The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

Marking NAIDOC Week

Jesus told them a parable. He said: "The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches."

Matthew 13:31-32

Many of you will have seen the advert that says, 'from little things, big things grow'. That expression is the title of a famous song by Australian songwriter, Paul Kelly. The song's lyrics tell the story of an Indigenous leader named Vincent Lingiari, who in August 1966 led 200 Aboriginal stockmen and their families off Wave Hill Station, where they lived and worked in the Northern Territory. The Gurundji people were protesting about their working conditions which were extremely poor. They were rarely paid wages, instead receiving rations, and were sometimes beaten and abused by the pastoralists. If they didn't obey their managers, the Indigenous stockmen were forced off the land and unable to be with their families. Vincent Lingiari decided the only solution was for all the stockmen and their families to leave the station together. They set up camp 30 miles away at Watti Creek.

The mustard seed had been sown. From little things, big things grow.

The pastoralists' response was to wait. They assumed the stockmen would soon tire of their protest when things became difficult for their families. Months passed and still the Gurundji people did not return to Wave Hill station. Eventually the pastoralists offered to pay the stockmen real wages and improve their working conditions, but their offers were refused. The stockmen would not return to work on the station. The land on which Wave Hill station stood was Gurundji tribal land, which had been forcibly taken from the Gurundji people by British pastoralists 80 years earlier, and now they wanted their land rights acknowledged and restored.

From little things, big things grow.

Vincent Lingiari was a quietly-spoken man with a fierce determination to achieve justice for his people. He organised a petition that was presented to the Governor General, which was unsuccessful, so Vincent toured the country, lobbying politicians until the Wave Hill protest made the headlines. As more Australians became aware of the issue, the demand for change grew.

From little things, big things grow.

At the 1967 referendum, Australians voted overwhelming for constitutional change, so that the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were recognised under law and the federal government could legislate to address the inequalities they experienced.

The mustard seed became the largest plant in the garden. From little things, big things grow.

In 1975, the Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, went to Gurundji country and met with Vincent Lingiari. He took a fistful of the soil and poured it through his fingers into Vincent's hand, saying:

"Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurundji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever."

It took nine years of protest and hardship for the Gurundji people, led by Vincent Lingiari, to receive justice and have their land restored to them.

Vincent Lingiari died in 1988 and was buried with traditional honours. His legacy includes:

  • the Lingiari Foundation was formed in 2001 to promote reconciliation and Indigenous rights and to develop Aboriginal leadership,
  • the Northern Territory Federal electorate, Lingiari, is named after Vincent,
  • there is a memorial to Vincent in Reconciliation Place, Canberra,
  • the Gurundji people have inalienable freehold title over 3,000 square km of their original tribal lands.

The mustard seed has become a tree and the birds come and perch in its branches. From little things, big things grow.