Despite heavy police intimidation and media racism, the Nyoongar Tent Embassy at Matagarup, otherwise known as Heirisson Island in Perth, is still standing strong.
The Tent Embassy was founded by local Aboriginal people to voice dissent against a proposed deal with the state government that would include giving up native title rights.
The embassy is also about asserting Aboriginal sovereignty. Embassy participant Iva Hayward-Jackson told Green Left Weekly the embassy is about asserting Nyoongar sovereignty and protecting sacredness of Aboriginal culture.
“We have support from all corners of Nyoongar society now,” he said.
“People who in the past have not got on are all joining together in unity now. They are standing together for the protection of this site, for the protection of the embassy and protection of our laws, traditions and customs.”
Matagarup is in the middle of the causeway that crosses the Swan River linking Perth's CBD and Victoria Park. It is a registered Aboriginal site.
In the past, Perth City Council has paid lip service to supporting Aboriginal rights in relation to the area. For instance, in the 2009 Heirisson Island “sculpture park” plan, it wrote: “In particular, the contribution of the local Aboriginal groups associated with the area will be highly valued in the refinement and enrichment of the design.”
But when Aboriginal people came to practise their culture and assert their rights on the island, the response of Perth City Council has been consistently aggressive and disrespectful.
After several threats in the preceding few days, armed police came in large numbers on February 19 in a dawn raid to force the Tent Embassy to remove cars and tents from the site. Even though this was an attempt to break the embassy, people were not asked to leave the island.
In response, Tent Embassy protesters built traditional shelters from tree branches. Two days later, tents went back up again.
On February 23, police returned to again force people to take down their tents. They caused particular offence by deliberately extinguishing the embassy’s sacred fire. One person was arrested and several tents were confiscated.
In an act of defiance, one tent was re-erected that same night in front of the media.
Police returned the next day and again removed the tents. A public car park near the embassy site has been closed, making access to and from the embassy more difficult. Police forced people to move their cars and one car was impounded.
The police and Perth City Council claim that embassy staff are breaking council by-laws by erecting tents on Matagarup. However, the Nyoongar Embassy is simply asserting Aboriginal sovereignty. Nyoongar people have the right to practice their culture as they please on their land.
Even under existing law, Matagarup is a registered Aboriginal site. Forcing people to pull down their tents is also an obvious attack on the symbolism of the embassy, as the phrase “Tent Embassy” does not make sense without tents.
The embassy has fought back by continually standing up to the intimidation and aggression. On February 21, an important protest march to government house was organised, demanding recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty over the south-west of the state. The protest marched on the road, stopping traffic.
On February 22, the Socialist Alliance and Resistance organised a forum titled “Why Aboriginal people are right to resist”. Thirty people attended the forum, which was addressed by Aboriginal woman Natasha Moore from Socialist Alliance and Eddie Ware from the Tent Embassy. Socialist Alliance members have visited and slept at the Embassy every day since February 14.
Occupy Perth has held one general assembly meeting at Matagarup and has encouraged others to support the cause.
In particular, the embassy needs firewood, ice, mosquito repellent, foam mattresses and old tents.
The embassy now has a letterbox and street sign. People wishing to write letters of support can send them to 1 Nyoongar Way, Matagarup (Heirisson Island) WA 6004.