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    Barry Watts reflects on ...

FRANK HARDY
A Sign of the Times


While many still associate Frank Hardy's name with the 1966 Aboriginal stockmen's strike at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory, the Gurindji people know it was really Vincent Lingiari, sometimes called Tom or Tommy Vincent, who led them to this momentous break-through.

In his book The Unlucky Australians , Hardy points out that he supported the decisions of Vincent Lingiara, the Gurindji elder and Kadijeri man, and says that at no time did he plant ideas, suggestions or strategies in Vincent's or anyone else's mind.

'My attitude was,' Hardy wrote, 'the black man must decide; the black man must act.'

Frank Hardy had returned to the Northern Territory after six months in 'the south' [Sydney and Canberra] rallying support from politicans and unionists for the Gurindji stockmen who had walked off the cattle station in an effort to achieve better wages and conditions.

In The Unlucky Australians , he explains how Bill Jeffrey, a sympathetic Wave Hill welfare department officer, had told him about a feeling 'there's something going on we don't know about. I hope you can find out what it is.'

Hardy continues the story:

After breakfast, I left to go down to the camp. All the men had gathered under a bough shelter. Vincent Lingiari came so straight to the point that I was nonplussed: land had been the main issue in their strike - land and tribal identity, protection of their women; their race; they wanted to abandon white society altogether and revert to their own way of life.

The white men, including Frank Hardy, had believed the issue was wages alone; but for the Aborigines it had escalated. Vincent Lingiari was deeply determined: 'No matter 'bout that Canberra mob. Wattie Creek bin Gurindji Country. We go there.'

That evening Vincent said 'All people meet - lubra, piccaninny, ebrybody - to learn right word about Wattie Creek.' Hardy, too, was invited because, Vincent proclaimed, 'You Gurindji now yourself, Prank.' Hardy attended, and later recorded his impressions:

The Gurindji camp is built around a circular meeting place. When we arrived the whole tribe had gathered. On the left the children sat, legs crossed, in front of the women, who wore their best dresses. The men sat on the right: Vincent, Long Johnny, Pincher and Gerry facing the people. Hoppy Mick sat with the elders. The Walbiri men and women [from an adjoining tribal group, some of whom lived at Wave Hill] were present - this was to be an important occasion.

A high-backed chair stood among the elders and Vincent motioned me to sit on it. He then stood front centre of the circle and spoke in the Gurindji language.

Tom Vincent Lingiari switched to English, going over the 'old words': 'We will not go back to Besteys' [Vestey Brothers, absentee English owners of Wave Hill station and other northern Australian holdings.]

 
  Then new words: 'Wattie Creek is Gurindji country; we will live there. Do things right way. We have to work properly. Like Cudeba [white man] - now only for wesel' [we self, ourselves] . Stop together at Wattie Creek. Work so we live good. Someone give you that job, you do that job. Keep ebrything clean and tidy over there. children come to school ebry day. They bin grow up right way, read and write proper way. All Gurindji together in own country.'

Hardy was invited to speak, and inadequately explained 'white man's law says the land belongs to people a long way across the ocean - trying to explain what an ocean is, even, to the Aborigines who have lived here for centuries.'

Hardy wrote: 'At the end you have explained nothing. The new law has been passed on by the elders, the law that says they must go back to their own sacred place. The new law is binding on me no less than on them.'

Frank Hardy was present when the Gurindji people first moved from the Wave Hill welfare settlement to Wattie Creek ... a sixteen kilometres cross country walk. At the first glow of dawn the following morning 'more than twenty men and six lubras set off in single file. Bandy walked in front carrying a heavy roll of wire netting on his head. Each carried something - a tin of flour, a roll of wire, a crowbar, an axe, a brace and bit. They strode purposefully into the rising sun.'

Shortly afterwards Pincher and Tommy Vincent approached Frank Hardy to paint them a sign, saying:

'All them mob have sign outside. Besteys got 'em sign outside, policeman got 'em sign outside, Welfare got 'em sign outside. We want 'em sign for Wattie Creek homestead. Can you write 'em sign?'

Was it, Hardy pondered, because they could not read that they had such an exaggerated belief in the written word? 'Maybe we put that Gurindji word there,' Pincher said, 'We never bin see that word, only in we head.'

The Aboriginal occupation at Wattie Creek took place in 1966. For his troubles in supporting the Aboriginals against the Vesteys, and being critical of the Welfare Department's administration, Bill Jeffrey lost his job - sacked by his Federal Minister.

Agitation on other Territory cattle stations followed.

When Brian Manning, an active supporter of Aboriginal rights, visited the new camp months later he was able to report to Frank Hardy, who had returned to Sydney:

They have complied with the law and are working very hard. They have built three toilets: male, female and visitors. They have got their bough shelters done. They are living in family groups as there are women and children at Wattie Creek now. Vincent said he would let the children go to school. It is a wise decision. We had another cup of tea and Long Johnny came and said: 'Have you got any of that tobacco?' I saw him sporting a Falcon pipe. I said 'That Frank bin give you that pipe, eh?' He said: 'Yeh, good pipe this'.
In her book Hidden Stories, Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations , [an extensive review of Aboriginal maltreatment on cattle stations in the Victoria River region] Deborah Rose records the Wattie Creek outcome:
In 1973, negotiations began between Gurindji and Vestey's representatives for an agreement by which Wave Hill station would relinquish a 2,500 square kilometres area [about 16% of Vestey's holdings] to the striking Aborigines. The transaction was completed in 1975.

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2002
 

 

Former Prime Minister Whitlam and
Aboriginal leaders Rangiari and Farquhson,
with Frank Hardy in 1991, celebrating the
walk-off  25 years after the event.

 

'We want 'em sign for
Wattie Creek homestead.
Can you write 'em sign?'

 


Wattie Creek is the centre of the Gurindji's main Dreaming place near Seal Gorge. The site was given this 'white' name in memory of Harold Seal, Wave Hill station's manager before World War I. Seal brought the first motor car to the area; it became 'instantly popular with the native stock-boys,' according to Jock Makin's The Big Run because it did not need feeding or hobbling at night - they thought it 'number one horse')



Cheers, Comrade!

 
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