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Friday essay: the untold story behind the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off

Gurindji ranger Ursula Chubb pays her respects to ancestors killed in the early 1900s at Blackfella Creek, where children were tied with wire and dragged by horses, and adults were shot as they fled. They were buried under rocks where they fell. Brenda L Croft, from Yijarni, Author provided

Friday essay: the untold story behind the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off

Gurindji ranger Ursula Chubb pays her respects to ancestors killed in the early 1900s at Blackfella Creek, where children were tied with wire and dragged by horses, and adults were shot as they fled. They were buried under rocks where they fell. Brenda L Croft, from Yijarni, Author provided

* Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this article contain images, voices and names of deceased people.

Fifty years ago, the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory made their name across Australia with the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off. It was a landmark event that inspired national change: equal wages for Aboriginal workers, as well as a new land rights act. Although it took another two decades, the Gurindji also became one of the first Aboriginal groups to reclaim their traditional lands.

A new book shares untold stories about the history behind the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off. Aboriginal Studies Press, Author provided
Wave Hill’s location in Australia. A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-Off, by Charlie Ward, published by Monash University Publishing 2016, CC BY-NC-ND

Many people know a small part of the walk-off story because of the song From Little Things, Big Things Grow: how 200 stockmen, house servants and their families walked off Wave Hill Station on August 23, 1966, in protest at appalling pay and living conditions.

What’s much less widely known is that the walk-off followed more than 80 years of massacres and killings, stolen children and other abuses by early colonists. For many Gurindji elders alive today, it happened within their lifetime, to them or to their loved ones.

Those elders are now sharing their untold stories through a new book, Yijarni, being launched today at Kalkaringi by Senator Pat Dodson, as part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the walk-off. Yijarni – meaning “true” in Gurindji – is a collaboration between those elders, linguists, photographers, visual artists from Karungkarni Arts and the Murnkurrumurnkurru Central Land Council rangers.

As the elders recall, memories of their brutal treatment over several generations weighed heavily on the minds of Gurindji people when they walked off the station.

One of the first things the Gurindji did after the walk-off was to take the bones of those massacred at Blackfellows Knob and accord them the respect of a traditional burial, by interring them in the caves of the Seale Gorge.

Violet Wadrill describes the Blackfellows Knob massacre and the later reburial of bones at Seale Gorge to her granddaughter Leah Leaman in 2014. Penny Smith, from Yijarni.

‘They shot blackfellas like dogs’

Gurindji country was first colonised by pastoralists who considered the blacksoil plains of the Victoria River District to be prime grazing land.

In late 1855, the brothers Henry and Francis Gregory arrived from the north and followed the Victoria River and its tributaries upstream. Here they met Gurindji, Malngin, Bilinarra and Mudburra people for the first time.

The first Gurindji murder recorded by pastoralists occurred just after Nat Buchanan established Wave Hill Station in 1882. His son Gordon noted in his memoirs that Sam Croker shot a Gurindji man in the back for trying to take a bucket.

Killings of individuals and groups increased in frequency as more and more Gurindji land was taken for grazing.

Nyanuny-ngurlu-rni ngurra-ngurlu kartipa yani nyamu yani ‘nother place, ‘nother land-kari-ngurlu. Murlangkurra paraj ngumpit turlakap warlaku-marraj, kula kuya-ma punyu … nyawa-ma-rna yurrk marnana nyamu-yilu yurrk marnani kamparlkarra marlarluka-lu, kajikajirri-lu yurrk.

They were shot on their own country by the foreigners. When they came here, they found blackfellas and shot them like dogs — that’s not right! I’m telling it how the old people who were there told it. – Ronnie Wavehill, speaking in Gurindji in 1997, translated into English. (Yijarni, page 50-51)

Jack Beasley in 1939. Lilly collection, courtesy of Darrell Lewis, The Murranji Track, 2011, CC BY-NC-ND

One man from the 1930s still remembered by Gurindji people is stockman Jack Beasley. He had a reputation among Gurindji and white stockmen alike as a “gin jockey”: a common term for someone who took Aboriginal women against their will for his own sexual gratification.

In a memoir by Doug Moore, an Ord River bookkeeper, Beasley is described as “a rough good-natured chap who talked about gouging out blackfellows’ eyes with a blunt pocket knife”.

To this day, the Gurindji talk about Beasley as the worst perpetrator of massacres in this area.

More than a dozen known massacre sites from the early colonial period – as recorded by Gurindji elders or early pastoralists – are marked on this map with the symbol of a cross. Yijarni, p. 28-29

‘He kicked my mother till she dropped dead’

In the 1930s, when Jimmy Manngayarri was only about four years old, he watched as his mother was kicked to death by pastoralist Harry Reid. Half a century later, he said he always believed Reid had killed her because his mother had been unable to make him stop crying.

When I was a little boy … Harry Reid was kicking my mother here on the kidney. He kicked her in the kidney till she dropped dead. – Malngin elder Jimmy Manngayarri talking to Deborah Rose in the early 1980s. (Hidden Histories, p. 41)

He also saw his uncle die at the hands of two other white men, Jack Cusack and Jack Carpenter.

Cusack and Carpenter meikim im cartim jangilany. ‘Alrait yu cartim wud.’ Wal imin gedim wud na. Imin gedim wud, stackimap. ‘Rait yu stand up deya. Stand up longsaid langa faya.’ Jutim deya binij on top of the wood. Gedim kerosin an barnimap rait deya top of the wud jukim kerosine barnim. Puka kartiya brobli. Dat ai bin siim acting langa mairoun eye ai bin siim wen ai was piccininny.

Cusack and Carpenter made my uncle get some firewood. ‘Alright, you cart some wood,’ they told him. Well, he got some wood then and stacked it up. ‘Right you stand up there,’ they said. ‘Stand lengthways to the pile of firewood.’ Then they shot him so he fell on top of the wood. They got some kerosene and burnt him right there. Those whitefellas were rotten to the core. I saw them do these things with my own eyes when I was a child. – Jimmy Manngayarri, recorded in 1975. (Yijarni, p. 60-62)

Jimmy Manngayarri describes his uncle’s death. McConvell collection (AIATSIS)267 KB (download)

‘You reckon you can run as fast as a horse?’

The establishment of the Gordon Creek Police Station in 1894 and Bow Hills Police Station in 1913 (later known as Wave Hill Police Station) did little to stop the increasingly normalised violence against Gurindji men, women and children.

Mounted Constable William Willshire was the first policeman posted at Gordon Creek Police Station in 1894. He arrived with a murderous reputation, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography records:

Disliking paperwork, Willshire often failed to report his activities; by 1890 Aboriginal deaths associated with his actions certainly exceeded the official number of thirteen … In 1891 Willshire’s men attacked sleeping Aborigines camped at Tempe Downs station. Two men died and were cremated. F.J. Gillen, Alice Springs sub-protector of Aborigines, investigated the reported episode and committed Willshire to Port Augusta for trial for murder … Aboriginal witnesses attended, but problems over accepting their evidence resulted in Willshire’s popular acquittal. Having prudently stationed him at southern centres, his superiors transferred him in 1893 to the Victoria River district where he was able ‘to commit mayhem at will’.

Indigenous ranger George Sambo shows the tree where Mounted Constable McDonald used to chain Aboriginal men. Penny Smith, Yijarni

Even after being put on trial, Willshire’s brutality continued unchecked in the north when he was posted at Gordon Creek.

Another early policeman, Mounted Constable MacDonald, stationed at Bow Hills Police Station, had a reputation for chaining up Gurindji men and setting dogs on them.

Little changed in the new century. In the 1940s, Gordon Stott’s patrols of the Victoria River District with his tracker Kurnmali were feared by Aboriginal stockman.

Like Willshire, Stott’s reputation had preceded him. Following a trial in Borroloola in 1933 involving Aboriginal witnesses, a departmental inquiry found that “Mounted Constable Stott, by intimidation and assault, extracted false evidence of cattle killing from a number of aboriginals”. Another witness had also died following an assault by Stott. It was recommended that he be dismissed; instead, he was sent to the Victoria River District.

‘Rarraj-ku-ma ngun yawarta-marraj wayi?’ Ngurla kup mani kuyarniny-ma jamana-ma nyila-ma. Ngurla kup mani kujarrap. Ngurla mani shorn-rasp na yalungku na imin raspim nyila-ma jamana-ma najing til im meikim kungulu nyawa-ma wansaid.

‘You reckon you can run as fast as a horse?’ Gordon Stott the policeman taunted the prisoner. Stott took the chains off one of the prisioner’s feet and then the other. Then he got a horse rasp and filed the sole of his foot until it bled. – Banjo Ryan, interviewed in 2015. (Yijarni, p. 221)

Banjo Ryan describes the actions of policeman Gordon Stott. Yijarni p. 220138 KB (download)

‘We grieved for our kids’

In 1911, the first children were taken under the Aboriginal Ordinance, which was incorporated with the 1910 Aborigines Act.

Patrol Officer Ted Evans, shown in 1951, was among those who took children from their mothers. Years later, he wept at what he’d done. Harry Giese collection, courtesy of Northern Territory Library

The Chief Protector had the power to remove children who had white fathers from their families and put them into state custody or missions. These children became part of Australia’s Stolen Generations.

For many Gurindji families, Ted Evans and Creed Lovegrove are still remembered as the patrol officers who removed many of their children in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Nguyina kanya dat two Welfare na, Welfare-kujarra. Nyila-ma kurrurij-ma jangkarni yard-jawung, welfare kurrurij. International. Ngurnayinangulu nguran karrinya yaluwu na karu-wu. Jawiji-ma nyampa-ma jaju-ma ngamayi-ma nguyinangulu.

The two welfare officers took the children away in a large International truck with wooden slats like a cattle truck. We grieved for those kids — all of us mothers and grandparents. – Violet Wadrill, interviewed in 2014. (Yijarni, p. 127)

Violet Wadrill describes how her children were taken away from her and other mothers. Yijarni, p. 127184 KB (download)

Gurindji children were taken to a number of places in the Northern Territory including the Bungalow (Alice Springs Half-Caste Institution) where Joseph Croft, the father of a photographer for Yijarni, Brenda L. Croft, was taken.

Although Patrol Officer Ted Evans was involved in removing children, he found the process traumatic, as Maurie Ryan Japarta, who was taken to Retta Dixon Home and later Croker Island, discovered:

I was in time later to meet the person who removed me from my family and Wave Hill. Ironically, he was the president of my football club, the Wanderers … Ted Evans used to cry … and I thought he was crying because of the scores … I was sitting down there one night … and I said to Ted, ‘Look Ted, don’t worry you know. It’s only a game.’ … And he looked at me and he said, ‘Maurie, I’ve got to tell you something … I was the person that removed you from your family.’ I looked at him and he was still crying, and I just hugged him. I said, ‘It’s alright Ted. What you did is what public servants do today, you had to do a job.’ He said, ‘After I’d taken you and Bonnie, I’d never ever removed another person.’ – Maurie Ryan Japarta, 2015. (Yijarni, p. 132)

Maurie Ryan Japarta describes meeting Ted Evans years later. Yijarni, p. 132848 KB (download)

Maurie Ryan Japarta, with his brothers Justin and Michael Paddy, sitting at the place where he was taken from his family as a small boy. Brenda L Croft 2015, Yijarni, p. 130

Fifty years on: 'We’re still here’

Over the next three days, the walk-off will be celebrated with speeches, footy games and bands as an important milestone for black-white relations in Australia – one that sparked the equal wages and Indigenous land rights movements.

But for the Gurindji, the walk-off wasn’t just an industrial or land dispute with their cattle masters. It was a pivotal moment where they chose to wrest back control of their lives after the culmination of 80 years of fear and brutality.

Wurlurturr-warla pani ngumpit ngaliwuny-ma ngumpit-ma Gurindji-ma. Nyawa-ma-lu yuwani marru-nganyju-warla. Nyawa-ma-rla ngurra karrinya ngumpit-ku-rni. Kula wapurr pani kaya-ngku-ma lawara. Nyanuny maramara-rni ngunyunu. Ngumpit-tu-rni nyangani-ma murlany-mawu-ma kayirrak kurlarrakkarra. Yumi-ma-rla karrinyani.

Whitefellas massacred our Gurindji ancestors. Then they put up their station houses, yards and stock camps. But this land is Aboriginal land and whitefellas haven’t succeeded in getting rid of us. Aboriginal people still recognise each other as the traditional owners all ‘round this area. The law has always been here. Pincher Nyurrmiari, interviewed in 1978. (Yijarni, p. 30-31)


Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country, is published by Aboriginal Studies Press, the publishing arm of AIATSIS. It will be launched in Kalkaringi on August 19, and in Brisbane on September 6.