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The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Then and now

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this report contains images and names of deceased persons.

 

Act One: Canberra, 14 July 1972, from Garema Place to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Friday night shopping in Canberra’s Civic Centre, icy winds off the Brindabellas, more than the usual number of dusty station-wagons around town. It is National Aborigines’ Day, a precursor to NAIDOC week. The McMahon government has refused to acknowledge or consider Aboriginal title to land in Australia. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been established on the lawns in front of Parliament House (the ‘old’ Parliament House). A march for Aboriginal Land Rights has been arranged. You can join the march by buying a candle in a plastic cup. People gather. An Easter vigil of sorts. Pat Eatock and Ambrose Golden Brown, from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, huddle against the wind. They read out statistics on the death rate of Aboriginal children.

The ‘Land Rights Now’ banner is hoisted against the wind, and the marchers set off for the Embassy. A young Aboriginal woman walks ahead of the banner. She has dyed her hair red. She turns and leans into the wind to face the marchers, holding a megaphone to her mouth. ‘What do we want?’ she shouts, ‘When do we want it?’ And she keeps going, exhorting the marchers. We reply ‘Land Rights … Now!’ The crowd tires before she does. Her voice becomes hoarse. She will not stop. And then she falters, almost going limp, and a young man gently supports her and eases the burden of the megaphone from her shoulders.

This is visceral. This is passion.

We have an escort. We are to stay in the left of the three lanes on Commonwealth Avenue as we head across the bridge over Lake Burley Griffin. Police motorbikes are idling along in the middle lane, parallel to the marchers. I find myself on the right-hand side of the march, not far behind the banner. Mischief sometimes gets the better of me. I veer a little to my right, towards the white traffic lines separating the lanes. The policeman alongside me steers a little to his left. My steps are now touching the line. The bike moves close beside me. I look at the driver, he looks at me. We understand the deal. Two weeks later the game would change.

 

'The protesters are met by an equal number of police and, as Michael Anderson later put it, a ‘bloody battle’ erupted. Some report that 36 police have been taken to hospital and 18 protestors have been arrested.' 

 

We are following the now familiar Aboriginal flag, which perhaps made its first appearance on the national stage at the Tent Embassy. A chant is intoned: Ningla-a-na, ‘Hungry for land’.

After thirty minutes we arrive at the Tent Embassy. A few candles and torches give light. A lawyer speaks on the ways that Australian legislation discriminates against Aborigines. A hat is passed around twice, once to support the Tent Embassy, and once to help a young Aboriginal couple from Tamworth, shivering in their cotton clothes. The wind is relentless. Some children try to warm themselves around a fire made of candles and plastic cups. A doctor anxiously tells them to put out the fire because the smoke is toxic. They look at him with disbelief, as if to ask, ‘Is it better that we freeze to death?’ Many supporters have quickly disappeared. Ambrose Golden-Brown plays Danny Boy on the gumleaf. Bobby McLeod sings a country-and-western love song. Will nobody stay? I go home. I think of the Garden of Gethsemane.

 

 

 

Act Two: Canberra, 17-23 July 1972, from the Tent Embassy to ANU

Expedient amendments to the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance 1932 give police the power to remove both the Embassy and its inhabitants from the public lands in front of the old Parliament House. And this they do. Not once, but twice. The first occasion is an early morning raid, the day after the legislation has been amended. Police move in, the tent is taken down, and word is circulating that eight people have been arrested.

The amendments have been incorrectly tabled, however, and the removal of the Embassy is found to be illegal. The confiscated tents have to be returned, and two hundred people then attempt to re-establish the Embassy. The ordinance is magically repaired overnight. The protesters are met by an equal number of police and, as Michael Anderson later put it, a ‘bloody battle’ erupted. Some report that 36 police have been taken to hospital and 18 protestors have been arrested. Others say one policeman has been injured with a bitten hand. Film of the police numbers and the violence of the struggle is chilling and incontrovertible.[1]

On one of these days, I was riding my bike from Yarralumla to my laboratory at ANU (the Australian National University). As I reached the south end of Commonwealth Avenue I heard a ruckus, the like of which I had never heard before, coming from the direction of the old Parliament House. I thought it might have been a mob of cockatoos. It was a deep-rooted sound. I did not know it at the time, but it was the reverberation of a violent struggle for life and dignity at the Tent Embassy.

Those who were not arrested returned to the ANU Union. They were in extreme distress, dejected and in disarray. Pat Eatock was clinging onto the wooden ‘Aboriginal Embassy’ sign and the Aboriginal flag. ‘The Embassy is still open,’ she said tearfully, looking around at her kin, ‘The Embassy is here.’ A long meeting followed. Denis Walker, a co-founder of the Australian Black Panther Party, was almost dragged into leadership. He spoke with power and authority. He outlined the goals and the steps to achieve them.

Gary Foley and Mike Anderson joined in the planning. They established a cabinet representing five groups: the Embassy, the students, the Unions, the Churches, and the Public Service.

Supporters then made the short walk from ANU to the ACT Courthouse and Police Station. A line of police protected the building. We had heard that those who had been arrested at the Embassy were to be released on bail. Politicians meanwhile, from both Liberal and Labor camps, made speeches. They were not well received: ‘My husband’s in hospital because of what those police did,’ one woman screamed. ‘I’m not going to listen to you. You don’t know what it’s like being ground into the dirt.’

‘We’re going back,’ said Pat Eatock, ‘and we want you to stay with us. Will you stay with us?’

As each released protestor came out into the sunlight there was much cheering, until it became obvious that all the protesters released thus far were white. The Aboriginal protesters appeared last, with several limping.

The demonstrators proceeded to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, seeking Dr Coombs, Chair of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs, but he was not there. A man emerged alone and said he was temporarily in charge. He said his name was Mr Dexter and asked politely how he could be of help. The crowd, somewhat surprised by this simplicity, moved on.

It should be noted that over ensuing decades of public service, and despite several early hiccups, Barrie Dexter and Gary Foley forged a deep friendship and alliance which was, as Foley put it, ‘a testament to the possibility of genuine reconciliation.’

We moved on to the Queensland Tourist Bureau. A chant against the oppression of Queensland’s Aborigines and Islanders went up. I could sense that something was happening in the crowd close behind me. Someone was fossicking in a large canvas bag, and I thought a flare was about to be thrown. I was wrong. It was a smoke bomb, and it was set off behind me. There was a deafening bang, an acrid blast, and a mushroom-shaped explosion of sugar and nitrate. My hair was burnt, my ears were ringing. There was smoking charcoal on the pavement. Fire on the earth.

 

 

 

Act Three: Canberra, 30 July 1972, the confrontation

I can remember the day but not the date, although it must have been Sunday, 30 July 1972. There were buses and trucks in town, and many more dust covered station-wagons. Shaken by the violence of the previous week, people had come from all over New South Wales and beyond. Many spent the night in the Student Union at ANU. Around midday they set off down Commonwealth Avenue and across Lake Burley Griffin. They were on their way to the lawns in front of Parliament House. They were going to put up the Tent Embassy one more time.

It was a stirring sight. I had gone directly to Parliament House and I could see an advancing column of protesters stretching from one end of the bridge to the other, and all the way back towards City Hill. Banners and flags were flying. Soon the chanting could be heard. It was a kind of Exodus. Young Aborigines had taken the lead. One was walking with her feet bare, perhaps so they could be connected to the land. Another was pushing a pram with a sign on it: “Blood-stained souvenirs for sale”. Some of the young men were carrying stakes and wearing crash helmets.

The Government had declared that the law was to be enforced. Hundreds of uniformed police were waiting beside their buses at the rear of Parliament House. There were two or three vans with tripods and cameramen on the roofs, the cameras trained on the empty lawns. Hundreds of spectators were watching from a safe distance behind the hedges around the building. A sense of apprehension filled the air. The windows of Parliament House were uniformly blank. It felt like many politicians might have been present, if for once anonymous.

The marchers arrived. They were well-organised. They divided into three files to form concentric rings, alternatively marching clockwise and counter-clockwise, as the Tent Embassy was being re-erected at the centre of the circle. We walked in those big rings for some time. The police marched to the front of Parliament House and lined up facing the protestors, as if waiting for further orders.

 

'Around 3 pm, the third hour, we were asked by the Aboriginal leaders to stand and leave. We left the Tent Embassy and its dozen or so Aboriginal occupants sitting passively together. We withdrew a short distance. Three police walked slowly in and, with care and respect, dismantled the Tent, leaving the protestors untouched.' 

 

Nothing happened. We stopped walking and sat down tightly packed against each other on the lawns. The sprinklers must have been turned on that morning and the ground was cold and wet. We waited. One of the organisers urgently called for people to fill in some gaps. A fire truck arrived. Someone said the NSW Police Flying Squad had just arrived. We expected the police were soon going to be ordered to take the Tent down. We had crossed the line this time.

An ultimatum was given via a megaphone: if we did not take the Tent down and leave by 2 pm, we would be arrested. Nobody moved. As the deadline drew near, the people around the Tent became very quiet. I was afraid. I had met up with a friend who was due to fly out a couple of days later to take up a hard-won doctoral scholarship in the USA. ‘Do you think maybe you should go now?’ I asked. ‘You’ve got a plane to catch.’  ‘There’s no place I’d rather be,’ she replied.

The deadline passed. ‘Where are the police?’ someone yelled. ‘Being wound up,’ another answered. Impromptu speeches followed. Gary Foley observed, ‘You may well ask what I am doing at a peaceful demonstration wearing a crash helmet!’ 

It gets dark quite early in Canberra in mid-winter. Someone, I don’t know who, had made some very astute negotiations. Around 3 pm, the third hour, we were asked by the Aboriginal leaders to stand and leave. We left the Tent Embassy and its dozen or so Aboriginal occupants sitting passively together. We withdrew a short distance. Three police walked slowly in and, with care and respect, dismantled the Tent, leaving the protestors untouched. The lawns were then abandoned. Darkness settled.

 

 

 

Act Four: Australia, July 2022, ‘a spiritual notion’

The Tent Embassy has been raised again and again. Much has changed. The Land Rights of First Nations have been recognised. Traditional ownership is acknowledged. White settlers are gradually coming to terms with the reality of invasion and dispossession, as first noted by Captain Cook. Apologies are made. Languages are restored and cultures reclaimed. Reconciliation Action Plans are on every civic and corporate agenda. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders are taking their place in art, music, literature, theatre and sport. They are present in universities, boardrooms and parliaments.

Sovereignty has never been relinquished. Welcome to Country, offered by a traditional owner, is thus an extraordinary act of hospitality and vulnerability, and should never be taken for granted. Would the Irish have offered an unconditional welcome to Oliver Cromwell, or the Ukrainians any kind of welcome to Vladimir Putin? Newcomers should bow their heads in gratitude and wonder.

First Nations delegates are united behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart and committed to ‘the constitutional enshrinement of a First Nations Voice’. They make two important points: first, ‘sovereignty is a spiritual notion’; and, secondly, the ‘dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem’. The Australian Prime Minister, not for the first time, promises a referendum sooner rather than later.

The recent Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia, as its first item of business, ‘says sorry to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in and beyond the Church for the part played by the Church in the harms they have suffered’ and ‘commits to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in continuing to work towards recognition, reconciliation and justice’.

 

'There is a unity at the heart of everything. We are connected to one another much more than we are separate, we are part of nature rather than above nature. Harm to one is harm to all.' 

 

For all these changes we give thanks. But, as a friend and relative from a Cherbourg family recently reminded me, while there might be less ‘getting flogged by burly coppas … more of our boys end up in jail or dead early’. As the Uluru statement puts it, ‘proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet’. There are far too many First Nation children being placed in care away from their kin. There are far too many women suffering violence.

Some white commentators talk about these ‘dimensions of our crisis’ as signs of dysfunction, implying that there is a fault or a problem, an inability of First Nation peoples to fit into ‘normal’ society. The dysfunction, however, may be in white views of what ‘normal’ means: private property, putting self before community, destruction of nature, exclusion of the marginalised.

In a material outlook, things can be divided up: we see ourselves as more separate from one another than as connected with one another, and as more distinct from nature than as part of nature. Materialism diminishes our horizons.

In a spiritual outlook, however, the opposite is the case. There is a unity at the heart of everything. We are connected to one another much more than we are separate, we are part of nature rather than above nature. Harm to one is harm to all. Spirituality opens our eyes and hearts.

Structural reform is a matter for parliaments and policy makers. It is necessary. The referendum is necessary. Get on board. And, as we walk together, spirituality is equally necessary. It opens horizons. We are called to step out of our lanes and to cross lines. Spirituality makes for welcoming, accepting, humility, gratitude, love and hope. Get on board. We are more connected than we are separate. Genuine reconciliation is possible.

 

 

 

[1] See the film Ningla-A-Na at https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/32612931559/ningla-a-na

or the relevant excerpt at https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/aboriginal-tent-embassy-canberra?ref=driverlayer.com.

 


 

John Honner has been contributing to Eureka Street since its inception. He was awarded first-class honours and the University Prize for Chemistry at ANU in 1972. He learned much more by going crab-hunting among mangroves with three widows of Wadeye in 1986.

Main image: Protesters from the embassy on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra, 1972. (Green) 

Topic tags: John Honner, Tent Embassy, Aboriginal Rights, Land Rights, NAIDOC

 

 

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Existing comments

John Honner's reminders of what has been accomplished and his conviction based on significant experience and reflection provide a strong foundation of hope for what is still to be achieved, and encourage confidence that "Genuine reconciliation is possible."


John RD | 29 July 2022  
Show Responses

I'm with John RD on this one. It's taken a long time, and there is still a long way to go, even after a Voice is established, but at least it's no longer Stanner's Great Australian Silence.


Ginger Meggs | 31 July 2022  

Thanks John for this powerful reminder of the passion, courage and imagination of the Aboriginal Leaders who established the Tent Embassy and their supporters in the quest for land rights and recognition. Pat Eatock's plea, "We're going back; we want you to stay with us. Stay with us", resounds. Time now to 'get on board' and ensure the constitutional enshrinement of of the Uluru Statement of the Heart.


Denis Quinn | 31 July 2022  

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