors such as Fred Chaney and Ian Viner, former Ministers in Malcolm Fraser’s Government, to intercede in Canberra.  “We can see what mankind is doing to the earth…to our land. We have a great contribution to make here because of our knowledge. So we ask you to recognise our human rights and our Cultural rights.”

There is an opportunity at Kalkarindji for Australian Governments to open a new and improved relationship with Aboriginal people. This is more important than any words on policy because right through the 19th, 20th and start of the 21st Century, most Australian Government policies have been relentlessly pursuing the assimilation of Aboriginal people and bringing them under Government control.  Flashes of hope for respect, reconciliation and Land Rights have been betrayed so often by Government treachery and sheer incompetence.
Government has failed Aboriginal people.

Does the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jennie Macklin take advantage of Freedom Day at Kalkarindji?  No! She arrives the day before the 45th anniversary commemoration, quietly meets members of the Central Land Council and Northern land Council on the outskirts of the community and then leaves without most ever realising that she has been there.

The NT Chief Minister, Paul Henderson and some other MP’s, walk with the cheerful crowd to the commemoration. Unflinching, he listens to speaker after speaker flailing the ‘growth towns’ policy and abandonment of the homelands when federal money is due to end next year.  Attempting to win sympathy he explains how only the night before he had told his teenage sons about the greatness of Vincent Lingiari. But does he avail himself of this historic chance to offer the Gurindji some new words of hope?

“ We do not have the tax base to fix all of these places,” the Chief Minister says. “We will work with you through these issues….I have said to the federal government no more Intervention. I will not support any program with that word in it.”

The truth is that changing a few words is not changing a deeply discriminatory and damaging policy. The leases forced on communities, the use of the Basics Card to impose ration-style spending of meagre welfare handouts, the shameful stigmatization and social engineering, the lack of genuine protection against racial discrimination and the imposition of control over almost every aspect of remote community life - this is the Australian Government’s 21st Century agenda for Aboriginal people in these homelands.

At present there is a dangerous and quite deluded consensus between Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Government and Tony Abbott’s Opposition that the homelands are “unviable” and part of the “failed state” portrayed by a long line of assimilationists. Ignoring the solid evidence that supporting Aboriginal people on their lands brings improved wellbeing, the ‘white blind-fold’ neo-cons wage endless war on Aboriginal Culture and the right to language in the community and the classroom. Central control always prevails over de-centralization and local community control.

If Vincent Lingiari could walk with us today he would answer that Aboriginal Culture is  stronger than all such attempts to move the Gurindji and others off the land that nourishes their body and spirit. If we recognize and respect this, we can work together on a better relationship.

Under that big desert sky, Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan are being mobbed by the kids. You know the words they are singing.  Someday we will all know the words of FROM LITTLE THINGS, BIG THINGS GROW. Someday our nation will have a national holiday for Vincent Lingiari.

Next morning outside the old power station, Jimmy Wavehill stands with the artist, Peter Hudson, Freedom Day organisers, Brenda Croft and Hettie Perkins, and with Penny Smith glowing with pride, they open the refurbished Art & Culture Centre. For many months, Brenda Croft and Hettie Perkins have laboured long and hard to make this huge gathering of Aboriginal people focus in a positive way on a respectful way ahead. Gus George and Maurie Japeta Ryan are beaming as they watch their work come together and see the visitors sitting to listen to Aboriginal people explain the past, the present and the future. The old women painters are happy and among them is Bidy Wavehill, a  grandmother with a granddaughter who carries her name and her love of Gunrindji country.
Around our campfire on our last night together, Shane Howard is yarning with Steve Pigram, Shellie Morris  and other members of the Black Arm Band. There is a warmth and human bond in Kalkarindji that comes with being part of a community. When the sun rises Paul Kelly will have to leave Kalkarindji to fly to London. Peter Hudson and I will start the 10 hour drive towards Darwin. Penny Smith will keep on working with the Gurindji. Everyone who gives their all on Gurindji Freedom Day will long remember what it means to be together on this long road to equality.

Jeff McMullen, journalist and author, is the honorary CEO of Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth which has spent ten years working to improve Aboriginal health and education. He joined hundreds of Australians from far and wide on Gurindji Freedom Day, August 26th 2011.

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