Prime minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hand of Gurindji Traditional Land Owner Vincent Lingiari at Wattie Creek, Northern Territory, 16 August 1975
Recording date:

Professor Mark McKenna officially launches A Handful of Sand by Charlie Ward, accompanied by a conversation with Brenda L Croft and John Paul Janke.

Transcript of ‘A Handful of Sand’

Speakers: Kevin Bradley (KB), Professor Mark McKenna (MM), John Paul Janke (JPJ), Brenda Croft (BC),Charlie Ward (CW)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 08/09/2016

KB:       Good evening. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Kevin Bradley, the Library’s Senior Curator for Special Collections and tonight we are talking about the events that led to the first claim for traditional Australian land in Australia. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.

Fifty years ago on the 23rd of August 1966 200 Aboriginal stockmen of the Gurindji people and their families walked off Wave Hill Pastoral Station, 600km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory, owned by a British aristocrat, Lord Vestey. These events are recounted in a new book, A Handful of Sand by Charlie Ward. This evening our distinguished panel will discuss the wave he’ll walk off, the lives of the people who participated, the impact of the strike on black and white Australians and policymakers. But first I would like to welcome Professor Mark McKenna, the award-winning historian, biographer of Manning Clark and the author of the acclaimed Looking for Blackfellas Point. Please welcome Mark to introduce and launch A Handful of Sand by Charlie Ward.


MM:    Thanks very much, Kevin, and hello, everyone. It’s really wonderful to be here tonight to launch this wonderful book of Charlie Ward’s and I think it’s going to long stand as the definitive history of the Wave Hill walk-off and its aftermath so congratulations, Charlie, and Monash University Publishing have done you proud.

Major anniversaries are capable of performing small miracles in the creation of our nation’s popular memory. Since the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off a few weeks ago there’s been widespread media coverage which many of you can’t have missed, I think, interviews, panel discussions on the ABC and much reflection on what is undoubtedly the defining image of the Gurindji struggle. Mervyn Bishop’s photograph of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, a gesture inspired in a spur of the moment decision by Whitlam and Nugget Coombs and a photo that was actually staged when Bishop, unsatisfied with his first photograph, asked Whitlam and Lingiari if they could perform the ritual a second time so that they could get a better shot.

We’ve since invested much in Bishop’s second take on history. Although the demographic centre of our country lies in the southeast the moments that have altered our nation’s historical consciousness and resonated in the corridors of power in Canberra have so often come from the north and the centre of the continent. Moments such as Wave Hill and Mabo which will have its 25th anniversary next year. Bishop’s restaged photo has helped us to remember the moment somewhat wishfully, I think. Like the ’67 referendum, which has often been misremembered as the moment Aboriginal people gained the vote, Whitlam’s handful of sand has been remembered as offering far more to the Gurindji, and indigenous Australia for that matter, than it actually did at the time, so much so that this photograph I think stands as a kind of dream history in which Australia is miraculously returned to Aboriginal people.

As Charlie’s book shows Whitlam’s Handful of Sand embodied another reminder and that was that the terms of the handback and the much vaunted self-determination of the Gurindji people would always remain firmly in the hands of the Australian state.

One of the things that makes Charlie’s book special is not only that it’s an eloquent, perceptive and finely honed narrative history, both the prehistory of the walk-off and what followed, but it’s a history written partly from lived experience. What gives the book its power is that behind every sharp observation there’s knowledge wrought from experiencing the reality of a community’s daily life on the ground. To that everyday experience Charlie has added years of reading and immersion in the archives. It’s impossible to write a book such as this in a short space of time. The ease with which his narrative flows and its countless moments of revelation disguise many years of research and hard work. Charlie has distilled that work into a fine narrative history. His voice doesn’t intrude, the judgements are never heavy-handed and he takes us inside the mentalities of the key players on all sides.

The book’s built on countless hours of interviews with those who were involved and the knowledge of his friends and local contacts especially new generation Gurindji women whose voices had previously been downplayed. Charlie’s turned the story of the Gurindji struggle into a page-turner. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s compelling precisely because the story of the struggle bears both inspiring and tragic similarities to so many indigenous communities across the country. The author who came to the Gurindji community in July 2006, full of late historian father’s romantic vision of the bush, one that he tells us was imprinted on his memory in the old folk songs that Russell sang to him as a child, was drawn there by Lingiari’s vison of cross-cultural mateship. He wanted to answer a question that had long plagued him. Aboriginal people were absent from his father’s Australian legend but how, he wondered, did they fit into the Australian picture?

Charlie was grappling with that question while living with the Gurindji. In so many ways this clear-sighted, unsparing history is the loss of the son’s romantic vision as much as it constitutes a salutatory reminder of Australia's ongoing failings in indigenous affairs. The story that Charlie tells us is one of high hopes often smothered by a combination of rapidly expanding bureaucracy, the ever-shifting policy priorities of many governments, the invasion of hundreds of well intentioned, misled, fly by night helpers as Charlie refers to them, legions of missionary, mercenary or misfit, each with their different agendas and the corrosive impact of global capitalism that came with them and undermined but still could not destroy Gurindji law and culture. Though they preached consultation, Charlie tells us, none of the hundreds of officials the Gurindji dealt with learned the language of the local people yet despite grounds for despondency Charlie refrains from pessimism. In the Gurindji’s foibles, he writes, we see our own and there is of course much to be proud of. Frank Hardy was right, the Gurindji’s struggle was a watershed in race relations in Australia, the walk-off and the long stand at Waddy Creek, supported as it was by the Communist Party, unionists, FCAATSI, University students, church groups and high profile activists such as Hardy, Faith Bandler, Fred Hollows slowly overcame the prejudice of generations.

In the early ‘70s we have to remember that the mentality of many within ... inside the government was extremely antagonistic to any suggestion of indigenous land rights. Country Party Minister for the Interior, Peter Nixon, told federal parliament in 1970, the government believes that its wholly wrong to encourage Aborigines to think that because their ancestors have had a long association with a particular piece of land, that they should therefore have a right to demand ownership of it.

In the years following the Wave Hill walk-off an increasing weight fell on Vincent Lingiari’s shoulders as Aboriginal politics changed rapidly around him. In the wake of the Gurindji’s actions and Whitlam’s election came the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the new policy agenda of self-determination, the Woodward Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights, the tent embassy and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act which was eventually watered down and passed by the Fraser Government in ’76. As for the handback itself in August ’75 Charlie’s description with a keen eye for the foibles of ‘70s fashion captures the drama of the ceremony beautifully and we’re going to hear about that shortly.

But I want to remind you of the words that Vincent Lingiari said that day. We often hear Whitlam’s words but what did Lingiari say? The important white men, he said, are giving us this land ceremonially. It belonged to the whites but today it’s in the hands of us Aboriginals all around here. Let us live happily as mates, let us not make it hard for each other. They will give us cattle, they will give us horses and we will be happy.

Like so many at the time Vincent had a profound and simple faith in land rights. If the land belonged to Aboriginal people then all would be well. But this book cuts through the mythology of the handback. As Charlie explains, for all the handover’s appeal it had merely won the Gurindji the opportunity to compete as pastoralists on a financial playing field levelled somewhat by grants. A mixed blessing at best. And it would take another five years before Whitlam’s promise regarding the imminent transfer of their country to freehold title was finally fulfilled.

And what is left today of that handful of sand? Vincent Lingiari’s dignity, his gentle but firm leadership and the Gurindji’s vision, persistence and cultural integrity have not only survived, they’ve inspired many other indigenous communities across Australia in their fight for land and greater independence. As Charlie concludes, against all odds Lingiari’s legacy lives. I urge you all to read this book. At a time when the fight to recognise indigenous people in the Australian constitution languishes and the country waits in vain for a political leader who will do what is required and go out day after day and prioritise indigenous issues, placing them at the centre of our national political agenda rather than at the margins where they so often reside. Charlie Ward’s A Handful of Sand offers a rare opportunity to reflect on the course of indigenous politics and the Gurindji’s struggle over a 50 year period. It's a major work in Australian history. I’m thrilled to launch it and it has much to teach use. Would you please join me in congratulating Charlie Ward.


KB:       Thank you, Mark, for launching Charlie’s book so wonderfully and sharing with us its delights and highlighting its significance. Now joining us on the stage are Charlie Ward, John Paul Janke and Brenda Croft. Charlie Ward is a writer and historian based in Darwin. He worked on the Gurindji communities of Kalkarindji and Daguragu between 2004 and 2006 and then as a researcher with the Stolen Generation’s Linkup program in Alice Springs. He is now an oral history interviewer with the National Library of Australia and Charlie’s work has appeared in journals including the Griffith Review, Meanjin and Southerly. A Handful of Sand is his first book.

John Paul Janke is the Director, Community and Public Relations, Communications and Engagement at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. A descendent of both Meriam Mir and Wuthathi peoples, John Paul has worked as a journalist in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for nearly three decades. His long list of professional achievements includes working for ATSIC, the Sydney Olympics and the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council. He’s a member of the National NAIDOC Committee and a Director of the Australian Indigenous Centre.

And Brenda Croft is a senior research fellow at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, a member of the Gurindji, Malngin, Mudpurra and Bilinara peoples from Northern Territory of Australia. Brenda was a founding member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Cooperative. She has been involved in contemporary arts and the cultural sector for nearly 30 years. She has worked as a curator in many galleries and lectured across Austra ... the country and overseas. Would you welcome them to the stage please?


JPJ:      Well thanks, everyone, thanks for joining us tonight. My role is quite simple, it’s to try and flesh out as much about the book as possible in quite a short time so we’ve only got about 30 to 35 minutes so it’s going to be quite quick. But before we start I too would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country that we’re on tonight, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and I acknowledge their elders past and present.

Thanks, Mark, for the opening. Like yourself the book is absolutely enthralling and a wonderful narrative on such a significant event. We’re going to show some slides throughout this presentation as a way of jogging some of the memories and some of the stories between these two people. I’d like to probably start at the very beginning and get some narrative about where we are, where we are with the Gurindji people. This is the location of obviously Daguragu and Kalkarindji but Brenda or Charlie, maybe give us some historical context about Gurindji people. Brenda, if I could start with you?

BC:       Well as I said before we came inside and Charlie and I’d talked about this at great length, I’m here as a person of Gurindji heritage but I am certainly not the Gurindji spokesperson and I’ve always made that really clear with the work that I do. Having said that it’s a great honour to be part of this panel and I too pay my respects to the traditional custodians of this region and have a longstanding involvement with ... here with our parents who worked in Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the in the early days and John Paul and I were talking about that earlier.

As someone of Gurindji heritage on my dad’s side it was just ... for me growing up it was always there and my dad was a member of the stolen generations and ... but he had always known that he was a Gurindji and Mudburra and the Mullion was confirmed when I went up there later on as a young adult. I’ve been going back home for about 25 years and I guess in much the same way as that event, that seminal event in the late ‘60s drew Charlie up there. It was always just something there in my DNA as someone connected from that place but wondering always what actually ... what was it about and you know it was ... I’ve come across many people in my work throughout the country who’ve said to me oh you know the very first language group I ever heard of was Gurindji because of that event that happened in the ’60s and right through to the ... ‘til 75 and I moved down to Canberra in ’75 and one of my earliest memories of being here was standing on the steps of Parliament House the night that Whitlam had gotten thrown out. My parents took us kids there because they were extremely angry as were so many other people and so Whitlam was also someone who featured strongly in my childhood memoires.

And those days were ... that period where he did that handback, there was such optimism I think and not just in relation to indigenous affairs but in so many areas you know for women, for education, you just ... really felt that there was ... a change had come and in the intervening decades we’ve seen all of that whittled away. And for me the revelation with your book, Charlie, again as Mark said, it was pretty impossible to put it down so I would kind of fall and you know I’d fall asleep reading a chapter a night just to kind of get through it and I have to say I ended up feeling such despair, I got angrier and angrier as I went along because you have ... it’s so revelatory in the way that you’ve unravelled all the kind of ... the Machiavellian, the machinations that went on behind the scenes to whittle away that gesture.

And on the other hand, having just come back from the 50th anniversary of the walk-off where it is ... for me it’s kind of a bittersweet thing watching what goes on up there. I don’t consider myself an insider, I haven’t grown up in the community, I’ve been going back regularly for 25 years, my dad’s buried up there. I’ve got close connections with family but I’m not an outsider either, I’m kind of like an in-betweener in a way and so perhaps that allows me to be a bit of a cool observer and looking at you know well what has actually happened? For me personally I find it really hard to call the annual event Freedom Day because I don’t see ... I’m free to come and go, I’m a middle class blackfella, you know? I have the options to be able to come and go as I like based on research grants that I have etc but the lack of opportunities are glaring up there for young people and having spent the last five years working quite closely with family and community interviewing them about ... in a very different way to Charlie, I think ... I’m interested in where people see home and how do people in that community see the walk-off and the track and that event? And so I’ve been interviewing a range of people from elders through to very young people about what they want there and there aren’t you know I don’t have answers. I think it’s an ongoing story and you know it does ... it is double-edged for me all the time, there are ... there’s great pride coming from there but there’s also great sadness I think for what those old people wanted and what hasn’t happened.

JPJ:      Alright, Charlie, your first part of your book talks about Gurindji and maps sort of Gurindji in the historical context.                                  

CW:     Yeah.

JPJ:      Are you able to tell us a bit more about ... looking at some of these photos ... take us to Gurindji country. A lot of us here in Canberra have never been out there and probably will never go out to Daguragu or Kalkarindji and the feel the red dirt in our sand or wash our feet in the river.

CW:     I think Brenda and I might still have some in our pockets, we were in the caravan park in Kalkarindji a couple of weeks ago. The first time I went there I was surprised, I suppose, I knew you know where I was going and I thought it was sort of heading towards the desert but it’s ... yeah, it’s sort of ...

BC:       It’s not like Alice Springs.

CW:     It’s not at all like Alice, it’s sort of just on the northern edge of the Tanami and it’s beautiful like there’s you know really big, big river system, the headwaters of the Victoria River and freshwater crocodiles, pandanus, there’s permanent springs ...

BC:       Huge skies, I always think of those really, really big skies and ... it's remote. You know in trying to explain to people, there’s remote and there’s remote and I kind of always laughed with you know the idea that northeast Arnhem Land with the Garema [? 21:55] Festival, there’s an airport there you know Qantas flies in every day. To get to Kalkarindji unless you charter a plane, it’s a 10 hour drive, eight to ... you can do it in eight but it’s about a 10 hour drive, it is remote, it’s really remote.

CW:     And there’s probably five driveways on that sort of six hours from Katherine, yeah. But yeah, very, very varied, beautiful country, there’s a lot of rocky maces, spinifex, black soil plains, bush turkeys and I guess there’s you know there’s been cattle there for 130 years or something so that’s also had an impact and ...

BC:       Massive impact in terms of waterholes being affected, erosion, oh vegetation you know you can see with what the work that the Gurindji rangers have been doing with securing some of the waterholes, how quickly they can come back to life but there's been massive degradation there, I think, because of cattle.

CW:     Yeah, yeah. Lot of feral weeds.

BC:       Donkeys.

CW:     And now cane toads as well.

BC:       Massive amount of cane toads.

JPJ:      The opening sentence of your book talks about Vincent Lingiari and it has a simple but very strong comment which starts without Vincent Lingiari work on Vestey’s Wave Hill Station would have ceased. It’s quite a powerful statement. Are you able to tell us a bit more and ... starting with Charlie, a bit more about the man, Vincent Lingiari?

CW:     Yeah well by all accounts he was a remarkable man, the numerous people that I’ve spoken to who knew him and his descendants. I mean I think we all want a powerful leader and we tend to sort of build individuals up and that certainly happens with Vincent and his role with the Gurindji people but it is warranted as well because he was a remarkable individual and the ... when people met him they were affected by him. One woman described it to me as the fact he was so ... he was to be respected because he was so respectful you know so there wasn't any hubris or sort of pride. I don’t think he built himself up or saw himself in grand terms but he sort of earnt that or engendered it in other people. And I think the man who’s passed away now, Billy Bunter, kind of impressed on me that fact, the way that Vincent performed sorts of numerous roles in the world of Wave Hill Station. I mean he you know he was a ceremonial leader ...

JPJ:      He was a senior law man?

CW:     Yeah.

BC:       He was a statesman. I mean I ... from all accounts ... I didn’t meet him, he died in 1988 and I first went out in ’91 but everything you read about him, his statesmanship so there’s not ... it isn’t just that one thing, he ... and we know those old school people in our communities you know we know those old men and women who are gentlemen and gentlewomen as well as ... they just have a gravitas you know you li ... you want to learn from them, you want to sit and listen to them, they’re not loud, they’re not brash, they you know there’s not huge amounts of words all the time. That’s the sense I have of him and I ... and what I love about your book too is how you flesh out some of the other people involved in that walk-off because he worked with other people as well and I love being able to get a sense of them as people.

CW:     I find that ... it’s a tricky one you know ‘cause I you know too want to ... want to sort of have a sense of people’s character you know and what they were like but it’s hard to flesh that out you know I can only sort of go on what they’d said and the way that they interacted and whatnot but I’m sure that it’s true you know that ... I mean in a few cases Vincent probably had his perspective and wanted to take people in a certain direction but there was always the to and fro and the consultation.

BC:       But I like the tension that’s obviously apparent there as well you know there were people of those senior men in particular who didn’t always agree with his way and you know the impact of Christianity up there and how that was at odds with cultural law you know and you get a sense of that, it isn’t just everybody has the one way of thinking. I mean there’s a particular aim that people have but there are quite different opinions about how you get to that.

JPJ:      Yeah, I think ... and the book describes the mobilisation of the 200 people which are stockmen and families and children and ... on that epic journey and I think the ability for Vincent and leaders to coordinate that and also to mobilise those people is a strength of those leaders in the community. When you were doing the research for the book and you did a lot of interviews with individuals on sort of both sides of the spectrum what was there differing views about Lingiari?

CW:     Well I think ... I mean it was fairly united, I mean I guess the big point of difference would be that generally some of the people you know in the cattle industry might have thought ... and said to me well it wasn’t Vincent you know it was the Frank Hardy, it was the Communists, it you know it was people pulling the strings and Dexter Daniels, that’s why Lingiari led people to walk off. But I’d say that you know that point of view is a minority and I think that increasingly that perspective has kind of been pushed to the margins because there’s been a lot of other work and Gurindji oral history has emerged since that time which has really made it quite clear that it was a long-held desire and that people were just waiting for the right time to do it. And that was when support became available.

JPJ:      So the first part of the book is titled A Quest for Justice and it covers quite an expansive period from 1930 to about 1972. A lot of people down south just saw it as a quest for land rights but it was a quest for something much bigger. Do you want to outline what that quest for justice was and the bigger picture stuff that the Gurindji were after?

CW:     I think there was a vision of an autonomous community, people wanted equality you know within the region, they wanted to operate on equal terms with the ... within the cattle industry. And the stuff that I find interesting which is probably less talked about than the cattle business and the school that they wanted is a broader vision which was about rebalancing the cultural flow I suppose of you know the great sort of accommodation that they’d had to make in terms of incorporating the cattle industry and the agenda of Europeans into their country and into their lives and there's a few comments where Lingiari and others talks about, okay, now it’s time for a rebalancing you know now it’s time for nonindigenous Australia to learn about our language, our culture and how we do things. And I think that’s part of that quote that we heard before when Lingiari says we want to be mates now. There was a vision of equality and you know they took practical steps to realise that through trying to teach Europeans Gurindji language and you know create this sort of cultural flow between the two groups.

BC:       But also what comes to me from the book is to do it on their terms, it didn’t have to be the same, it wasn’t about trying to be the same and it was also about being left alone, being able to be left alone on country, this is our country, we want to do what we want to do here the way we want to do it and the ... what you also get from that is you know all the outside forces that were kind of well you have to do it a certain way. If you want to get funding to do it this way it has to be ... so that’s what I mean by the undermining and I mean that still operates, the way there’s the two communities with Daguragu and Kalkarindji. For me it was always trying to understand the differences between th ... how did those two communities operate with each other? And I love how that is really clear in this book and it is still so ... so deeply rooted there when you’re talking to people over at Daguragu, the frustration they feel with all the infrastructure being put into Kalkarindji still you know it’s dedicated ... it’s a dedicated hub town, that’s where all the money goes in you know so Daguragu from my observation has been allowed through kind of a de facto way of kind of not doing anything there, it’s to allow it to fall into disrepair so it will not survive you know and there are still the same things that were being said by those elders back then are being said by TOs there today.

JPJ:      Charlie, you talk about the vision of setting up an autonomous community and the central hub of that autonomous community was obviously the cattle and the cattle operations. Can you take us through the vision of setting up that cattle operation and then the subsequent problems that they encountered? And maybe then how that vision sort of subsided a bit towards the end.

CW:     Well it’s a long period, it was 1970 I think that the Murramulla Cattle Company was incorporated with the help of activists, students and unionists. The man ... I mean it was pretty gendered ... the men had amazing skills you know that they’d built up over decades working in the cattle industry and they had a vision of supporting themselves through running cattle and providing jobs for the younger people. And yeah so a financial operation and that of course was pretty problematic to begin with because they didn’t have land in a legally recognised sense so was several years of sort of false starts and buying cattle and then trying to get a special purpose lease from the McMahon Government so that they could legally have a few cattle to run. And of course then Whitlam came in and there was more money and the decision from Vestey’s Wave Hill Station happens so quite a big area of land and the consultants who were involved at the time were of the opinion that a viable cattle station could operate on that piece of land that the old people had named that was theirs and what they wanted to reclaim. I guess the interesting question is to what degree did that financially viable vision and you know the sort of mainstream economic perspective of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the consultancies groups, did that match what the elders envisaged? And I think that there was a sort of mismatch going on.

JPJ:      Yeah.

CW:     Yeah. And of course with the funding that they were successful in getting there were all sorts of conditions which involved massive amounts of fencing and building up infrastructure and bores and all the rest of it over the whole property so huge, huge labour demand and I think life was ... I mean ...

BC:       It was hard.

CW:     The pastoral economy had changed and there were more choices for young people at Daguragu than in earlier times so you know there was more diversity about what people wanted to do and funding would sort of go up and down like that so the number of people they could employ would vary a lot and that you know wasn’t ideal for the young stockmen. And then you had BTEC, the brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication campaign and that was ... I’d never heard of it to be honest but that had a massive impact on the cattle industry and basically was sort of used as a wedge to kind of force the whole industry into a modern mechanised ... much more closely managed operations ‘cause I mean ... yeah.

BC:       You know in the end it also impacted on any ... on all of the Aboriginal-owned stations you know that ... that’s the sense that I was getting from reading the book and I remember at you know hearing about that and talking with you know Brian Manning, we both were lucky enough to interview him on different occasions for different things and his frustration at that you know because he ... you had these incredible people who’d put in so much time supporting Gurindji and he was also a great statesman as far as I’m concerned, the late Brian Manning, and never you know was as beloved as Whitlam was by people down in community and he died at the end of 2013. His frustration at seeing ... everything was just always just out of reach you know okay, we’ve done this and now there’s another thing that you have to jump through the hoops of, what ... and so when they finally did get their cattle then there was the decision to destroy them all and so that w ... wiped out their entire herd. And people are still talk ... the old people up there are still talking about that you know you still talk to some of those elders now and they’re still going on that we just need to get cattle back here and get that station back up without realising that moment has passed, you know? To be able to do that.

JPJ:      We’ll talk about the struggles between the community and government and the past ... and the cattle industry in a minute. Obviously with the momentum building from the walk-off and the need to gain mainstream support and build the momentum nationally Vincent and the elders undertook a lot of travels to metropolitan areas and they formed a lot of strong partnerships with organisations. How important was it for the Gurindji to build that mainstream support in terms of garnishing support for both their strike but also the bigger picture of what they wanted to achieve?

CW:     I think those alliances were really key in the early years after the walk-off because there was no other support, I mean there was the question ... how are people going to live? How are they going to feed themselves let alone how are they going to build up a community? So it was through the union movement initially and supporters in Darwin and that expanded I guess in the late 1960s and people were kind of ... I guess they were part of a broader movement as Brenda was saying earlier you know there was just a groundswell of support for Aboriginal rights, equality ... I mean gender, race issues were kind of becoming a ...

BC:       Well there were things changing globally you know so it was really on the wave of all of that, it became all of those things, you had the referendum the following year, you had ... into the ‘70s you know with the tent embassy being set up and the ... and looking at what was happening in the states in terms of black power you know young activists here who were okay, we’re not going to wait for these things anymore and this absolutely was part of that. You look at the Save the Gurindji campaign in 1970 when thing ... when you know interest had waned and sort of fallen off the radar a bit, if it wasn’t for outside people, black and white, who did work alongside each other and kept that going, kept that happening, there’s no way that the community would have been able to continue I think up there and you didn’t have social media, you couldn’t just kind of link into something, it was ... you had to ... it had to be on the ground.

JPJ:      Yeah and I think it’s coming back to where you’re talking about Lingiari being a statesman and having the ... sort of the gravitas to be able to engage with a wider audience for the causes back you know thousands of miles away back in the centre of Australia. The partnerships they formed which you illustrate in the book as you mentioned, unions and individuals, universities, Aboriginal organisations, they through the unions obviously came into contact with the Communist Party and there’s two wonderful photos in your book which I ... admittedly caught my eye because they’re courtesy of ASIO which ... do you want to expand how you came across these photos in the first instance? And maybe why ASIO were looking at the Gurindji during this period.

CW:     Well I mean I’m sure most people here know ASIO was interested in anyone with long hair back then. I think comm ... there were active Communists who were associated, who were supportive of you know I mean Brian Manning, Terry Robinson who helped to form the NT Council of Aboriginal Rights, Frank Hardy of course came into the picture ... he’d been a long traveller with the Communist Party ...

BC:       Hannah.

CW:      Yeah, even later, the 19 ... early ‘70s.

BC:       Hannah Middleton you know s ... and the ... all the unions had huge CPA membership so that was your support base.

CW:     And I mean I ... so ... I mean there’s one quote in the book from the Director of ASIO saying it looks as if the Aboriginal issues and the Vietnam war are going to keep us busy in the next year. Why Aboriginal issues were a national security threat I'm not clear but ...

BC:       But that hasn’t changed, has it?

CW:    Yeah but certainly by the early ... well okay so I’ve seen material from ASIO which was produced by the media so people who would go up there as part of a documentary team or a news reporting team, whether they were employed by ASIO or just happy to give their material over to ASIO, that’s certainly in the ASIO files now. And the Special Branch of the Northern Territory Police so you can sort of see this from numerous angles so there’s mentions you know in the police journals from the police at Wave Hill will say you know April 3rd, Special Branch visit, ASIO accompanying. I’ve interviewed some of those policemen and their wives and then there’s you know the avenue of making a request here at the National Archives in Canberra and ... under you know looking up some of the names of people like Hannah and others who were present at Waddy Creek at the time and that also turns up the sort of breadth of what ASIO was up to on the ground up there.

BC:       They must have really stood out. It wasn't a big community.

CW:     It was ... no, that’s right. And I’ve tried to convey that in the book, that people felt like they were being watched.

BC:       Because they were.

CW:     Because they were, because they were, you know?

JPJ:      Just ‘cause you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you ...

CW:     That’s right.

JPJ:      ... sort of thing, yeah.

CW:     The policemen’d come out and drive around and have a good look and was reporting back to Darwin and the administration, yeah.

JPJ:      And as part of the sort of ... the lobbying and the need to grow greater support base, in the late ‘60s Vincent teamed up with Galarrwuy Yunupingu to record this song, The Gurindji Blues, with Ted Egan. Do you want to tell us a bit about this song? ‘Cause your book goes into some great detail about how this song came about and the need for this song?

CW:     Well Ted Egan had been in the Northern Territory since 1949 I think and he was a ... he’d worked in the Aboriginal communities as a teacher, he’d worked as a Welfare Branch officer. By the late 1960s he’d been employed by Nugget Coombs, Barry Dexter and Bill Stanner as part of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs so they had quite a progressive agenda in contrast to the Northern Territory administration and the Welfare Branch etc. And Ted is an amazing balladeer and folk singer and he was incensed by the announcement of the Minister Peter Nixon about yeah, refusing to accommodate any recognition of Gurindji rights to land etc, etc ...

JPJ:      Yeah. If Gurindji want land they have to buy it.

CW:     Basic ... yeah, yeah. That got to him and you know I think ... yeah in a moment of inspiration he wrote this brilliant song called Gurindji Blues and asked ... I think he asked Vincent to sing it. And Galarrwuy Yunupingu was there as well ... I don’t know what he was planning but Vincent couldn’t quite make the high notes so Galarrwuy did a great job.

JPJ:      And Vincent ... on the actual record Vincent does the introduction in traditional language and in English and this is what he says.


My name is Vincent Lingiari, came from Waddy ... Daguragu, Waddy Creek Basin.

[Aboriginal Language]

That mean that I came down here to ask all these fellas down here about the land right. What I got told from my old father or grandpa that land belong to me, belong to Aboriginal men before the horse and the cattle come over on that land where I’m sitting now. Well that’s what I keep it on my mind and I still got it on my mind. That’s all the word I can tell you.

JPJ:      So, Charlie, having gone through the process that ... decade long of researching for this book, what does it feel like when you hear ...


JPJ:      What do you hear when you feel ... you hear that powerful voice?

CW:     Oh it’s special. I’ve been ... well I actually helped to organise a meeting up in Kalkarindji a couple of months ago and we played an interview which Vincent had done in the late ‘70s with Ted Egan actually and it had sort of been lost in the archives in Darwin for a long time and so I mean I think when people hear his voice especially up there you know it sort of ... you can feel the sort of energy drop ‘cause his legacy has I guess been you know become contested a little bit in some ways in Kalkarindji and Daguragu and for me personally I you know I think he was an amazing, amazing individual. There’s a great ... you might have seen it on NITV, there’s a sort of piece where the journalist is going around and asking people, oh here’s the photo of Whitlam and you know do you know who this is? And they you know it’s Mabo? Nelson Mandela? Malcolm X? You know but I think ...

BC:       What, in the community or just in the broader community?

CW:     No, this is ...

BC:       Okay.

CW:     Yeah, streets of Sydney kind of thing.

JPJ:      And Brenda, what about you? What do you feel when you ...

BC:       Well I love that ... I use that as part of ... that’s been the kind of basis for a PhD project I’m working on called Still in My Mind and you heard him say that country, I still got it on my mind and it is that thing about where is it? When you hear his voice and it’s also hearing the voice of people like Dexter Daniels you know looking at ... being at the National Film and Sound Archives a few years back doing an indigenous fellowship there I was lucky to be able to sit and look through all that old footage and listen to a lot of that audio and going back to the ’30 as well, footage ... silent footage of people from out at Wave Hill and the broader Victoria River region, it’s really moving you know you feel a sen ... I get really teary when I hear his voice because I also know by the time he passed away the level of despair and frustration that I heard from lots of different people, not just from what’s revealed in your book but people who worked at the Central Land Council who fought f ... and ‘cause it took so long for that land handback to be actually ratified you know it was years and years and years and we’ve seen those kinds of tactics, the stalling tactics in a way like with the stolen generations you know it’s like waiting for people to pass away, to wear them down and you can hear that and see that by the time he died as an old man.

But hearing his voice, the sense of determination you know we’re not giving up, we will not leave. Where are they going to go? I mean this is where we’re from and one of the things I’ve been doing is walking the actual walk-off track with family members to try and just get a sense of what it must have been like walking from that place to the Promised Land in many ways, you know? That’s how they saw it, this is ... and there were those Christian analogies because he saw himself as a Christian, he saw that two way of operating and that caused friction with people in community who didn’t want to follow that. And it does become a handful of dust like the lady who walked down the stairs and thought she was coming to see Robert Foster at the go-betweens launch.

JPJ:      The book builds wonderfully up to this day, August 16, 1975 and this is the most iconic photo of the day but you’ve got some wonderful anecdotes of the whole day and I think it’s described in the book as the drama and accidental comedy of the day and there’s this wonderful story told by Geoff Elms who is the Central Land Council lawyer and you talk about this in the book where you say Whitlam flew up on his BAC111 jet, the airstrip wasn’t quite long enough for it and Geoff laughs. I remember when it landed there were all these dignitaries waiting out there for Gough but he didn’t stop in time and it went hurtling into the fence. It was a pretty spectacular start of the day’s events. But this photo is the iconic photo and the one that everyone sees. The story of Whitlam pouring sand into the hand, you tell the story in your book of actually Nugget Coombs suggesting to do this event, to make the day. Can you outline a bit more about that story?

CW:     I’ve only been able to go off Nugget Coombs’ own account, I think it’s in his book, Calenmar, And he relays flying up there for this ceremony which was ... before it happened was going to be a big deal from the government’s point of view you know they wanted it to be a symbolic event, they wanted it to signify Aboriginal land rights and you know a new age beginning and as we’ve heard that was successful you know that image has been sort of melded onto the actual day. But yeah so Nugget is flying up in the plane with Whitlam and he says to Gough a story that he’s heard from Bill Stanner which was about the Wiangaree people having ... using that sort of ceremonial transfer with John Batman in the 1830s.

JPJ:      1835, yeah.

BC:       But isn’t ... wasn’t it also based on an even more ancient thing where ... tell me if I’ve got this wrong ... it is about actual conveyancing, it is a legal transaction but from ancient times, the idea of one ...

CW:     The European tradition of it, yeah, yeah which I didn’t know about either but that’s right, that’s right, it was you know you’d ... the bit of land that was going to be transferred. You might take a branch off a tree or a stone or something and that was used as a sort of symbol of you know to represent the actual transfer of the land. Yeah.

JPJ:      And then in April 2010 you interviewed Cec and Dawn Watts in Darwin who gave you a great story about this actual handover and Cec Watts was Vestey Pastoral Inspector and his wife, Dawn, and you interviewed them about how they remembered the day and this was their response to you. Cec says I was standing quite close to Vincent and Gough gave him a handful of dirt symbolically and the old bloke sort of let it drift out of his hand. Then Dawn pipes in and says he didn’t know what to do with it and Cec goes poor old bugger, he put it behind his back. And Dawn responds they could have given him a little box.

CW:     They were very cute, those two.

JPJ:      So your interviews are obviously ... expand this whole day to beyond this actual event. People’s connection with this event, how did it ... how did you feel people were reconnecting to this event well after you know 1970s?

CW:     I think ... I mean peo ... everybody who I’ve spoken to who was there makes a point of letting you know ... you know even if they didn’t have any kind of ongoing connection with the Gurindji struggle or that area even you know that ... ‘cause it’s so well recognised you know they want to put their bit in that they were there and there are a whole lot of different interesting perspectives on what happened.

BC:       Oh yes.

JPJ:      Well we’ve probably got time just for two more questions. Maybe talk about this photo. This is one of the sort of other photos you don’t tend to see but maybe tell us the story of this.

CW:       So Rob Wesley Smith who’s very much alive and kicking and still up in Darwin, he took this shot and he ... I think he actually ...

BC:       He bought the champagne.

CW:     ... but I think he provided the champers, yeah. And yeah gave it to Vincent and Gough to celebrate. This was in the moments after the transfer of the title deeds and Gough took the bottle and as Wes said, poured it down his copious gullet and there’s sort of ... as you can see Vincent’s a bit bewildered I think by what’s going on.

BC:       Well he didn’t drink.

JPJ:      He’d given up the drink, yeah.

BC:       He didn’t drink so this kind of weird ... and it would have been warm as well.

JPJ:      That’s true.

BC:       But I’ll tell you a story from somebody else who was up there, Tanya McConville. We interviewed ... I interviewed her for something else and she encapsulated it amazingly, she said you know here we were at Daguragu and there was no toilets or anything like that and this crew comes in because Whitlam’s coming and we get ... there’s electric lights go up and the road’s graded and long drop toilets are dug and we think fantastic, fantastic, we’ve got ... finally got you know toilets and showers and I know in your book people were also building them. And she said and then Whitlam came in, there’s all the dignitaries that did this, they all left, the lights were taken down, the long drops were dug in ... filled in and she tur ... and I’m going to swear here ... she says we weren’t even allowed to keep Whitlam’s shit and ... but she was crying, she was actually so angry there was this ... and I think that’s a real summing up in many ways of you know ...

JPJ:      Of the roadshow coming into town.

BC:       ... the façade, it’s like the Olympics you know you build these great things that happen for a short space of time and then the lights dim and the people who live these have to carry on with it.

JPJ:      Yeah, amazing. One more beautiful story which you’ve uncovered is so they hand back the deeds, Whitlam gives the deeds to Lingiari and Lingiari gives the actual paper documents to the lawyers, to a gentleman by the name of Geoff Ur ...

BC:       Eames.

JPJ:      Eames and you’ve interviewed Geoff Eames and you say in your book amongst such excitement the Gurindji leader gave the new title deeds to his lawyer, Geoff Eames for safekeeping. With enthusiastic residents wanting to examine the documents Eam lost them in the crowd. At that point he was approached by Whitlam announcing there had been a request for photographs of the black and white statesmen holding the parchment. This obviously might be Mervin Bishop’s second photo. When Eames replied meekly that he didn’t know where they were Whitlam’s response was quintessential, what? It took them 200 years to get their land back and you’ve lost it in 10 minutes? And you go on to say look, the deeds were located, all stained with dirt and passed through so many, many hands.

But to me that shows you know your in-depth research over decades to sort of tell these beautiful stories and I ... in preparation for tonight I jumped on your blog where you penned this beautiful sort of concluding statement to your book where you said I’ve interviewed from RSL ... the RSL club in Broome to a bakery in Geelong, from Perth to the Daintree. I destroyed my engine near Roper Bar in the Northern Territory and wound my way around fire and flood hunting old cattlemen. I’ve turned up in the archives in ... I’ve turned the archives in Darwin upside down and discovered unopened files. It’s true what they say, year after year, I sat at my keyboard and I bled. So it’s a beautiful way I think to sum up the concluding part of the story but I think in conclusion is there any outstanding anecdote or story that you’ve unravelled in your journey, your 10 year journey that you’d like to share with us?

CW:     Oh that one with ... I mean that was a great example of what you know why I love oral history because it was one of Gough’s jokes that might have been lost forever but you know we were lucky to get that one. Do you want to ... no, it’s a question for me, is it? I was wondering if you could talk for a while, Brenda, while I thought of something.

BC:       What are you saying, Charlie?

JPJ:      Well ... but maybe while Charlie’s thinking we might put some thinking music on. What is left ... what’s left for Gurindji? What’s Lingiari’s legacy for Gurindji mob now?

BC:       Well I can’t speak on behalf of his family and I’d never do that but you can see how incredibly proud they are of how he led that action and that was evident at the 50th with different family members getting up to speak. The legacy I think ... there’s so much that has to be addressed in this country and you know every day we can see something that is looking at how indigenous people are still so far behind the eight-ball and today’s example was two former prime ministers saying that there is no way they would ever support a treaty in this country or a report in yesterday's paper that the majority of land held by overseas interests still is British. Or a couple of months ago that two of the largest stations in that area up there, Inverway and Riveren, were just acquired by Gina Rinehart so we have the new version of Vestey’s you know so it ... we’re 50 years on but how little has changed and there are still limited opportunities and what are we going to do to address that? How am I going to address that? What can I do to address that because that’s all of our responsibility? Up there.

So it’s a complex place, it always feels like dog years when you’re up there, a week feels like a year. What it’s like for people on the ground ... and people come and go too, people come and go to different places and ... but that’s the touchstone, is that defining action of bringing the birth of national land rights to this country so people are incredibly proud of that but then looking that as beyond what the legend is and considering it in light of what the reality is, how do we actually bring his dream and the dream of those people who walked off with him? How do we bring that to reality? Not a cattle station but what do we do that creates positive outcomes for people in community up there now?

JPJ:      Alright, that’s probably a good point to end. I'm going to let you off the hook on your favourite story ...

CW:     Oh God, I’m glad to hear that.

BC:       Oh don’t.

JPJ:      ... ‘cause I’m going to encourage people to at the end of this buy the book and ambush him and get him to tell you your favourite story as he signs it. We’re going to hand back over to questions from the audience but could you please put your hands together ...

[End of Recording]