The Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra - the iconic and, to some, offensive site that kicked off a national conversation about the indigenous rights - turns forty this week. Governments starting from Billy McMahon's on have never quite managed to shut it down or belittle it as a symbol of resistance. That, says activist Gary Foley, is a spectacular event in itself.
The three-day corroboree in front of Old Parliament House beginning today (Thursday) will draw a big crowd representing scores of languages, Aboriginal nations and communities. Many of the class of the 1972, comrades in the struggle, will not be there. They died too young. Those present will be charged with emotion shouting 'Sovereignty was never ceded!' They will talk about the road ahead and what should become of the proudly untidy site.
Self-proclaimed embassy ambassador, Michael Anderson, will play on the notion of being an alien in his own nation by offering an official stamp from his country in northwest New South Wales. While the Commonwealth has legally recognised the concept of Aboriginal land rights, the battle goes on and new battles too. Aboriginal incarceration rates have worsened. More Indigenous children are being born with foetal alcohol syndrome and into a lifetime of disability that is totally preventable. Health and housing remain critical issues. Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution has momentum but is a way off.
Foley, who cut his activist teeth on the lawns of the 'white wedding cake' national parliament, admitted to me that there'sa lull in activism, not unlike the time before his formative decade of protest: "One of the damaging things about native title is that it's turned us all into 500 different nations again. What happened during the 1970s, regardless of the mob you belong to, we saw the importance of engaging in a national movement in order to make politicians sit up and notice. That's got to be possible again today because the information technology available that is available to young Aboriginal people today is just extraordinary."
When four young Aboriginal men, Anderson among them, erected a beach umbrella (and later a donated tent) and called it the Aboriginal Tent Embassy they got the national media's attention and they got the authorities nervous. Like never before, mainstream Australia was forced to engage with Aboriginal people expressing the importance of land on their terms. A heavy police contingent bust up the protest after several attempts but the embassy boomeranged back. It was not a futile exercise. It has taken courage to maintain the protest to this day (We don't know the half of it. The most visible camper and caretaker these days, Laurence 'Sprocket' Coghlan, copped it during anti-carbon tax rallies last year for being, among other things, un-Australian).
The grass-roots political struggle that began as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy successfully subverted the colonial narrative. It did so by placing the lived experiences of Aboriginal people; racism, disease, poverty and dispossession front and centre. As with the Occupy Movement with protests in cities including New York, London and Sydney, it took on a life of its own and inspired other protest 'embassies' around Australia, most recently on the site of the proposed Kimberley gas hub.
The Tent Embassy is an anarchic, messy site. It doesn't fit Walter Burley Griffith's notion of the ordered civic space. This year its future will be in sharp view. Some want it to become a commemorative site; others argue it's still an active protest site and should be left as it is.
Aboriginal academic Tony Birch says it's 'a stain that we need to be confronted with: "I feel, as much as I know that Australian politicians have talked about it as an embarrassment to visitors of the capital. I think it's more of an embarrassment to them and [a nudge] to deal with Aboriginal people in a mature way."
It causes offence. That is the point but even for some Indigenous Australians who find the site an eyesore and irrelevant to their lives. They have moved and wish others would too. But there are factions in any community; certainly one so diverse argues Birch: "It's not a negative... but the debate should be an intelligent one. Dissent is fine. It's how you deal with it."
Gary Foley champions the idea of a memorial: "Australians don't talk about moving the site of memorials of Gallipoli further up the coast where nothing happened. This is where our battle was fought and that's the important ground that needs to be occupied and retained as a historical reminder and as a sort of war memorial if you like."
Birch told me that if the Australian community has any commitment to maturity, diversity and inclusiveness, it needs to give formal recognition to the importance of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. "There's a power here because it says to non-Aboriginal people, migrants and descendants of settler communities, that Aboriginal people are not invisible. While there have been attempts to erase the past, Aboriginal people have not disappeared. The Tent Embassy predates the Mabo case that exposed 'terra nullius' as a lie."
Queensland activist Sam Watson says the site is a 'diplomatic enclave' invested by 500 tribal nations across Australia. "There should be a permanent structure there to enable people, visitors, from across the nation and the global community to come here and access the records of our political struggle."
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