Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the names and pictures of deceased people.

People often think of the Aboriginal tent embassy as something historical dating back to the 1970s. But it should also be considered a place for the longest protest against indigenous land rights, sovereignty and self-determination in the world.

In this significant year, it is worth remembering how the Tent Embassy came to be and what it has continued to stand for since its construction in 1972 – and the significance it still has today.

Foreigners in our own country

The tent embassy began its public life on January 26, 1972. That day, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey left Redfern and drove to Ngunnawal Country (Canberra), where they planted a beach umbrella opposite Parliament House (now known as Old Parliament House). ).

They erected a sign that read “Aboriginal Embassy”. With them that day was their driver, Tribune photographer Noel Hazard, who captured the event in a series of photos.

The establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy on Australia Day in 1972. Photo: National Museum Australia

The establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy on Australia Day in 1972. Photo: National Museum Australia

The term “embassy” was used to draw attention to the fact that the Aborigines had never relinquished sovereignty or engaged in any treaty process with the crown. As a collective, the Aborigines were the only cultural group not represented with an embassy.

Initially, protesters took a stand on land rights following the speech of then-Prime Minister William McMahon, who rejected any hope of Aboriginal land rights and reaffirmed the government’s stance on assimilation policy. The tent embassy was therefore a public display of our disapproval of and objection to the government’s policies and practices.

In recent years, it has become a recognized place for our continued resistance to the continuity of colonial rule.

Demands from protesters

The police who patrolled the area at the time of the tentambassadad’s construction asked the demonstrators what they made outside the parliament building. They said they protested and would do so until the government granted land rights to the Aborigines. Police should have the answer: “It could be forever”.

It turned out that it was not illegal to camp on the lawns of Parliament so that the police could not remove them.

Later, on February 6, 1972, the members of the tent embassy sent out their list of demands to the government. The demands were clearly about our rights as Aborigines to our homelands, whether cities were now built on the ground or mining companies were interested in the gifts within.

Compensation was claimed in cases where the land could not be returned. There were also demands for the protection of our holy places.

There was widespread support for the tent embassy from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders and allies across the continent, and indeed the entire world.

Media attention also grew as it became clear that the tent embassy and protesters would not move on. Other Aboriginal activists joined the embassy, ​​including Foley, Isabel Coe, John Newfong, Chicka Dixon, Gordon Briscoe and many others.

Forced removal and resuscitation

The government was not so keen on being reminded that the Aborigines demanded rights, so it amended the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance to make it illegal to camp on the lawn of Parliament. This gave the police authority to remove the protesters.

On September 12, 1972, the ACT’s Supreme Court ruled against the use of the infringement laws, and the tent embassy was temporarily rebuilt before being removed again the following morning.

Then, in late 1972, the coalition government led by McMahon lost the federal election to Labor. Whitlam was able to keep his promise in part – he gave the country deeds to the Gurindji people. This was captured on the historical image of Merv Bishop of Whitlam pouring a fistful of dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.

Although this iconic image has become a demonstration of what could be possible, the work of the embassy is not yet complete. Land rights across the continent have not yet been fully achieved.

In the following years, it occupied several other places around Canberra, including the site of the current Parliament House. In 1992, it returned to its original location on the lawn of the Old Parliament House to mark the 20th anniversary of the original protest.

An enduring symbol of protest

Today, the tent embassy remains on the lawns of the old parliament building as a reminder of the successive failures of subsequent governments to meet the demands of justice that the embassy and its people represent.

As Foley reflects in her story about the embassy: “It has endured that [five] decades as a potent symbol rejecting hypocrisy, deception and duality from successive Australian governments is a testament to the fact that a large number of Aborigines refuse to admit defeat in a 200-year struggle for justice. “

Nowhere else in the world have we seen such a long life around a protest site. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is an impressive achievement that demonstrates the tenacity of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander people and our continued struggle for the recovery of our land and sovereign rights as First Nations people.

  • Bronwyn Carlson is Professor of Indigenous Studies and Director of the Center for Global Indigenous Futures at Macquarie University. Lynda-June Coe is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University. This article first appeared on The conversation.

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