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January 29, 2023

Aboriginal Tent Embassy 1972–2022 – the power of patience

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Establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on Australia Day, 26 January 1972. From left Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Bert Williams and Tony Coorey. Photo by Noel Hazard, courtesy SEARCH Foundation and State Library of NSW.

Eli Cook

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawns opposite Old Parliament House on 26 January 1972. Four First Nations men sat beneath a beach umbrella protesting the government’s attitude towards Indigenous land rights. At the time, the McMahon government was pushing against independent ownership of traditional lands.

The four trailblazers claimed that such a policy would essentially render them aliens within their own lands, emphasising the need for a First Nations embassy. Thus, the ‘Aboriginal Embassy’, as it was known at the time, was born.

From these four men, and the women who stood beside them, a movement grew. From a humble beach umbrella came widespread support and a broader national appreciation for the struggles of First Nations people. This movement and the actions of those four men had a major influence on the establishment of Aboriginal land rights and the fight to end racial discrimination in this country.

As the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy draws near, the attention of the nation is again being drawn to the lawns of Old Parliament House. However, this time the actions of the few do not encompass the views and needs of First Nations people more broadly. Such actions do very little for the legacy of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as its history and prestige are being used as a shield by people with little care for Indigenous advancement.

Conspiracy theories

This is a group who are fueled by conspiracy theories and motivated by the anti-vax movement. The demonstrations are driven by predominantly white agitators who hide behind the veil of First Nations people and Aboriginal rights to push their own agenda. Sadly, Indigenous people have become the faces for this movement, tarnishing 50 years of hard work and progress. Lessening a 234-year struggle for equality and recognition.

Disrespect

These Indigenous faces have disrespected the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional owners of the land in which they protest. Their ‘peaceful’ demonstration has degenerated into almost daily skirmishes with the Australian Federal Police and the shocking vandalism of Old Parliament House itself.

Such actions are not beneficial to First Nations people. They disenfranchise individuals who are starting to show their support for First Nations causes and create frustration for those working to make real progress at a grassroots level.

Sadly, these individuals are demonstrating little more than an overinflated sense of self-importance. They are more interested in preserving their so-called ‘freedoms’ – and to remain unvaccinated while the rest of us do our part to protect and care for our communities. They are more interested in themselves than anything else.

Integrity and hard work the key

In contrast to the demonstrations currently taking place in Canberra, those who have sought change in the past, and have ultimately succeeded, have done so through integrity and hard work. Change has never been achieved through violence. People like Vincent Lingiari saw the importance of peaceful protest. He saw the power of patience and the need for resilience in a struggle that would last for generations. Men like Eddie Koiki Mabo whose fight for justice ultimately outlived himself.

As the dust settles on the scenes we have been seeing in Canberra, it is important to remember that the views expressed by this small, yet loud group of protesters do not represent the views of all First Nations people. We must remember the foundations of the Aboriginal Tent embassy, what it stood for and what it still stands for, despite the belligerent and ill-informed actions of these few.

As 26 January 2022 approaches and emotions remain high, we must remember what those four men and their beach umbrella were trying to achieve. Let us reflect on the progress we have made, and consider the work that is still to be done.


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