Tent Embassy ceremonial fire desecrated

Wednesday, February 24, 1999 - 11:00

By Kim Bullimore

CANBERRA — On the orders of parliamentary officials, federal police again attacked a peaceful protest by members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House on February 15.

Police violently wrenched spears, representing the spirit of dead embassy warriors, from their widows. Other women protesters ran to the aid of the women, but were violently thrown to the ground.

The white spirit spears, along with the 211 others representing 211 years of genocide, were taken and thrown with little respect into a waiting vehicle. After dousing the ceremonial fire, police removed the logs and most of the ashes, completely desecrating the site. Two supporters of the embassy were arrested.

The protest followed the failure of the minister for reconciliation, Philip Ruddock, to keep an appointment with embassy elders earlier that morning.

Michael Anderson, one of the people who originally established the Tent Embassy, told supporters, "We will take the fight and the protest up to the hill".

Within hours of the failed meeting, the fire was re-lit and surrounded by the 211 ceremonial spears which had been returned after being taken the previous week, as well as the spirit spears.

Prior to the attack, a representative from the National Capital Authority told the protesters that they needed to apply for permission for the fire and spears. He was informed that the embassy had permission from the oldest traditional owner of the land, Aunty Tiny Connors, and that white permission was not needed for the fire ceremony.

"We are exercising our freedom of religion ... You don't interrupt the worship of others", Aboriginal elder Wadjularbinna said.

Isobel Coe added, "We are in ceremony ... the spears represent our dead. When you take away the firesticks, you take away their spirit". The permission application was then burned in the ceremonial fire by Clarrie Issacs.

Shortly after the desecration of the fire, Green Senator Bob Brown visited the site and said that the taking of the spears was a reminder of what has happened over the last 200 years. "Howard is talking about putting God in the constitution, but he attacks the religion of Aboriginal people", Brown noted.

The fire was visited for the first time by a commissioner from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Geoff Clark. Clark said that the protest was the legitimate action of an oppressed people and condemned the police and government attack as "totally unnecessary".

Members of the National Indigenous Working Group, ATSIC and land councils and the head of reconciliation, Evelyn Scott, also visited the embassy to show support. The embassy has also received support from unions and trades and labour councils.

Embassy members returned to the lawns of Parliament House on February 17 and speared an Australian flag. The embassy is considering calling a national day of action in support of the Tent Embassy for March 12. To offer support or help organise a rally in your city, phone (02) 6273 7472 or (02) 6295 0493.

From GLW issue 350