December 2008 – January 2009

Arts & Letters

‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ by Paul Kelly & Kev Carmody

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustrations by Peter Hudson & Gurindji schoolchildren

This is the book of the song that has become the anthem of the reconciliation movement. A century after the birth of Vincent Lingiari and 20 years after his death, the walkout of stockmen he led at Wave Hill Station in 1966 and its triumphant resolution in 1975 remains a turning point in Australian history: the translation of the Aboriginal-rights movement from theoretical expressions of good intentions into the practical outcome of land rights.

The struggle of the Gurindji people has had many spin-offs over the years: the book The Unlucky Australians, by their great supporter Frank Hardy, who also introduced the eye surgeon Fred Hollows to the strikers and sparked his altruistic career; the song ‘Gurindji Blues', by Ted Egan; and the iconic photo of Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Lingiari's hands. But it is the Kelly-Carmody work that has gone into folklore, and which was triumphantly revived when Kevin Rudd restarted the reconciliation process with his apology to the Stolen Generations.

And now it is a book, wonderfully illustrated by the Gurindji kids in their settlements at Daguragu and Kalkarinji, and by the Queensland artist Peter Hudson. It's all about the song, of course, and there is even a translation into the Gurindji language, itself now endangered. Martin Flanagan has contributed a useful and optimistic introduction, and all proceeds from the book will be returned to fund projects for Gurindji youth. Appropriately, the project took place under the patronage of Tom Uren, a Whitlam minister who has been with the Gurindji from the start of their struggle.

This is a book of huge symbolic importance, a reminder of a groundbreaking triumph of the past and a message of hope and exhortation for the future: "That was the story of Vincent Lingiari / But this is the story of something much more / How power and privilege cannot move a people / Who know where they stand and stand in the law." When he received the sand from his prime minister, the old stockman said simply, "We be mates now." But we're not, not really; there is still much to do. To remind us just how much, this book should be in every Australian library, office, classroom and home.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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