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The 1946 Strike


The first strike by Aboriginal people in Australia took place in the Pilbara in 1946, when Indigenous pastoral workers walked off the stations in protest at low pay. Many workers were not paid at all, but compensated in rations of tea, flour, sugar and tobacco. Government policies enforced by station owners and police meant that the workers were not free to leave their employment or move around the Pilbara.


The strike saw about 800 people leave the stations between 1946 and 1949. Some were forced to return to their work, but others sought new occupations and gained their independence. The strikers worked at collecting pearl shell from the Pilbara coast and collecting buffel grass seed for sale to the pastoral industry. In 1948 they set up a mining company and staked claims around Port Hedland and Marble Bar. The strikers mined tin, beryl, tantalite and columbite and became self sufficient.


Mangala elder Bruce Thomas was a boy during the strike, but he remembers how it taught his people to fend for themselves and to stand proud against those who had looked down on them before. Nyaparu (William) Gardiner also grew up during the strike. He recalled travelling around with his people and collecting shell at Tijilajangunya and mining tin at Tabba Tabba. The tin was separated from the dirt by yandying, using an adapted form of the coolamon traditionally used for carrying babies. By shaking the yandy, the strikers separated out the tin.


The national importance of this historical event was recognised in 2010 when four Canberra streets were named after the strike leaders. Clancy McKenna Crescent, Dooley Bin Bin Street, Peter Coppin Street and Don McLeod Lane can be found in the new Canberra suburb of Bonner.

The feature documentary 'How the West was Lost' tells the story of the strike. Wangka Maya has also produced a DVD '60 Years On' documenting the memories, changes and feelings sixty years after the strike. The late Peter Coppin told his life story, including his involvement in the strike, in the book Kangkushot. All these resources are available through Wangka Maya's online catalogue.