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The Old Man and the voice of God: The untold story of the Wave Hill walk-off

It’s been 53 years since Vincent Lingiari led 200 Gurundji people – Aboriginal stockmen, domestic workers and their families – on a walk-off from the Wave Hill cattle station in protest against atrocious housing and working conditions, meagre provisions and unequal pay.

That event is remembered as “Freedom Day” at Kalkarindji (formerly Wave Hill settlement) in the Northern Territory, and celebrated as the beginning of the land rights movement in Australia. For the walk-off didn’t end with negotiations over better working conditions, but became an eight-year campaign to reclaim the traditional lands of the Gurundji people – an outcome immortalised in the photo of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring red dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hands in 1975.

But there’s a little-known dimension to this story that complicates a wholly secular take on these events and their contribution to the struggle for Aboriginal land rights – and not just because Whitlam sounded vaguely god-like when he told Vincent Lingiari, “This land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

Vincent Lingiari, it seems, believed that no less than God himself had called him to lead his people out of Wave Hill. That sense of conviction, as well as the resonances between the conditions the people endured at Wave Hill and the biblical story of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, meant that Vincent Lingiari came to be seen by the next generation of Aboriginal Christians as a Moses figure who led his people out of captivity and cruelty to a land of their own.

Not the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, as in the biblical account, but land that had been stolen from them, its original owners.

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No doubt this claim sits awkwardly with many. The accepted wisdom is that Christianity colonised the Aboriginal experience. Surely something of the same must be occurring here, with the story cast in such a light?

But that’s the account received by Mark Yettica-Paulson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leader and activist who has campaigned for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people through the Recognise Campaign, and who is now working with charity Australians Together to promote reconciliation.

Yettica-Paulson is also the younger son of Graham and Iris Paulson, the first Indigenous missionaries in Kalkarindji in the Northern Territory. Rev. Graham Paulson was himself the first Indigenous minister to be ordained by the Baptist church in 1968, and it’s from his memories that Yettica-Paulson is drawing.

“The Old Man Lingiari talked about how he really felt a calling, if you like, or a message from God to say, that it’s time to make a stand, to no longer accept the conditions, to actually do something about it,” said Yettica-Paulson. “And yes, of course there was the involvement of others to help him prepare technically, to help him prepare with the political apparatus to do that, but he really felt a sense of calling to do this.”

From the time the Paulsons were resident missionaries in Kalkarindji from 1970, Rev. Paulson developed strong connections with the remote Gurundji people who’d never before encountered an Aboriginal missionary who both spoke the things of God and also engaged with Aboriginal people as cultural and spiritual equals. He also formed a relationship of a mutual respect with Vincent Lingiari, whom Rev. Paulson went on to baptise sometime in 1970, in the middle of those long eight years of protest.

Rev. Paulson and the fledgling church he’d established went on to provide “ongoing spiritual nourishment” to the protest, according to Yettica-Paulson. Critical to that support was sustaining the belief that beyond the desired political outcomes, the community’s actions were part of a bigger story whose ramifications would be felt across the country. “They had the sense they were part of something really special,” said Yettica-Paulson.

“He felt honoured to be alongside the Old Man, and the Old Man had said that in reverse to my father as well, so honoured that he wanted my dad to go and send more [Aboriginal Christian] leaders back to country.”

The Old Man Lingiari talked about how he really felt a calling, or a message from God to say, that it’s time to make a stand.

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According to Rev. Paulson, Vincent Lingiari became something of a spiritual leader for the Indigenous church as well – an impression that has bypassed the official record of the walk-off.

By all accounts, Lingiari was a softly spoken man with great dignity, presence and authority – a lawman and leader among his own people. But his reputed Christianity was not exactly a known quantity, at least, not to outsiders who would have had more opportunity than most to witness it.

Hannah Middleton is now a retired anthropologist, but she spent the better part of 1970 living amongst the Gurundji people in Daguragu as part of her doctoral research. She lived in the community and was given a Gurundji name – “Lauwie” – after a nearby rockpool whose icy depths provided relief on hot days. She was unaware of any palpable Christian faith on the part of Lingiari, but acknowledges that, as an atheist, she would hardly have gone looking for the influence of Christianity in his life.

Middleton wonders, however, whether Lingiari shrewdly appropriated Christianity to his advantage, and that of his people. On his role as a Moses figure she says: “Do the Gurundji find that an apt description of what he did? Or is it because there is an imposition on top of what he did – which they respect and revere – which is cast in Western Christian language and imagery? I have no idea which one it is! Or if it’s bits of both in different people.”

This lack of certainty about the prominence of the Christian story in motivating Lingiari perhaps explains why Christianity doesn’t feature prominently in the historical account – and why the role played by other Christian leaders like Rev. Paulson is sidelined. Instead, more attention is given to the role of trade unions, university student associations and Communist groups, who provided practical assistance by sending money or food to sustain the protestors, or raised awareness for the cause by touring Vincent Lingiari down south in Sydney.

Yettica-Paulson is philosophical about the Christian gap in the record. That the contribution of those other groups is highlighted may not be so much a deliberate exclusion of the Christian element, he says, but because “it’s not really their story to tell.”

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Perhaps that’s understandable. It’s quite a story. The Rev. Jim Kime, who these days calls Sydney-seaside suburb Maroubra home, was a missionary to the Warlpiri people just before the arrival of the Paulsons. Kime had met Vincent Lingiari in 1964 and had been pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm for Kime’s proposed fortnightly visits to Wave Hill to “sit down with the people and teach them some songs and stories about God and Jesus.”

But what floored him was a story about Lingiari told to him by Victor Vincent – Vincent Lingiari’s son – in 1986 on the twentieth anniversary of the walk-off. According to Victor Vincent, sometime before the walk-off his father “had a dream in which somebody who he thought was God came and said to him, ‘Vincent, I’m going to give you your land back.’ As far as I can remember, that was the dream. I’m not sure how long before we came in ’64 that was,” Kime said.

Moreover, according to Victor Vincent, on the night of the walk-off itself Vincent Lingiari had another dream – one that meant that negotiating better conditions for the stockmen was no longer top priority. Instead, the issue was land.

“The same person came to him, the same bright person, and said, ‘Vincent, you are not going back, now is the time when I am going to give you and your people their land back.’ And that changed the whole way that the strike or the walk-off worked out. They never went back,” Kime recounts.

Kime has shared these stories somewhat hesitantly, knowing that they make a baffling addition to the public record that has no category for “dreams.” But not everyone feels similarly ambivalent.

“I’ve got no doubt that they’re the sorts of dreams that would motivate a leader to hold an eight-year campaign as opposed to an eight-day or eight-week campaign,” says Mark Yettica-Paulson. “When people receive a sense of calling or dream from the voice of God, as it were, it can’t be ignored. It’s their story, it’s part of what drives them to make sense of the sacrifice that’s needed.”

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If true, these stories help explain why Vincent Lingiari came to be seen as a Moses figure. But these prophetic dreams take us far off the beaten track of what qualifies as the secular discipline of history.

Laura Rademaker, postdoctoral research fellow with Australian National University whose research concerns the history of missions in Australia, says academic historians need to grapple with Aboriginal spirituality if they are to do justice to the experience of Aboriginal people.

“It’s important – especially in Indigenous history where Aboriginal knowledge has been discounted throughout Australia’s history – that we listen closely to what Aboriginal people have said has motivated them and shaped their experiences,” she said. “That involves listening closely to what they say about the spiritual world, and even countenancing the possibility that these things do happen, that there are spiritual dimensions that perhaps western academic historians are not so sensitive to in our own experience.”

Even if we leave aside these visions, what to make of the conflict between Christianity – too often the handmaiden of Western colonisation – and Aboriginal people – the objects of that colonial power?

“Any reasonable assessment of the role of the church in Australia amongst First Nations people has to recognise that the church’s history is a chequered history. It is a history that has acts that are shameful, but also it has a history of acts that are honourable,” said Yettica-Paulson, citing the ways Christians have both damaged Aboriginal culture and also preserved it, along with providing safe haven for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

According to Brooke Prentis, Aboriginal Christian leader, that mixed record of the church continues, with an absence of Aboriginal Christian leadership in the church hierarchy. She points out that it’s only as recently as 2019 that Aboriginal Christians have been accepted into Masters and PhD-level study into theology through NAIITS, a global indigenous theological institute.

“It took 15 years to try to get any Australian theological college to partner with Aboriginal Christians,” she said, referring to the systemic lack of voice and agency of Aboriginal people within the church. But even with that complicated past and present, she claims that a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people report that they identify with the Christian faith.

Indigenous people have mobilised biblical themes to support their own claims to dignity, justice and land rights.

Moreover, as Rademaker points out, in their exposure to Christian scriptures through the missions, Aboriginal people have seen their own priorities and interests powerfully endorsed by none other than the coloniser’s own God. “Aboriginal people have been drawing on the Bible’s themes of liberation and justice but also paying attention, especially in the Old Testament, to the emphasis on land and place, and land coming from God and your relatedness to country having a real spiritual dimension,” Rademaker said.

As such, Indigenous people have mobilised biblical themes to support their own claims to dignity, justice and land rights. And prominent Aboriginal church and community leaders – such as Pastor Doug Nicholls and William Cooper – have also been instrumental in political activism.

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Vincent Lingiari’s name deserves equal billing among those figures, says Yettica-Paulson. All shared “this motivation that drove them to not only see political and social change, but to see a spiritual awakening and a spiritual healing brought to people around them. And the Old Man Lingiari was in that tradition as well.”

“I do not mean to diminish, for one second, the role of others who were part of the [Wave Hill] campaign,” he said, “but we also need to acknowledge that [Lingiari] was a Christian leader as well as a cultural, community, and political leader.”

If nothing else, the fact that this aspect of Vincent Lingiari’s story is little known and understood summarises the tensions we feel at this unexpected mix of Christianity and Aboriginal culture – and perhaps provides the biggest reason why the Christian dimension to the walk-off story is both unanticipated and, to some degree, unwelcome.

But it sounds like there’s a story here to be explored, even if it complicates the widely held assumption that Aboriginality and Christianity are irreconcilable. And therefore what’s also unresolved is whether – if such a story were to be told – we could actually manage to hear it.

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, and a co-presenter of the documentary For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.