Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names and images of deceased persons.
Often people think of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as something historic, dating back to the 1970s. But it should also be seen as the site of the longest standing protest for land rights, sovereignty and self-determination. indigenous people in the world.
In this momentous year, it is worth remembering how the Tent Embassy came into existence and what it has continued to represent since its erection in 1972 – and the importance it still has today.
Aliens in our own country
The Tent Embassy began its public life on January 26, 1972. On this day, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey left Redfern and traveled to Ngunnawal Country (Canberra), where they planted a parasol in front of Parliament (now known as the Old Parliament).
They put up a sign that said ‘Aboriginal Embassy’. With them that day was their driver, Grandstand photographer Noel Hazard, who captured the event in a series of photos.
The term “embassy” was used to draw attention to the fact that Indigenous peoples had never surrendered their sovereignty or entered into a treaty process with the Crown. As a collective, Aboriginal peoples were the only cultural group not represented by an embassy.
Initially, the protesters were taking a stand on land rights, following the speech of then-Prime Minister William McMahon, who dismissed any hope of native land rights and reaffirmed the government’s position on the policy of assimilation. The Embassy Tent was therefore a public demonstration of our disapproval and objection to government policies and practices.
Over the next few years, it became an acclaimed site of our continued resistance to continued colonial rule.
The demands of the demonstrators
Police who were patrolling the area at the time of the erection of the embassy tent asked the protesters what they were doing in front of Parliament. They said they were protesting and that they would do so until the government granted land rights to the natives. The police reportedly replied: “It could be forever”.
It turned out that it was not illegal to camp on the lawns of Parliament, so the police could not remove them.
Later, on February 6, 1972, members of the tent embassy handed over their list of demands to the government. The demands were clearly about our rights as Indigenous people to our homelands, regardless of whether towns were now being built on the land or whether mining companies were interested in the riches it contained.
Compensation was sought in cases where land could not be returned. There were also demands for the protection of our sacred sites.
There was widespread support for the tent embassy from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their allies across the continent, and even around the world.
Media attention also increased when it became apparent that the tent embassy and protesters were not going to budge. Other Indigenous activists joined the Embassy including Foley, Isabel Coe, John Newfong, Chicka Dixon, Gordon Briscoe and many others.
Forced withdrawal and rebirth
The government wasn’t too keen on being reminded that Aborigines were claiming rights, so they amended the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance to make camping on the Parliament lawn illegal. This gave the police the power to evict protesters.
On September 12, 1972, the ACT Supreme Court ruled against the use of trespass laws and the tent embassy was temporarily erected before being taken down again the next morning.
Then, in late 1972, the McMahon-led coalition government lost the federal election to Labour. Whitlam was able to fulfill his promise in part – he gave the title deeds to the Gurindji people. This was captured in the historic photo by Merv Bishop of Whitlam pouring a handful of soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.
#OnThisDay in 1975 the Gurindji lands were returned to Vincent Lingiari by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam with the words: “Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly surrender these deeds to you as proof, under Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people”.
– AIATSIS (@AIATSIS) August 16, 2020
While this iconic image has become a demonstration of what might be possible, the Embassy’s job is not yet done. Land rights across the continent have yet to be fully realized.
In the years that followed he occupied several other sites around Canberra, including the site of the present Parliament. In 1992 it returned to its original site on the Old Parliament Lawn to mark the 20th anniversary of the original protest.
In 1976 Parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act. It was the first legislation in Australia that allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to claim title to land (ownership), if they could prove their traditional connection to the land. pic.twitter.com/NVDH4Y4dKl
— Celeste Liddle (@IndigenousX) July 7, 2021
A lasting 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 for justice represented by the Embassy and its people.
As Foley reflects in his story of the embassy: “May it last for [five] decades as a powerful symbol rejecting the hypocrisy, deceit and duplicity of successive Australian governments speaks to the unwillingness of many Indigenous people to concede defeat in a 200-year struggle for justice.”
Nowhere else in the world have we seen such longevity around a place of contestation. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is an impressive achievement that demonstrates the tenacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our continued struggle to reclaim our lands and sovereign rights as First Nations peoples.
- 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. Jhis article first appeared on The conversation.