Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1967 - The Gurindji Petition
by Charlie Ward
The Gurindji strikers at Wattie Creek led by Vincent Lingiari in 1967 (The Commons Social Change Library).

I n August 1966, two hundred Gurindji, Warlpiri and Mudburra workers and their families brought the north Australian pastoral industry into crisis when they walked away from their employment on Wave Hill station and refused to return. Non-Indigenous journalists and unionists initially interpreted the position of the workers as a dispute over wages. After rejecting inducements to return to work, Gurindji leaders, including Lupngaiari, Pincher Nyurrmiarri, Donald Nangiari and Vincent Lingiari, explained to the writer and journalist Frank Hardy that their aspirations were much broader.

In the summer of 1967, Hardy sought advice from the Australian Labor Party senator and barrister Lionel Murphy as to the best legal mechanism to elevate the Gurindji’s concerns. As a result of these inquires, when Hardy returned to Gurindji Country in March 1967, he worked with the Gurindji leaders to capture their aspirations in writing. These were collated into a petition addressed to the governor-general of Australia, Lord Richard Casey.

Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam, 1975 (photo by Mervyn Bishop).
In this document, they attempted to distil the Gurindji people’s ambitions, as clearly as possible, in the language of the colonisers. It spoke of the Gurindji people’s:

earnest desire to regain tenure of our tribal lands in the Wave Hill–Limbunya area of the Northern Territory, of which we were dispossessed in time past, and for which we received no recompense.

It continued:

We feel that morally the land is ours and should be returned to us. Our very name Aboriginal acknowledges our prior claim. We have never ceased to say amongst ourselves that Vestey’s should go away and leave us to our land.

The petition laid out the Gurindji’s plan to achieve economic and social independence through cattle farming, mineral exploration and a Gurindji-built school. It was signed by senior leaders Pincher Nyurrmiarri, Gerry Ngalgardji, Long Jonny Kitngiari and Vincent Lingiari. According to the document, Frank Hardy and the Wave Hill welfare officer, Bill Jeffrey, ‘transcribed, witnessed and transmitted’ the Gurindji leaders’ request.

This iteration of First Nations sovereignty from Australia’s remote north—and the national land rights campaign that grew around it—played an important role in highlighting and articulating for mainstream audiences the plight of landless First Nations people across the Australian continent.

Although the response of the British monarchy’s Australian representative was dismissive and patronising, it marked the beginning of a nine-year land rights campaign led by Gurindji people. This culminated in the award of leasehold over Gurindji people’s traditional Country by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on 16 August 1975. In addition, the Gurindji people’s petition and land rights campaign played a pivotal role in triggering the Woodward Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights, and the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This legislation formed a point of reference for the State-based land rights legislation that came afterwards.

In articulating their and their families’ wishes, and the injustice they faced in the Gurindji petition, Pincher Nyurrmiarri, Gerry Ngalgardji, Long Jonny Kitngiari, and Vincent Lingiari played a significant role in generating that recognition for all First Nations Australians.


left arrow 1967: The Referendum
1970: The Cook Bicentenary Protests right arrow