ON 16 AUGUST 1975, the Australian prime minister, Gough Whitlam, gives a handful of soil to the Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari as a symbol of his government’s decision to return Gurindji land to its traditional owners. The transfer was the result of a prolonged strike, led by Lingiari, at the Wave Hill cattle station.
Wave Hill was established, in 1884, on land in the Northern Territory leased from the colonial authorities. Thirty years later, it was purchased by the Vestey Group, a British meatpacking company that would grow into the world’s largest private conglomerate. Much of that growth was achieved through its holdings in Australia, where it benefited from paltry rents, no taxes and the exploitation of Aboriginal labour.
Gurindji workers at Wave Hill were initially paid in rations. Even in 1966, they were paid only a fifth as much as their white counterparts. On 23 August that year, Lingiari led a walkout by about two hundred Gurindji workers and their families. Instead of limiting their demands to salaries—Vestey eventually offered a 125-percent raise—they petitioned the government to lease them around thirteen hundred square kilometres of land. The government, a coalition of the Liberal and Country parties, refused and tried to cut off their access to supplies.
With the help of the radical journalist Frank Hardy and the union organiser Dexter Daniels, the Gurindji were able to build support for their cause throughout the country. Whitlam’s Labour Party won the 1972 election on a platform that included the recognition of Aboriginal land rights. The new government provided the Gurindji a 30-year lease over a small portion of Wave Hill. In 1986, the Gurindji secured an inalienable freehold title over three thousand square kilometres. The Federal Court of Australia recognised their native title rights over Wave Hill, in 2020, entitling them to royalties from mining operations in the area.