I TRAVELLED FROM Sydney to Far North Queensland in 1970 to carry out ‘salvage work’ on a dying and little-recorded language, Gugu-Badhun. I was a postgraduate student in linguistics and my main teacher was to be Dick Hoolihan, who came from the Valley of Lagoons, Gugu-Badhun heartland country. He was a recently retired blacksmith’s striker with the railways. He had been put in touch with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, my employer in Canberra, through Frank Bardsley of Townsville. Frank was an active trade unionist with an interest in Aboriginal welfare and rights, who had begun to write down words in endangered languages of North Queensland. He also ran what would now be called a blue-light disco for the kids, I believe through the Aborigines’ Advancement League, in a run-down part of Townsville. I went to a dance there with a now unplaceable Ann Smith on August 8, 1970, according to my journal.
At that time, as had been the case since the Gurindji walk-off and the Northern Territory equal wages case a few years earlier, the old working-class unionist left had not yet relinquished its historic, if short-lived, front-row forward role in Aboriginal politics. Indigenous activists and their supporting middle-class cast of lawyers, academics, liberal missionaries and others were soon to sideline them. The North Australian Workers’ Union and the Waterside Workers’ Federation soon faded from centre stage in Indigenous political activism. The older involvement of humane societies, the various Friendship Leagues and their like – many of which were largely non-Indigenous in makeup – and some not so old organisations with more direct Indigenous involvement, like the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) (1958-73) and the One People of Australia League (1961-present), were also soon to be moved into the wings by the new land councils, legal services and other organisations, including the National Aboriginal Congress.
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