The Tent Embassy and the Indigenous rights struggle in Australia

Fifty years after the Tent Embassy was set up in Canberra, First Nations still face rights violations and abuse.

Activists Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey stand outside Parliament House, Canberra on January 27, 1972
Activists Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey stand outside Parliament House, Canberra on January 27, 1972 [File: State Library of New South Wales/Wikipedia]

At one o’clock in the morning on January 26, 1972, four men set up a beach umbrella on the lawns across from Australia’s Parliament House, sat down and waited for the city to wake up.

Those four men – Billy Craigie, Michael Anderson, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey – were protesting against the Australian government’s opposition to the First Nations land rights movement. They did not know that this simple act would mark the beginning of the longest-running protest in Australian history.

It was the start of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a symbolic “embassy” to represent the interests and struggles of First Nations people against the colonial entity that had displaced them since British colonisation began in 1788.

Today, the Embassy is celebrating its 50th anniversary, as Australia continues to deny Indigenous people their basic rights. Mining, gas, forestry and pastoral companies continue to occupy First Nations lands, destroying sacred sites and cultural heritage. First Nations communities and Traditional Owners have almost no legal recourse against these incursions. That is why the Embassy and other forms of First Nations resistance are more needed than ever.

Resisting colonial narratives

For First Nations peoples in Australia, January 26 is a day fraught with painful and insulting associations. It marks the day the British Empire’s First Fleet of 11 ships dropped anchor in what is now Sydney Harbour and the unofficial beginning of the penal colony of New South Wales.

It was not until 150 years later that the anniversary was widely celebrated as “Australia Day” across the former colonies, which united into a federation in 1901. The government commemorated the 1988 bicentennial anniversary with lavish celebrations, including a full-scale re-enactment of the First Fleet entering Sydney Harbour. Since then, successive governments have turned January 26 into one of Australia’s national touchstones – a day of near-mandatory celebration.

For as long as the colonial narrative around January 26 has been imposed from above, First Nations people have been resisting it, using the anniversary to draw attention to the ongoing dispossession and violence that began in 1788.

On January 26, 1938, the first Day of Mourning was marked in Sydney by the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association, protesting against “the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years” and demanding “policy which will raise our people to full citizens status and equality within the community”.

It was in that tradition that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was founded in 1972. It quickly drew the attention of local police, who approached the four men in the early hours of the morning and encouraged them to leave. When told that the protest was in support of land rights for First Nations people, one of the officers replied, “That could be forever.”

Word spread, and the Embassy grew quickly. As people from all over the country travelled to Canberra to sit on the lawns and show support, the Embassy issued statements demanding compensation for stolen lands, a government acknowledgement of First Nations sovereignty, and the preservation of sacred sites. Foreign diplomats turned up to pay respects, as did the international media. At its biggest, the Embassy housed more than 2,000 people.

As the Embassy’s profile grew, so did the push from the government and police to shut it down. In July 1972, police officers attacked the protesters several times, making indiscriminate arrests and causing widespread injuries. While the tents were uprooted, public anger at the police’s actions drew more attention to the Embassy’s cause, and seriously embarrassed the government.

The Embassy’s physical location eventually moved into local housing, but its impact on Australia’s consciousness was just beginning. Along with the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off, in which Indigenous workers and their families went on strike in the Northern Territory and won back rights to their land, and the Eddie Mabo court case, in which an Australian court ruled in favour of Indigenous land rights, it is now regarded as one of the pivotal moments in the history of the First Nations land rights movement.

On the 20th anniversary of its founding in 1992, the Embassy was permanently re-established on the original site opposite Old Parliament House, where it remains today. In 1995, it was listed on the Register of the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Council, in recognition of the political significance the site holds for First Nations people.

Lack of progress

Throughout its history, the Embassy has faced a number of attacks and attempts to dismantle it, but it has survived. Today it is celebrating its 50th anniversary, amid calls for Australia Day to be abolished or renamed Invasion Day.

While Australian politicians have adopted the language of First Nations empowerment and “reconciliation”, the underlying issues of dispossession, state violence and sovereignty remain largely off-limits. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an historic apology to the Stolen Generations – First Nations children kidnapped from their families by successive governments and placed in state homes and church missions. Since then, however, the removal of First Nations children from their families has continued.

This gap between symbolic government gestures and the lack of tangible change for First Nations people came into focus in 2012, when then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott suggested that the “sense of grievance” that motivated the Embassy’s establishment had largely dissipated, and that it was time for First Nations people to “move on”. Abbott went on to become prime minister.

Despite this official hostility, the Embassy has quietly advanced the cause of First Nations justice in myriad ways. Many of the most successful and influential First Nations activists in Australia’s colonial history first joined the struggle on the Parliamentary lawns in 1972. They went on to careers in public service, advocacy, and First Nations representative bodies like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

The Embassy has also become an unofficial one-stop shop for First Nations advocates looking to advance their causes in Canberra. Activists from around the country who make the long journey to the capital – often from remote communities in the Northern Territory and Western Australia – receive across-the-board assistance from Embassy activists, who arrange everything – from advice and contacts to accommodation and transport.

All that activity will soon go into overdrive. As Australia goes to a federal election in 2022, the Embassy and First Nations activists across the country will be pushing for the issues of land rights, truth-telling and inequality to be front and centre.

Traditional Owners across the Top End – Australia’s tropical north – are fighting massive proposed gas exploration projects on their sacred lands. Following the 2019 destruction of sacred caves by mining conglomerate Rio Tinto at Juukan Gorge, advocates are pushing to overhaul Australia’s laws protecting First Nations cultural heritage. And skyrocketing COVID-19 rates in Aboriginal communities have highlighted the ongoing neglect of basic health, infrastructure and social services.

As Clayton Simpson-Pitt, a Ualaroi, Kamilaroi and Weilwan man, and a Tent Embassy ambassador summed up in a recent conversation, “We still don’t have land rights. We’re still renting our own land. We’ve got tribal Elders renting the same houses they’ve been in since the 1960s. Everything we were fighting for back then, we’re still fighting for today.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.