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Issue #1744      August 17, 2016

“The Dreamings are ours”

In 1966 a group of Aboriginal people changed Australia forever.

On August 22, 1966, the Gurindji employed at Wave Hill and their families, more than 200 people, left the station and walked several kilometres to the local welfare settlement, where they made camp on the banks of the Victoria River near the Wave Hill Welfare Settlement and began a strike for better wages and working conditions.

Lingiari with Gough Whitlam at Daguragu. Lingiari led the walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966.

The story of the first days is still often told by the Gurindji – a column of men, women and children, the older children and adults helping to carry the babies and the younger ones when they got tired, their blankets and what little other possessions and food they had been able to bring with them; a noisy crowd, excited, some happy, some frightened, some worried, surrounded by their dogs as they walked through kilometre after kilometre of rough bush country.

In March 1967, they moved 11 kilometres to Daguragu, on the banks of Wattie Creek. The place they chose is land traditionally owned and occupied by the Gurindji and is close to several important Gurindji sacred sites, especially Seale Gorge. There is also a permanent supply of good water.

It became clear that they wanted more than equal wages and working conditions. They had never given up their land and now they wanted it back and they wanted control of their lives. They wanted Vesteys off their land, which they wanted to manage for themselves. They intended to establish an independent Gurindji community and to run a cattle operation that would supply many Gurindji families with meat and jobs.

Their initiative, consistent courage, dignity, perseverance, and determination to win their struggle were amazing. Bribes, trickery, delaying tactics, threats and every other manoeuvre that could be dreamed up did not move them.

One of the leaders of the group summed it up by saying:

“The block of land, it is ours and the name is ours and no one can take that away from us ever. The Dreamings here are ours.”

Their struggle was a turning point for Australian society. From racism, paternalism and indifference emerged a readiness among a significant section of the white community to support the demand of Indigenous communities for their land rights.

This dramatic shift in opinion would not have been possible without the efforts of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which used its considerable influence to build and educate a broad and active support base for the Gurindji.

Members of the CPA played a critical role in efforts to mobilise trade union support and build a solidarity movement with the Gurindji. Prominent among these activists were Darwin CPA members and union stalwarts Brian Manning and George Gibbs.

For decades the Gurindji slowly built their community, acquiring equipment for grass cutting, grading and other small businesses. Houses were built, a cattle business begun, gardens planted and more.

Then in June 2007 Daguragu and other NT Aboriginal communities were massively damaged by the Invasion, usually known as the Intervention.

On the excuse of protecting Aboriginal children from sexual abuse and neglect, the government sent in 600 police and detachments of soldiers into NT Aboriginal communities.

Over seven years there was not one prosecution for child abuse, yet there has never been any discussion of this fact, nor any apology to the people who were affected by this sweeping generalisation.

The Invasion was replaced by the very similar Stronger Futures policy in February 2012.

Even before the Invasion began, governments, mining corporations, pastoralists and other powerful forces were intent on destroying self-determination and Aboriginal control over land. Their aim was to regain ultimate control over Northern Territory land and development. Now their dreams became reality.

Under the Invasion, community township lands were transferred from Aboriginal Land Councils to a government statutory body. New compulsory five year leases replaced community owned land.

Under the Invasion, the patrol officers of the paternalist past have been replaced with a new network of live-in Government Business Managers (known as Ginger-Bread Men) who now take the decisions in communities. Responsibilities of elders were removed, undermining their authority and traditional culture.

There was a multi-million-dollar theft from Aborigines as their land, buildings, assets and authority were stolen from their community councils.

From mid 2007 to mid 2008 community assets were ripped away without compensation and sent to regional centres in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin. Much of what has been lost is vital for the provision of essential services – road grading equipment, backhoes, grass cutting equipment, buses, tractors and even fire trucks. There are no longer bus rides for the elderly into centres for shopping, firewood collection for the elderly or latrine-digging at ceremony camps.

Many Aboriginal workers lost their jobs and were forced onto unemployment benefits. Shire offices sent in contract workers to take over many of the tasks previously managed by the local workforce. All this led to a sharp fall in living standards in already impoverished communities.

In some cases, the slave labour of the past has returned. Aboriginal workers are expected to work for 25 hours in order to get their dole. Some are now being sent to work for companies that pay them with a government issued BasicsCard, part of a demeaning income management system involving prescribed purchasing.

Despite promises, employment outcomes have deteriorated. Small communities have been devastated. The struggle for equal wages for black workers will have to be fought all over again.

The two communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu lost up to 250 jobs as a result of the Invasion. The impact of these cuts on community life has been catastrophic. Almost no women from Daguragu have jobs.

School attendance is now tied to welfare payments that are in many cases a family’s only income. Some families face starvation if their children do not go to school.

The Invasion has been a disaster. Just four examples are revealing:

  • Self-harm attempts since the introduction of the Invasion have more than tripled.
  • The rate of youth suicide in the NT has increased by 160%.
  • Incidents of domestic violence have doubled.
  • The number of Aboriginal people in jail under the Invasion has almost doubled.

Today, there is a long way to go before the Gurindji achieve equal rights with other Australians.

The Gurindji must have their equipment returned to them immediately. They must be able to restart their small businesses and give community members their jobs back.

Plans for economic development and the provision of services for Daguragu must be built by the Gurindji themselves with genuine consultation, and constructive engagement.

Above all ownership and control of their land must be restored to the community.

The Gurindji were able to begin building a life at Daguragu through their courage and endurance and through a large, strong support campaign across the country. A movement this big is needed again to help ensure that Daguragu survives.

The Communist Party of Australia calls on the trade union movement to once again stand side by side in solidarity with the Gurindji people in their struggle for self-determination and land rights.

Next article – Vale Frank Gosden 1926–2016

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