Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Nubuluna/Daniels, Dexter (c. 1936–1999)

by Julie Kimber and Charlie Ward

This article was published:

Nubuluna (c. 1936–1999), more frequently known as Dexter Daniels union organiser and political activist, was born into a strong Numamurdirdi family in south-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, in around 1936. His parents’ tribal names were Ukamangara (known as Debra) and Jangridpa (known as Dan). He and his six siblings grew up at Roper River mission, Mirlinbarrwarr. His mother managed the Aboriginal domestic staff at the mission and his father was a hunter. Dexter was educated at the mission school where children were housed in segregated dormitories and subject to strict discipline. At age seventeen he found employment at the mission stock camp, later working as its mechanic and driver.

After leaving Roper River in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Daniels worked as a stockman at Oenpelli mission and then at Darwin Airport, washing planes. Joining his older brother Davis at the Darwin Hospital as an orderly, he was put on standard award wages. In 1962 he married Ruth Wurramara, a trainee nurse from Bickerton Island whose tribal name was Wardunggu. They had one daughter, Muriel. In late 1964 Davis travelled to Kenya with another increasingly prominent Roper River activist, Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts, to study its independence struggle. Both men were deeply influenced by this trip, and its lessons informed their policies on the recently formed Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights (NTCAR). For Dexter, who would become president of NTCAR in July 1966, these ideas fed into a strong vision for Aboriginal equality and sovereignty.

In 1965 Daniels started work as an organiser with the North Australian Workers’ Union, travelling to remote cattle stations and encouraging Aboriginal workers to advocate for equal pay under the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951. Aboriginal employees had been excluded from this award and could receive as little as one-fifth of the award minimum of non-Indigenous pastoral workers, which equated to less than half the unemployment benefit paid to non-Indigenous people. When the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission decided to grant equal pay to male Aboriginal pastoral workers in March 1966 but to delay its effect until December 1968, Daniels was personally affronted. Lacking support from the NAWU for a general strike, he travelled to Newcastle Waters station in April 1966, where he triggered a wage dispute and local strike. Next he went to Wave Hill station, from where he telegrammed his colleagues in the NTCAR and union movement, notifying them that the Gurindji had decided to walk off the station and calling for support. With the Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari a union colleague Nick Pagonis, and Numamurdirdi countryman Walter Kolbong Rogers, Daniels thus played a key role in the Gurindji strike. When the strikers petitioned the Australian government for a lease to an excision from Wave Hill in April 1967, the walk-off became a protest for land rights. The Wave Hill walk-off became emblematic for Aboriginal demands for land and captured the Australian public imagination. Daniels and the Gurindji leader Lupnagiari (also known as Captain Major) became the main spokesmen for the grievances of the Gurindji. They travelled the east coast of Australia to raise funds and build support, speaking to journalists, addressing political parties, and attending meetings at universities, factories, wharves, and workplaces. Seeing the Gurindji fight as the beginning of a wider struggle for self-determination, Daniels added his support to the campaign to save Lake Tyers Aboriginal station in Victoria, and also joined the South African anti-apartheid cause.

Discussions over the transition of Roper River from church to government control were taking place at the mission when Daniels visited his family there in 1967. Marked as a troublemaker by the superintendent, he was arrested and convicted on a charge of having insufficient means of support. His imprisonment on 6 December at Fanny Bay Gaol, Darwin, caused uproar in the towns and cities where activists had been campaigning for wage and land justice for Aboriginal people, resulting in a successful appeal that led to him serving only five days of his two-week sentence. His wrongful arrest highlighted the contradictions embedded in the policies of assimilation across the Northern Territory and embarrassed the Federal government.

Deflated but not dejected, Daniels continued to advocate for Aboriginal land rights. In 1968 he was elected the first Aboriginal executive member of the Darwin branch of the Australian Labor Party. Later that year he travelled to Bulgaria for the ninth World Youth Festival to publicise the struggle of Aboriginal people on an international stage. He became caught up in internal battles in Aboriginal organisations over the question of communist manipulation and Aboriginal control, but managed to navigate a middle path. Angry at the injustices around him and determined to fix them, he had a ‘fire in his belly’ (Sun 1968, 13) and carried the weight of people’s expectations on his shoulders.

Roper River mission came under government control in 1968. By 1970 grievances there had reached boiling point. Limits on what the community could do and discrepancies between European and Aboriginal housing were stark: the former had amenities and electricity, while the latter lived in severely overcrowded houses with dirt floors and gas bottles. Daniels, his brother Dennis (Murulbur), and Andrew Joshua were delegated by the village to liaise with the government in Darwin and press their case for local control. Despite government attempts to both pacify conflict and sow discord, the community decided to go on strike. On 9 March 1970, all four hundred members, including school children, withdrew their labour.

Daniels again headed south to mobilise support. He said: ‘What we want is the right to control fully our own land, with no one to tell us what to do with it’ (Tribune 1970, 1). However, seeds of division worked their way into the community and, by 6 April 1970, the strike was called off. Though technically a defeat, the strike—as with actions at Yirrkala, Moa and Palm Islands, and Wave Hill—ultimately led to changes in government policies. The defeat did not dampen Daniels’s convictions. In August he joined Paul Coe, Sol Bellear, Frank Hardy, and other activists in Sydney fighting for Aboriginal rights in general, with a particular focus on the Gurindji campaign that urged the boycott of food products produced by Vesteys, the British owners of the Wave Hill station. During a protest march, Daniels and Coe took turns at the loudspeaker, declaring:

‘You white Australians … have got to shake off your complacency because we black people are going to fight for the human dignity everyone should have[…] and at present you are sharing the guilt with the white governments and companies that oppress us.’ (Robertson 1970, 12)

In 1975, after the Whitlam government granted the Gurindji a pastoral lease over their traditional land, Daniels returned to Gurindji country as a show of support for their independence. He remained politically active throughout the decade, supporting the fight for Ngarinyman land rights. In later years, he lived at the Bagot Aboriginal community in Darwin before returning to live at Roper River, renamed Ngukurr in 1988. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their daughter, he died on 24 December 1999 at Katherine. Unsung, his death was little known beyond his family, and he was buried at Ngukurr. He is remembered as a generous, sometimes bombastic, and indomitable fighter for Aboriginal rights who made significant contributions to the struggle for equal pay, land rights, and self-determination.

 

Julie Kimber and Charlie Ward consulted with Dexter Daniels’s family and elders of Ngukurr community in researching and writing this article.

Research edited by Kiera Donnelly

Select Bibliography

  • Anthony, Thalia. ‘Reconciliation and Conciliation: The Irreconcilable Dilemma of the 1965 “Equal” Wage Case for Aboriginal Station Workers.’ Labour History 93 (2007): 15–34
  • Canberra Times. ‘Gaoled Strike Leader Aborigine Protests from Fanny Bay.’ 7 December 1967, 3
  • Kimber, Julie. ‘A Right to be Troublesome: The Arrest of Dexter Daniels and the Politics of Vagrancy Laws.’ Labour History in the New Century, edited by Bobbie Oliver, 167–80. Perth: Black Swan Press, 2009
  • Oakes, Laurie. ‘Man with a Mission: Dexter Out to Stir Souls.’ Sun, 19 June 1968, 13
  • Robertson, Alec. ‘Black & White Join in Demonstration for Gurindji Land.’ Tribune (Sydney), 5 August 1970, 12
  • Smoke Signals. ‘An Aborigine in Public Relations.’ August–September 1965, 17
  • Tribune (Sydney). ‘Aborigines Strike.’ 18 March 1970, 1, 8
  • Ward, Charlie. A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-Off. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2016

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Julie Kimber and Charlie Ward, 'Nubuluna/Daniels, Dexter (c. 1936–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nubulunadaniels-dexter-30057/text37297, published online 2021, accessed online 23 September 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021