Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra

A couple of weeks ago, I spent three days in Canberra attending a conference about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy ... and I'm pretty sure it's the best conference I've been involved in! So, here's a bit of a report back, featuring: a brief history of the Tent Embassy; a rave about how good the conference was, and; some more structured reflections on the 'cities and citizenship' themes that emerged from the conference.

Sign and Sacred Fire next to Tent Embassy, 2011

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first established on Jan 26, 1972, when four Aboriginal activists - Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Bertie Williams - hopped in a car with a non-Aboriginal photographer from Tribune (newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia) and drove from Sydney to Canberra, planted a beach umbrella on the lawns across the road from the Commonwealth Parliament House, and called it an Embassy. They were responding to a speech on Aboriginal affairs given by Prime Minister William McMahon on Jan 25, in which he had rejected any moves towards recognition of Aboriginal Land Rights. They were soon joined by plenty of other Land Rights supporters from around the country, black and white, many of whom camped in the tents that had been established on the site.

Like many successful  protests, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy involved organisation, imagination and a little luck. The brilliant idea of pitching a Tent Embassy hijacked all the symbolic 'national significance' attached to this small patch of grass by the Australian state and media, and put it to work for radically different purposes. It enacted the kind of Land Rights which the activists were seeking, and it did so in a way that also drew attention to the living conditions of so many Aboriginal people across Australia. It also helped that Aboriginal people were exempt from laws prohibiting camping on Crown Land in the Commonwealth-administered Territories!

Six months later in July 1972, the Commonwealth Government quietly passed an ordinance closing this legal loophole, and the Australian Federal Police moved in (you can see some dramatic footage of this event here, from the film Ningla A-Na). As Roberta Sykes pointed out in one of the films screened at the conference (Tent Embassy, 1992), the same police officers who had shared cups of tea in the Tent with activists now wielded fists and helmets against activists who were linking arms to protect the Embassy, and several activists (including Paul Coe) ended up in hospital. Images of police violence circulated around the country, and within days hundreds more activists had travelled to Canberra in support of the Embassy. A new tent was re-erected and removed by police several times over the next few weeks (you can go here for a blow by blow account, and Gary Foley's Koori Web has some fantastic historical resources here).

The Tent Embassy outlasted the Government. By the end of 1972, McMahon had been voted out, and Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (who had visited the Embassy as Opposition Leader) had been elected. For the next 20 years, the Embassy site was re-occupied every now and then for protests. On its 20th anniversary, it was permanently re-established, as part of an on-going struggle for recognition of Aboriginal Land Rights and sovereignty. It is still there, and will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. Recently, the Embassy has hosted several protests against the Commonwealth intervention in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

The Conference

Anyways, the conference was brilliant. Michael Anderson, Isobel Coe, Paul Coe, Pat Eatock, Gary Foley, and Sam Watson -- all of whom were Aboriginal activists involved in the Tent Embassy in 1972 -- took the stage on the first day at the National Film and Sound Archive. They provided some powerful reflections on their experiences of the Embassy after we all watched the film Ningla A'Na. That film documented the police attacks on the Embassy in July 1972, and contextualized the Embassy within an examination of the wider politics of self-determination and Black Power that was emerging in Sydney and other places at the time. (Three short clips from the film are available via the NFSA website here. Further clips from the film, including an especially good one of Paul Coe setting out the case for Black Power, are available via Gary Foley's Koori History Website here.) It was pretty amazing to see and listen to these folks, having just seen their younger selves in action in 1972. They also talked about what had (and had not) changed in the intervening period -- especially the lack of progress on Land Rights, the problems with Native Title legislation, and the on-going political importance of self-determination and sovereignty as goals for Aboriginal politics.

On the second day the symposium moved to Old Parliament House, and Aboriginal academics Gordon Briscoe, Tony Birch, John Maynard and Nicole Watson along with historian Ann Curthoys presented a series of great papers in the morning that explored the trajectories in Aboriginal politics that had both preceded and followed the 1972 Embassy (there's more details on some of these below). After those papers and discussions, a real highlight for me was a talk given by Ray Peckham - an 80+ year-old Aboriginal activist and unionist who, according to Gary Foley, has the largest ASIO file of any Aboriginal person in Australia (!). Among other things, he talked about his experiences in the trade union movement as a builders labourer in the NSW Branch of the Builders Laborers' Federation, which I found particularly fascinating given my current interest in the green bans. This was followed by a second film screening (Tent Embassy, 1992) which documented the re-occupation of the Tent Embassy site by Aboriginal activists (including Billy Craigie, Isobel Coe, Kevin Gilbert and Charles Perkins) in 1992.

On the third day, a few non-Aboriginal academics (me, Fiona Nicoll and Jennifer Balint) presented some papers, all of which focused on actions associated with the Tent Embassy in recent years -- including the Genocide case brought to the ACT Supreme Court in the late 1990s, the recent march by Tent Embassy activists as part of war memorial commemorations on ANZAC to remember those who fell during domestic battles over land in Australia, and the on-going (and failed) efforts by the Commonwealth Government to remove the Embassy.

By the time I talked on the third day, I'd had a chance to listen to some incredible activists and thinkers. In between sessions and over dinner on both nights, I'd also had opportunities to meet some of them, pay my respect, and quiz them with questions. I know this word is over-used, but it really was a humbling experience. And I realise now that this was a very deliberate part of the organisation of the conference, which was designed to ensure that the pioneering Aboriginal activists commanded the biggest stages during the event, and that there were opportunities for respectful relationships to be built between activists and academics as the symposium progressed.

So, as they say, mad props to Andy Schaap and Shino Konishi who organised the event, I feel so lucky to have been involved. The only disappointing thing about the conference for me was that Andy himself didn't present a paper! He's done some fantastic work on the Tent Embassy, drawing on the political theory of Jacques Ranciere, which was our reason for first making contact with each other a while back. Check it!

Cities, Citizenship and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The discussions during the conference ranged across plenty of different issues, but a few stand out for me from a 'cities and citizenship' perspective.

First, and I guess most obviously, the Tent Embassy is a very powerful instance of urban space being put to work to stage a series of claims about the meaning of Australian citizenship. Claims like the 1972 five point plan for Aboriginal Land Rights, and the 1998 Genocide case in the ACT Supreme Court all emerged directly from the Tent Embassy. (And as Jennifer Balint noted in her paper, some of the evidence in that amazing 1998 case was heard at the Embassy. It clearly made an impact: while the judge found that no crime of genocide existed in Australian domestic law, he also concluded that "if such an offence formed part of the domestic law of Australia ... There is ample evidence to satisfy me that acts of genocide were committed during the colonisation of Australia". You can read the judgment here.) The Tent Embassy has served as a space through which Aboriginal people have challenged the very sovereignty on which Australian citizenship is founded. And it has inspired similar protests in other significant times and places, like the Camp Sovereignty protest in Melbourne staged during the Commonwealth Games (a protest Tony Birch talked about in his paper).

Second, there was lots of discussion about the Embassy itself as a space of political formation and education. Several people had recollections about the political education they received in their time camping at the Embassy, and the influence of this event on the rest of their lives. This particular site played a huge role as a place where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists from all over Australia came together to share their experiences and perspectives, and to debate future directions.  Legendary Aboriginal activist Mum Shirl said in her autobiography that her time at the Tent Embassy was:
the beginning of a whole new road for me, another education, and learning about politics. If I was going to think of a sign along the road of my life that marked, for me, the beginning of militant Black Power politics, that sign would have printed on it-Aboriginal Embassy.
Third, lots of the discussion pointed towards the importance of cities more generally in the formation of pan-Aboriginal politics in Australia. This is something that Gary Foley has written about in his history thesis on the emergence of Black Power politics in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern from 1968-1972. In Redfern (Sydney), Aboriginal people from all over the place were coming together, sharing their experiences of oppression in rural NSW and beyond. Through bookshops like Bob Gould's Third World Bookshop, and through connections between Aboriginal dock workers and African-American seamen, Aboriginal people were increasingly exposed to Black Power and Black Panther material. Gradually, a group of activists started experimenting with self-determination and Black Power politics - in the form Aboriginal-run services like school breakfast programs and the Aboriginal Legal Service.

The conference added to my knowledge of the urban dimensions of Aboriginal political formation in a few ways. John Maynard gave an amazing paper about the earlier emergence of black nationalist politics in Australia via the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association in the 1920s, with strong connections to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, showing that the 1960s/70s was not the first time that distinct forms of Aboriginal politics influenced by African-Americans had happened in urban Australia. I had a chat to him about this, and he was keen to emphasise that although the rural-urban migration of Aboriginal people was crucial in the formation of this movement, it was the experience of dispossession and rural/mission life that drove many of those involved to get political. Sam Watson, an original Embassy activist, talked in the opening panel discussion about how he and small group of others had formed a branch of the Black Panther Party in Brisbane, illegally obtaining political material via dockworkers. And Michael Anderson, Gary Foley, Ray Peckham and Ann Curthoys presented some great stories about the important role played by the Communist Party of Australia and various trade unions (especially the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation and the Waterside Workers Federation) in helping Aboriginal activists to hook up with sympathetic white folks who could provide material and moral support for their efforts. For instance, Foley remembered being given a union ticket by the NSW BLF, which meant he could show up to lunch time meetings on building sites across the city, updating BLs on the struggle and passing around a bucket for donations to keep the Embassy going.


So, there it is. I'm looking forward to being part of the 40th anniversary events in January next year...!


  1. I was a visitor to Australia from Scotland to attend The National Folk Festival in Canberra. During my stay I took photos of the Tent Embassy. It gave me another perspective.

    Music has taken me to places I might not otherwise visit and I often document these in both writing and photographs. (I edit a music magazine called The Living Tradition) I now have an idea to connect our musical perspectives with local people and issues. Not sure why, it just seems a good thing to do. I wondered if the Tent Embassy was still there. I see that it is. Not sure why - but that is perhaps why it is worth connecting people interested in one aspect of culture with local communities.

  2. This is the photo I took of the Tent Embassy. It was taken in 2002.

  3. Thanks for the comment and the link to the pic Pete ... !

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