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Wavehill, Ronnie (1936–2000)

by Kira Dandy, Jezebel Dandy and Felicity Meakins

This article was published:

Ronnie Wavehill, showing Gurindji children the old yards from the original Wave Hill station, c. 2015

Ronnie Wavehill, showing Gurindji children the old yards from the original Wave Hill station, c. 2015

photo by Brenda L. Croft

Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpngayarri Jangala (1936–2020), stockman and storyteller, was born in 1936 at Wave Hill station, Northern Territory, one of seven children of Cracker Jarluyarri Jampin and Mariah Yakngarri Nangari. He spent much of his early childhood travelling with his grandparents through Gurindji Country and further afield. This time spent with Elders gave him a proficiency in language and culture more typical of earlier generations. In 1945 anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt visited Wave Hill station, later reporting on the inhumane living and working conditions endured by Aboriginal people there. They noted that children like Ronnie, then aged around ten, were employed illegally as stockmen.

Like most Aboriginal men of his era in the Northern Territory, Ronnie worked in the cattle industry for much of his life. In 1966 Aboriginal stockmen, stockwomen, and domestic workers walked off Wave Hill station because they did not want to be subject to European authority. They were protesting about the lack of equal wages, poor treatment of women, poor housing, and loss of cultural identity. The protestors walked to Daguragu on their homelands in an event now known as the Wave Hill Walk-Off. The strike later became a land rights dispute that resulted in a portion of the land being returned to the Gurindji as a pastoral lease in 1975. Later, Ronnie worked as a rubbish collector for the local council at Daguragu, land formerly held by Wave Hill station, and Kalkaringi, the site of the original welfare settlement.

In the 1990s Ronnie began working with linguists and other researchers. A strong proponent of Gurindji language and culture, he worked collaboratively with other Elders to produce Gurindji language publications including Bilinarra, Gurindji and Malngin Plants and Animals (2012) and the Gurindji to English Dictionary (2013); an animation, Wawirrilu karu Warrkuj Mani (The Kangaroo Stole Our Brother, 2019); and other Gurindji language and culture resources. His encyclopaedic memory, frank manner, and quick wit earned him the trust and respect of his fellow Countrymen and Land Council researchers who relied on him for details of Dreamings on Gurindji Country and neighbouring areas. He was also much sought after in native title proceedings and Aboriginal Lands Trust activities.

Ronnie wanted young Aboriginal people to know their culture, and he wanted all Australians to know the frontier history of the region, including massacres. He worked with the linguists Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins to document these stories in Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country (2016) and Mayarni-kari Yurrk: More Stories from Gurindji Country (2016). Many of the events he recounted had been handed down to him by previous generations who were witnesses to early atrocities and knew the perpetrators. He remembered their names; for example, he identified Owen Cummins, the inspiration for the Man from Snowy River, as someone who shot Aboriginal people in the early days. In 2018 Australian Labor Party Senator and Yawuru man Patrick Dodson quoted from Yijarni in his censure motion against Senator Fraser Anning following the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand.

The Wanjiwanji (Laka) song was brought to Wave Hill station by Ronnie, who first learned it from a Pintupi songman, Yawulyurru Tjapangarti, as a young boy on Gordon Downs station. The song is known to have travelled thousands of kilometres, being shared by dozens of language groups, from the Northern Territory to the southern coast of Western Australia and across to New South Wales, the lyrics remaining unchanged. Ronnie recalled singing it to his Countrymen and women as a child:

With some to-do, I got up there and stood up in front of everyone. They had me stand up there in the middle to sing … All the Gurindji were amazed at me: they’d never seen such a small boy sing without shame. All the mob from the west were egging me on, ‘Go on, Jangala!’ (Turpin et al. 2019)

Later, Ronnie shared Wanjiwanji and other songs with linguists in a documentary that aired on the National Indigenous Television channel in 2018; these were recorded in the book Songs from the Stations (2019). He passed away on 20 May 2020 on Gurindji Country, where he is remembered as a senior knowledge custodian, talented storyteller, songman, and performer.

 

Kira Dandy is a Gurindji and Ngarinyman woman. She is the granddaughter of Ronnie Wavehill.

Jezebel Dandy is a Gurindji and Yolngu woman. She is also a granddaughter of Ronnie Wavehill.

Felicity Meakins is a non-Indigenous linguist who works under the direction of Gurindji people to document their language.

Brenda L. Croft provided the image. She is of Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra and Anglo-Australian/German/Irish/Chinese heritage.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Berndt, Ronald, and Catherine Berndt. End of an Era: Aboriginal Labour in the Northern Territory. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1987
  • Charola, Erika, and Felicity Meakins, eds. Mayarni-kari Yurrk: More Stories from Gurindji Country. Batchelor, NT: Batchelor Press, 2016
  • Charola, Erika, and Felicity Meakins, eds. Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2016
  • Meakins, Felicity, and Patrick McConvell. A Grammar of Gurindji, as Spoken by Violet Wadrill, Ronnie Wavehill, Dandy Danbayarri, Biddy Wavehill, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal, Long Johnny Kijngayarri, Banjo Ryan, Pincher Nyurrmiari and Blanche Bulngari. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2021
  • Meakins, Felicity, Patrick McConvell, Erika Charola, Norm McNair, Helen McNair, and Lauren Campbell. Gurindji to English Dictionary. Batchelor, NT: Batchelor Press, 2013
  • Turpin, Myfany, Brenda L. Croft, Clint Bracknell, and Felicity Meakins. ‘Aboriginal Australia’s Smash Hit That Went Viral.’ Conversation, 20 March 2019
  • Turpin, Myfany, and Felicity Meakins. Songs from the Stations: Wajarra as Sung by Ronnie Wavehill Wirrpnga, Topsy Dodd Ngarnjal and Dandy Danbayarri at Kalkaringi. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2019
  • Wavehill, Ronnie. Wawirrilu karu Warrkuj Mani (The Kangaroo Stole Our Brother). 2019. Accessed 1 February 2022. https://www.monash.edu/arts/monash-indigenous-studies/wunungu-awara/animations/karu-warrkuj-mani-2019-the-kangaroo-stole-our-brother,-gurindji-dreaming-story-ancestral-narrative,-northern-territory

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kira Dandy, Jezebel Dandy and Felicity Meakins, 'Wavehill, Ronnie (1936–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wavehill-ronnie-31873/text39335, published online 2022, accessed online 4 December 2022.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2022

Ronnie Wavehill, showing Gurindji children the old yards from the original Wave Hill station, c. 2015

Ronnie Wavehill, showing Gurindji children the old yards from the original Wave Hill station, c. 2015

photo by Brenda L. Croft