Aboriginal Tent Embassy remembered


By Kristian Whittaker

CANBERRA - On April 17, about 150 people gathered on the site of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of the Old Parliament House to mark the site's entry into the Register of the National Estate, Australia's official listing of natural and cultural heritage places.

The forecourt lawns became the focus of national attention in 1972, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples set up camp to highlight their long struggle for land rights in Australia.

The ceremony was hosted by Matilda House, chairperson of the Ngunnawal Land Council, on whose land Australia's national capital is situated.

Joan Wingfield, representing the nominees, made the point that since they were forced to highlight their cause by occupying the site in 1972, 95% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have still not had their land rights recognised. Wingfield conveyed messages of support from North American indigenous peoples' organisations and from the Saamis of Scandinavia, as well as numerous solidarity messages from communities and land councils within Australia.

Kep Enderby, a former Whitlam government minister, began by saying that members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movement alone deserve the lion's share of credit for any gains made prior to and since 1972. He then proceeded to eulogise the 1972-75 Whitlam Labor government.

Chicka Dickson was a wharfie when the Aboriginal Embassy was set up in 1972, but had soon joined Billy Craig, Michael Anderson, Tony Koori and Bernie Wiggans at the site. Chicka recalled how, aside from the serious work undertaken at the embassy, the protesters had enjoyed themselves by taking the piss out of "the system" by handing each other "portfolios", painting the sign "Aboriginal Embassy: No Parking" on the kerb and exchanging salutes when receiving the morning newspaper.

More seriously, Chicka recalled the police arriving in force on July 23, 1972. Sixty Kooris linked arms around the embassy but the police hit them hard, savagely kicking, beating up and arresting the protesters even under the glare of television news cameras.

By July 30 the embassy had set up again, however. "The police didn't hit us then; they'd learned a bit and discovered that whenever they hit us they united us. We pulled the tent down but enjoyed the moral victory."

Isabel Coe requested a few minutes of silence to remember all the many deceased fighters for the movement. Coe spoke of how she, together with Harold and Bindy Williams and Sonya Laughton-Brown had been arrested on January 27, 1992, after 80 Kooris had occupied Old Parliament House itself while re-establishing the Tent Embassy.

Tony Koori gave a short, moving speech calling for unity and a "return to the spirit of 1972".

Billy Craigie gave a powerful talk, saying that one major significance of the site was that it "showed white power just how powerful we can be when united. We stood our ground and we fought them." He pointed out that the major problem with government money is that "Aboriginal people have little say about how it's spent".

Wayne Gray and Paul House then scattered sacred ochre about the site. Ruth and Kerrie Reid-Gilbert read poems.

Denis Walker said he saw the events of 1972 as a breakthrough, and felt that the handing over of this territory was a consolidation of that breakthrough. However, he warned that "there are still a lot of tokenisms going on".

"The Tent Embassy broke through this crap", said Walker. "The lesson was not to play the white man's game", and what is needed now is to "take a quantum leap back to our elders in council and our customary laws and work from that basis".

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