*This is an edited extract from the 2015 Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture. Read the full lecture at The Northern Myth.
The great power of Vincent Lingiariʼs story is that it teaches us how this land sings to us all, how it holds us and nurtures us. This is the common ground that we share.
When the Gurindji leader and his people walked off Wave Hill Station, camping by the Victoria River and then eventually by Wattie Creek at Daguragu almost half a century ago, they understood that the land was their birthright and their destiny.
The Old Man also knew in his wisdom that a sharing of the living environment, a responsible custodianship of the land, was the key to the common good for all Australians. With patience, humility and extraordinary dignity, Vincent Lingiariʼs fight for genuine land rights shows us how it is possible to unite and inspire enough Australians to move the country towards a legal settlement that is fair in the eyes of most reasonable people.
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This is a priceless lesson as Australians once more contemplate many different views on recognition of the rights and rightful place of the first peoples. Vincent Lingiari was not a bit interested in the imperial delusions of the Australian constitution or its negative concepts of racial superiority that leave a deep stain of discrimination on this outmoded document. He simply wanted recognition of the truth and legal acknowledgment that Australiaʼs first nations had been dispossessed unreasonably and unlawfully for two centuries. The lesson for us all at this hour of our history is that the most important changes required for the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people are legal empowerment, meaningful recognition of their voices at a national level and the full establishment of land rights across the country.
Our nation has wasted too much time on empty promises of equality, on self-serving wedge politics and power plays in Canberra by the “great white protectors”, on naked greed that threatens the common good and ravages the land, and on divide-and-conquer tactics that split communities and set Aboriginal leaders against one another, brother against brother and sister against sister. After such a long period of oppressive policies that clearly fail Aboriginal people we need to think more deeply about Vincent Lingiariʼs conviction that it is possible to share this land fairly with everyone who now calls this country home.
As a senior lawman, Vincent Lingiari was drawing on his grandfatherʼs knowledge and connection to Gurindji country, reclaiming and asserting the core responsibility of custodianship. Like the very strongest Earth science, this foundational concept of the Aboriginal system of knowledge gives every man, woman and child some responsibility to help maintain the balance of the living system of life, the source of well-being for all creatures now and into the future.
This view of humans as sentient custodians is an optimistic and enlightened philosophy that gives us the very best chance of maintaining the health of our species and others. It stands in marked contrast to the ravenous selfishness of the predatory human who takes only what he wants with no consideration of the common good. After wandering the world for well over 60 years, I have experienced the best and worst of the human species.
Squeezing 10 lifetimes into one, seeing the beauty and the horror, I am now certain that for the first time in the history of the Earth, a single species threatens the very balance of the interconnected systems on which all life depends. After witnessing some 30 wars, the impact of genocide in Cambodia, Guatemala and Rwanda, and the suffering in the man-made famines in Eritrea and other parts of Africa, I realised that I was watching not a sentient custodian but a natural born killer, the most predatory species to ever stalk this Earth.
Criss-crossing the world in perpetual motion I came to see that “we are at war with one another and with the earth itself”. Since the end of World War II, according to the British Earth scientist Norman Myers, humans have devoured more raw materials than all of our ancestors combined.
Many species apart from humans are being liquidated at an astonishing pace. By the end of this century one-third of all living species may be gone. Watch the birds on the wing because, of 10,000 species, 7000 are in drastic decline. Take a long wander across the land and drink deep on its beauty because up to 50,000 of the worldʼs 250,000 kinds of plants are expected to disappear over the next few decades. As the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey has declared, the Earth is going through the sixth period of mass extinction. We human beings are driving this devastation.
Throughout much of my life, Aboriginal people have helped educate me to understand the sharp cry of the land when it is being damaged by our carelessness. Ernie Grant, the Jirribal elder at Tully in far-north Queensland, was so articulate about minute or dramatic changes to the environment that I came to see that Aboriginal custodianship, like Earth science, is warning us not to surrender to the kind of irresponsible exploitation that is based only on short term profit.
This is the same enlightened message that one of Australiaʼs eminent earth scientists, Bill Gammage, offers us in his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, a wonderful homage to indigenous custodianship of land and sea. Vincent Lingiari above all was a custodian of his land.
It is many years since I first walked Gurindji country and felt the pain there. Something was broken and out of balance.
I wandered the ghostly ruins of Wave Hill Station with Jimmy Wavehill and Gus George, two of the 200 that walked off behind the Old Man on August 23, 1966. Jimmy, who is now almost 80, was a young stockman back then, and Gus was the boy he had carried on his shoulders …