That wasn’t straightforward. The lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory were controlled by the government, pastoralists and, to some extent, churches. Union organisers were kept away from them by law, the closest telephone was controlled by the Welfare Officer, and they had little privacy to send telegrams criticising the government.
The Gurindji had tried to strike before, but without outside support they had no option but to go back to work. In 1966, Darwin-based union and Aboriginal activists took up their cause, and Gurindji spokesman Captain Major (Lupgna Giari) travelled south to appeal to trade unions and the public for financial and moral support.
In July 1968 the government announced its decision not to grant land at Wattie Creek to the Gurindji. Although they continued to receive some support from unions and Aboriginal rights organisations, they had made little progress and were barely surviving at Daguragu.
Gaining national attention
Things changed significantly following a visit in mid-1970 by author Frank Hardy. Based in the Northern Territory as a soldier during the Second World War, Hardy had worked with local Aboriginal people (who were on the same Army wages as other employees). In 1970 he found the Gurindji starving and in desperate need of help.
After his visit, Hardy wrote three articles for the Australian about the plight of the Gurindji strikers. When people contacted him to offer support, he called a meeting at the Teachers’ Federation in Sydney that launched the Save the Gurindji Campaign. Expecting the campaign to last about three months, supporters adjusted their expectations when the Gurindji began to roll out more ambitious plans.
In order to avoid accusations of paternalism and to reflect the campaign’s collaborative intent, it dropped the words ‘Save the’ from its title in April 1971. The Gurindji were pleased to accept help as long as supporters did not demand control.
The struggle was driven by ABSCHOL, a student organisation that provided scholarships and support to Aboriginal people, which had sent a field team to investigate the Gurindji’s needs in December 1969. Support groups were established in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In Sydney (and to a certain extent nationally) Frank Hardy continued to play an important and driving role as Chairman of the Gurindji Campaign. A number of key women in the campaign had been politicised, even radicalised, by the Vietnam War when their sons had been eligible for conscription.
The campaign drew on support from unions, church organisations, the anti-apartheid movement and political parties such as the Communist Party of Australia, Socialist Party of Australia and some elements of the Australian Labor Party. The Waterside Workers’ Federation levied its members $1 per head and, in early 1972 after a request by Gurindji leaders Vincent Lingiari and Donald Nungiari, sent $10,000 (the equivalent of $100,000 in 2015) to help the Gurindji fence off their land.
Teams of supporters visited the Gurindji to find out what they needed and to help procure food, transport, housing and a water supply, as well as sending teachers, builders and mechanics. English anthropologist Hannah Middleton went to live with the Gurindji strikers for six months in 1970, providing a channel of communication with the city-based support groups, and documenting their struggle in notebooks and photographs.
Back in the state capitals, support groups organised boycotts of Vestey butcher shops and products and continued to raise funds. They handed out leaflets at railway stations, held fundraising concerts and stalls at festivals, lobbied for donations, and sold donated artworks.
Campaign of influence
Gurindji leaders also came south on speaking tours. They were taken to Canberra to press their cause with government ministers. This had limited effect at the time, but it brought the Gurindji’s needs to the attention of politicians who were more supportive, especially members of the ALP. Building these connections and raising awareness was to play a major part in shaping government policy over the next five years.
As a student at the University of NSW and a member of ABSCHOL, I became part of the Sydney Gurindji Campaign and eventually joined the Coordinating Committee, becoming Minutes Secretary and writing most of the newsletters. I made two trips to Daguragu, first in 1970 with a group which included ophthalmologist Professor Fred Hollows, a pediatrician and a water engineer from Sydney; and then in 1971 with Campaign Secretary Jean Leu, student anti-racism activist Sekai Holland (later a member of the Zimbabwean parliament) and Brian Havenhand, National Director of ABSCHOL.
The Gurindji welcomed their ‘friends from down south’ (as they called us), showing us their cultural life, including the bush tucker and ‘sing sings’ at night, and inserting us into their ‘skin’ system of kinship and social control. Our skin names meant we had people to supervise us and duties to carry out.