Today is the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. I spent the morning reading about it and watching archival footage like that included below. It is Australia’s longest running continuous protest, one that has occupied Parliament lawn for four decades despite police intimidation, perpetual harassment and being legislated against. It began when four young Aboriginal men from Australia’s Black Power movement pitched an umbrella in response to William McMahon’s announcement that there would be ‘no Aboriginal title’ to Australian land.

Here’s some footage from Ningla A-Na (1972), a film documenting Black activism in Australia in the 1970s:

Green Left Weekly has a great backgrounder on the Embassy, including reflections from Lara Pullin, Sam Watson and Michael Anderson.

And then there’s this day beyond the Tent Embassy:

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

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  1. Thanks for this great post, Jacinda.

    It is such a tragedy that the neglect of Indigenous Australians has not been resolved, and worse, that 40 years on, there seems no will (apart from lip-service) to resolve them.

    And Jeff’s tweet nails today’s celebrations:

    Imagine if beer-drinking Indigenous kids gathered in the city, waving flags, chanting, and boasting about past massacres of whites.

  2. On a school camping trip many years ago, we did the usual thing of visiting the old and new parliament houses, inevitably passing the tent embassy on the way. I remember it being discussed as something of a sideshow act. I had the misfortune of seeing the footage on mainstream news last night – it’s a tremendous shame that nothing has changed.

    Thanks for providing an alternative, as usual.

  3. Occupy-Occupied link? Indigenous Australians, in terms of the politics of representation, are the 1% of the 1%; hence the Australia Day departure: skyrockets in the arvo, instead of at night. With Occupy, there were no skyrockets.

  4. I’m an in-principle supporter of the Tent Embassy, and having spent twenty years living in the ACT I used to say that if ever a government tried to bulldoze the thing I’d get down there in a flash. Despite this most recent Australia Day and the events that happened, my position hasn’t changed.

    However, a young Indigenous guy I know, who attended the 40th Anniversary celebrations, gave me a different perspective, and he’s someone who’s very proud of who he is and very active in the community. He was angry at the swearing and verbal aggression, the retro-sloganeering (‘What do we want? Land Rights. When do we want it? Now. What have we got? Fuck all’); in the end, he said that the day make him feel ‘ashamed to be black’. He also noted that not everyone who gathered at the celebration seemed to be comfortable with where the day was going, particularly younger people and people from ‘way out west,’ he said, ‘those who probably really do have something to be angry about’. His words have been lingering with me; they feel heavy.

    PS Whilst the progress of Indigenous rights and conditions has been appallingly slow, I don’t think it’s correct to say nothing’s been achieved. It’s still a source of great shame (to invoke the word used by my friend), but we’re moving in the right direction. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. Hopelessness isn’t where we should live on this issue.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nigel. I actually wrote this post before the furore, so would write a very different, more detailed post now.

      While I respect there’s a diversity of opinion in Indigenous communities, I don’t have to be black to deem the treatment of Indigenous people by successive Australian governments as racist. I don’t have to be Indigenous to see that ‘welfare quarantining’ is nothing more than ‘rationing’.

      There are higher rates of Indigenous incarceration and suicide than 40 years ago, and I think that one black death-in-custody is too many. At every turn, mining companies are stripping Indigenous people of their rights. And then, there’s the Intervention, a criminal, paternalistic and retrograde policy.

      I actually wrote a piece a couple of months ago about many of these issues. I think they’re issues people should be angry about.

      And throughout history, manners have never changed government policy.

      1. Jacinda, the young guy I mentioned above to seemed to be suggesting that it was about time for manners to be brought into the equation, that manners might be a way of getting real change in the current context.

        Interesting huh?

      2. Whoohoo! Great to see Gillard and Abbott,servants of the ruling class, on the run for a change! All power to the Indigenous activists who gave them a taste of their OWN medicine, running them of what they thought was THEIR land!

    2. I wonder if some young Indigenous people are falling into that same anti-protest malaise that’s affecting the rest of my generation – it’s like they feel that making a public scene, no matter the cause, means you’re (to use a certain Possum’s favourite word this week) “unhinged” and thus you can’t be taken seriously. I can’t say I’ve seen it in my own Indigenous friends but they’ve always been politically active. Maybe it’s just happening more generally. Were protesters always painted as such loonies? Or lawbreakers? Or violent thugs, just for yelling some slogans?

      Also, I really don’t think we are moving in the right direction. Maybe some people are more PC, and maybe there are pockets of growth. But the gains of the Indigenous rights movement have all but stalled since the mid 1990s and in many cases hard-won rights have actually been wound back. Hopelessness is certainly a bad attitude to have because it breeds defeat, but it’s not like a paternalist intervention and scuttled land rights and extremely high incarceration rates and a 17-year gap in life expectancy and welfare quarantine and regular institutionalisation of cultural ignorance show progress.

  5. Stephanie, I’m not sure how someone genuinely reacting against what they perceived to be verbally aggressive sloganeering might be evidence of an ‘anti-protest malaise’.

    Perhaps it’s just acknowledgement that there are different ways of creating change, and there’s a place for respect and a willingness to have real, deep dialogue on these complex matters? And maybe some protest methods do lose their currency, and sometimes there’s a need for different methods for different parts of the push for real and tangible progress?

  6. Would be good for Overland to engage/commission indigenous voices on this issue. It’s great that things like this are covered/discussed on this blog, but the whole ‘some of my friends are aboriginal…’ vibe of these comments makes me feel yuck. Sorry O/land:(

    1. Maxine, I get your objection, but for myself, I strongly object to the implications. I wasn’t speaking for my friends, or indeed any other Indigenous people, nor was I using them as some kind of leverage to justify racialised stereotypes. Their perspectives inform my politics, sure – their perspectives SHOULD inform my politics – but they’re *my* politics, and I don’t think anything I’ve said implies otherwise.

  7. Maxine, great idea.

    (Maybe there’s still some worth in those who’ve been surprised by a different take on these issues – or who’ve had their views challenged by others – being able to express this or put it on the public record.)

  8. Hi Maxine, Neil and Stephanie, again, thanks for your comments.

    I have to say, however, that I disagree with you, Maxine. I think the only way forward when it comes to Australia’s relationship to Indigenous Australia is through black and white voices being heard on these issues.

    I am aware, as with debates concerning any oppressed group, about the history of movements being dominated by those with societal privilege, and the absence of voices from communities being addressed.

    But I also think we have to be wary of becoming essentialist in our approach to these politics. There is a real diversity of opinion among Aboriginal Australia about the way forward, feelings about the Intervention, and opinions of white solidarity – but that diversity exists in every community. Even the Indigenous Australians that we’ve published in Overland (and non-Indigenous Australians who live and work in Indigenous communities that we’ve published in Overland, such as Chris Graham) have a diversity of opinions on these issues.

    And there can be a danger that all we’re putting forward is the edited view of the [in this case, black] community you support, which can be just as patronising as exclusion.

    But we’re unlikely to publish conservative opinions here that suggest a more mannered approach is the way to go, because that territory has been well and truly covered by traditional media.

    I think that’s why this archival footage is so important, because it really gets to the core of what activists were saying and doing at the time the Embassy was established – particularly Gary Foley on the issue of ‘manners’ (in that first video).


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