Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Vincent Lingiari
1919 - 1988
Vincent Lingiari
(1919 - 1988)

by Ted Egan

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Vincent Lingiari (1919?-1988), Aboriginal stockman and land rights leader, was born in 1919, according to government records, at Victoria River Gorge, Northern Territory, son of Gurindji parents. Both his mother and his father, also Vincent Lingiari, were employed on the 3500-sq. mile (9065 km≤) Vestey-owned cattle station, Wave Hill, established in 1883 by Nathaniel Buchanan. Called Tommy Vincent by his employers, he received no formal education. Aged about 12 he was absorbed into the station work at the stock camps, where cattle from the 80,000 herd were mustered, branded and drafted into mobs of 1200 bullocks to be driven to meatworks at Port Darwin.

Although Lingiari became a head stockman at Wave Hill, he initially received no cash payment. The first time that he handled money was in about 1953 when he lined up with the other stockmen at the Negri River races and was given £5 pocket-money. At the same time, he was becoming a highly respected Gurindji 'law boss'.

On 23 August 1966, tired of the Aborigines being 'treated like dogs' in their own country, Lingiari led two hundred of his people, employees of Wave Hill station, with their families, in a 'walk-off'. Encouraged by Brian Manning and a Roper River Aboriginal man, Dexter Daniels, both of the North Australian Workers Union, he demanded better pay and rations, and protection of the Aboriginal women. The group camped in the bed of the Victoria River and later moved to Daguragu, known to non-Aborigines as Wattie Creek. The Gurindji strike was to last nine years, the longest in Australian history.

Influenced by Daniels and the film actor Robert Tudawali (both members of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights), and by the writer Frank Hardy, Lingiari was happy to add his voice to the emerging cause of 'land rights'. In April 1967 the Gurindji sent a petition to the governor-general, R. G. (Lord) Casey, asking that their tribal land be returned to them so that they could establish their own cattle station. Lingiari, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Ted Egan recorded Gurindji Blues in 1971. Proceeds from the sale of 20,000 copies were divided between the Gurindji people and the Aboriginal tent embassy, Canberra. Lingiari introduced the song with the words:

My name Vincent Lingiari. Come from Daguragu, Wattie Creek Station . . . I have come here to tell the Parliament about the land rights. I got stories from my old grandpa that the land belonged to me, Aboriginal man, before all the horses and cattle came onto that land. Iíve got that story on my mind.

In anticipation of achieving their objective, the Gurindij formed in March 1971 the Muramulla Gurindji Co. To raise money to buy horses and erect fencing, Lingiari addressed members of the Waterside Workersí Federation of Australia and of Abschol, a committee of the National Union of Australian University Students established to support university scholarships for Aboriginal students. With the Gurindji elders Donald Nangiari and Lupgna (Captain Major), he visited Sydney and Melbourne to gain support for what was seen as a test case in land rights. During the strike Lingiari occasionally allowed Aboriginal workmen to assist the Wave Hill manager. In 1971 he worked as a ranger at Wattie Creek and also, from time to time, used his tracking skills to help Northern Territory police officers find missing persons or stolen cattle.

In March 1973 the newly elected Whitlam government reached an agreement with Lord Vestey to lease 3236 square kilometres of Wave Hill station to the Gurindji people for 'residential and cultural purposes and to depasture stock'. On 16 August 1975 Gough Whitlam poured a handful of red soil into Lingiariís hand to symbolise the legal transfer. The Gurindji leader commented: 'Now we can all be mates'. In 1986 the land was converted to freehold title.

Throughout the strike, Lingiari maintained a quiet dignity. He was appointed AM in 1976. In his later years, he became frail and almost blind. Survived by his wife, Blanche Nangi, whom he had married tribally, and their six sons and two daughters, he died on 21 January 1988 at Daguragu and was buried with traditional honours.

The Lingiari Foundation was formed in 2001 to promote reconciliation and Indigenous rights and to develop Aboriginal leadership; the Vincent Lingiari memorial lecture is delivered annually in Darwin; and the songs From Little Things Big Things Grow, by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, and Old Vincent, by Ted Egan, honour his memory. A Northern Territory Federal electorate is named after him, and a memorial to him in Reconciliation Place, Canberra, was unveiled in May 2004.

Select Bibliography

F. Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, 1968
Gurindji Land Claim to Daguragu Station, 1982
Aboriginal News, vol 3, no 1, 1976, p 10
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1988, p 6
Land Rights News, March 1988, p 2
personal knowledge