50 Years On, The Aboriginal Tent Embassy Is More Important Than Ever

The Tent Embassy is a living reminder of the joy and solidarity that First Nations people continue to find in each other - and it's something worth celebrating.

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You will not catch me saying this very often, but this year, January 26 actually marks an anniversary worth celebrating.

Let me explain.

As is now tradition in the colony, mid-to-late January means it’s time for yet another round of dickhead politicians pretending that Invasion Day is a day of barbecues and getting pissed in backyards. If you see Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese talking about how calling it Invasion Day is “divisive” while you’re out for a walk or something, you have my personal permission to dack them. I’ll write you a note.

I don’t want to go over all that again. Junkee has already published a lot of stuff on the real history of January 26, why the real issues and prejudices affecting First Nations people are more important than endless ‘change the date’ debates, and how non-Indigenous people can contribute to the fight for justice and equality in more tangible ways besides showing up for a protest.

But in 2022, January 26 marks the anniversary of something wonderful. On January 26, 1972 — 50 years ago — four guys drove from Sydney to Canberra in the middle of the night, parked outside Parliament House, stuck a beach umbrella in the grass across the road, and sat down.

That was the unassuming (and, frankly, awesome) start of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy — one of the longest-running protests in world history, and one of the biggest and best examples of First Nations resistance to the ongoing colonial project.

If you went to Canberra on a school excursion, you probably got a glimpse of the Tent Embassy across the road from Old Parliament House, which is now the Museum of Australian Democracy. That’s where the four Aboriginal activists — Billie Craigie, Michael Anderson, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey — originally set up their beach umbrella, and it’s still there today.

But it has an inspiring and fascinating history – one that everyone should know.

“That Could Be Forever”

Billy McMahon is not one of Australia’s most beloved former PMs. Besides being regularly named on Worst Prime Minister lists and fathering actor, model and Charmed cast member Julian McMahon, he’s mostly remembered for losing the 1972 election to Gough Whitlam, ending 23 years of Coalition government.

But in a roundabout way, McMahon’s greatest legacy is accidentally creating the Tent Embassy – by having such a terrible land rights policy that activists felt compelled to act.

At the time, McMahon’s government was refusing calls from First Nations activists to recognise land rights or Native Title. Instead, McMahon proposed a system where First Nations people could apply for 99-year leaseholds in the Northern Territory. Under the terms of those leases, mining, pastoral and forestry companies would still have first right of access to First Nations land.

It was in response to McMahon’s abysmal proposal that the beach umbrella was first set up. It hadn’t been there more than a few hours before local cops came down and asked the protesters 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“.

Even as the government and police tried to dislodge the Embassy, public awareness and support began to grow. Foreign dignitaries from the Soviet Union came down to pay respects, and the Irish Republican Army gifted the Embassy a symbolic linen handkerchief.

More importantly, First Nations and non-Indigenous people around the country started travelling to Canberra to join up. More and more tents began filling the Parliamentary lawns. At one point, the Embassy was estimated to have hosted around 2,000 people.

At one point, the Embassy was estimated to have hosted around 2,000 people.

The Embassy formulated a list of demands to Parliament, including the preservation of sacred sites, a government acknowledgement of First Nations sovereignty, and compensation for stolen lands. Then-Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam met with Embassy diplomats and went on to criticise McMahon’s attempts to have the Embassy disbanded.

Eventually, the Government sent in the cops. Dozens of activists were injured and many were arrested during several confrontations, during which police used indiscriminate violence. While the ACT Supreme Court eventually ruled that the Embassy couldn’t be evicted, a heavy police presence forced the activists to temporarily abandon the original site.

“We Still Don’t Have Land Rights”

The Embassy was physically disbanded, but what had been created couldn’t be undone by taking down a few tents. For months, First Nations activists and campaigners like Gary Foley, Chicka Dixon, and Mum Shirl Smith had been working together, debating new ways of advancing First Nations rights and trying out novel ways of political engagement.

Clayton Simpson-Pitt is a Ualaroi, Kamilaroi and Weilwan man, and a Tent Embassy ambassador who is helping organise the 50th-anniversary commemoration. He’s also related to Michael Anderson, one of the Embassy’s co-founders.

“Our people were right there, in their faces.”

“A lot of the benefits we’ve seen over the years have come from the work of the Tent Embassy,” Simpson-Pitt says. “Our people were right there, in their faces. Some of those Embassy founders ended up becoming highly respected public servants. They played a role in the development of bodies like the National Aboriginal Council and The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.”

Besides the work the Embassy has done behind the scenes, it has become a place of immense significance in the First Nations justice movement. It runs entirely on donations, and is instrumental in connecting First Nations campaigners with the people they need to meet in Canberra to advance their cause.

“There’s a beautiful community behind the Embassy. People go down there to meet, have yarns, volunteer where they can,” Simpson-Pitt says. “As a young person, it’s really rewarding, getting involved in maintaining that legacy and carrying on the work of the founders.”

That connection to the foundation in 1972 is still strong. In the lead-up to January 26, the Embassy has raised funds for Embassy founders and their family members to travel to Canberra so they can take part in the commemorations.

“I see it as a generational thing,” Simpson-Pitt says. “We’re seeing a resurgence in the Aboriginal rights movement. More people are getting involved, wanting to learn about their own history. January 26 is an important date for Aboriginal people across the country. It marks 50 years of resistance and strategising for the years ahead.”

There’s still plenty of work for the Embassy to do. Fifty years after its foundation, Parliament is still resisting reforms like implementing a truth and justice commission, giving Traditional Owners true land rights, and protecting First Nations cultural heritage.

“We still don’t have land rights across Australia, particularly in New South Wales,” Simpson-Pitt says. “There’s no guarantee that we’ll ever own our homes or our land. There haven’t been substantial enough changes. That’s a big part of why the Embassy’s still going.”

January 26 is a pretty awful day for lots of reasons. It marks the start of dispossession, theft, and ongoing trauma that First Nations people still endure. But it also marks the start of resistance — of the joy and solidarity that First Nations people continue to find in each other. The Tent Embassy is a living reminder of that — and it’s something worth celebrating.

Learn more about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s 50th anniversary commemorations here. Donate to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy here.

Larissa Baldwin is a Widjabul woman from the Bundjalung Nations and GetUp’s First Nations Justice Campaign Director.

Photo Credit: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images