Gough Whitlam symbolises the legal return of country to Gurindji traditional owners at Kalkarindji (part of Wave Hill cattle station) in August 1975 after a long and bruising fight for justice, trickling red dirt into the hand of Vincent Lingiari. Aboriginal traditional owners, who were house and stock workers, had been on strike since a walk-off in 1966. British pastoralist and ‘squatter’, Lord Vestey, fought them for their right to the land and to “pay” them in substandard food and repellent housing. While the powerful image is concentrated on the solemnity and dignity of the occasion, and the two large hands in the centre of the picture, I’m also moved by the home-made mend on Mr Lingiari’s trousers, and his too-big, very new shirt still bearing crease marks from its packet. He had just recently come home from hospital.
The gesture with the dirt was said to have been a spontaneous one by serving Prime Minister Mr Whitlam, who died today aged 98. Mr Lingiari, OAM, a stockman, musician, custodian and activist, died in 1988, aged 80.
This the photograph, in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, taken by Mervyn Bishop, that has become iconic in Australian history. The moment is also celebrated in the Paul Kelly/Kevin Carmody song, ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’
Mr Whitlam had just announced, “On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people – all those who honour and love this land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians. Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji 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.”
The State Library of Victoria holds many documents, books, pictures and relics of this era, accessible on the catalogue at www.slv.vic.gov.au.
To but see more of this. All around the world. So much injustice.