The Fight For Land Rights Starts With Little Things

Originally published July 10, 2014, on New Matilda.

The fight for land rights in Australia goes on, despite the appropriation of the icons associated with the struggle, writes Amy McQuire.

For a new generation of Australians, the iconic song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ may signal little more than an annoying jingle on a superannuation ad.

Stripped of its meaning, of the strength of its verses and the vocal might of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, the song now exists to many as a front to sell Industry Super; the ad populated, strangely, by a plethora of non-Indigenous faces.

This song deserves better. 

In the late 80s, the legendary Australian musician Paul Kelly was sitting by the light of campfire with Aboriginal musician Kev Carmody, the writer of protest songs like ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’, when they began talking about the Gurindji strike.

The Wave Hill walk off is, to this day, one of the most important protest movements in modern Australia’s short history.

From 1966-1975, Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari led nearly 200 workers on a strike for equal wages against the Wave Hill pastoral station run by the British Vesteys.

But the movement was about more than wages. It was about the fight that is core to Aboriginal being: land.

The dispossession of Aboriginal people from the land their ancestors walked for more than 70,000 years is a crime that has never been fully acknowledged by mainstream Australia.

It’s a crime that will always sit uncomfortably in the background of any celebration of Aboriginal culture, including during NAIDOC week.

As Lingiari said at the time “I bin thinking this bin Gurindji country. We bin here longa time before them Vestey mob”.

The Wave Hill walk-off would ultimately culminate in a “tall stranger”, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam visiting Gurindji country and pouring a handful of sand through Lingiari’s fingers.

The Gurindji were given back a portion of their land. It was a land rights landmark.

In the midst of the protest, the Whitlam government spearheaded the Woodward commission into land rights and then later, under the Liberal Fraser government, the NT Land Rights Act was passed.

The Gurindji peoples’ strength and tenacity, and the fact that “power and privilege cannot move a people… who stand in their law” inspired Aboriginal people across the country.

The four Aboriginal men who later camped outside Parliament House in 1972 under the shade of an umbrella, and formed the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy, ensuring Land Rights stayed firmly on the Whitlam government’s agenda, were inspired by those men and women who walked off. From Little Things Big Things Grow.

Kelly already had the raw ingredients in his head. Written in his notebook was a line from Bruce Springsteen: “From small things, Mama/Big things one day come”.

For his part, Carmody had the story written into his soul. The son of drovers, he started from little things and grew to become the Aboriginal Bob Dylan.

“I’d tightened the line up to ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ (The Boss, God love him, can be a bit prolix at times), thinking it might be the perfect title for a love song along the lines of ‘It’s Growing’ by the Temptations,” Kelly later wrote.

“But when Kev said, ‘Let’s write a song about that old man, about the strike,’ I replied straightaway, my mind fizzing, ‘I think I’ve got something to throw in the pot.’”

“With Kev doodling a few chords on the mandolin, me playing a capoed guitar, Declan poking the fire, and the ghosts of ‘Hattie Carroll’ and Woody Guthrie’s‘Deportees’ hovering overhead, we conjured most of the song over a couple of hours under the bright, bright stars.”

Kelly now describes the song as a “creaky”, “with a Sunday-school melody that makes me cringe sometimes”.

“But it just keeps on going, like an old buggy bumping on down the road.”

In 2008, hip hop group The Herd, in conjunction with Getup! remixed the song with footage of Kevin Rudd’s apology speech, reaching the top four on the ARIA charts.

But the song was not about the apology, a meaningless, purely symbolic gesture that was used for political capital by a weak Prime Minister who failed to Close the Gap. The song was about an issue that still burns on the lawns of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, and in the hearts of Aboriginal people across the country.

It is about an issue that has fallen off the political agenda, which has slowly been watered down by divisive pieces of legislation like the Native Title Act.

It’s a song sung in many incarnations since the very beginning of European invasion. There is a reason this song keeps bumping along, refusing to be assimilated out of existence.

Aboriginal people will not have true justice until they are granted full land rights. From Little Things Big Things Grow tells the story of a people whose legacy should not be washed away by white preoccupations for “reconciliation” or “constitutional recognition”.

This is a song worthy of a man like Vincent Lingiari, of Eddie Mabo, of Truganini, of Pemulwuy, of Barangaroo, of Jandarmarra, of the brave fighters of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

It’s a song that serves as an anthem to Aboriginal people who believe that despite the current political agenda to assimilate and paternalise and hammer out our Aboriginality, the fight can always be won.

You just have to start from little things.

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