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The Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Category: Event
Date: 26 January 1972
Place:

Old Parliament House, Canberra

State/Country:Australian Capital Territory , Australia
Subject Matter:Cultural Heritage | Land Use | Law - Policy and Justice | Recognition of Traditional Rights and Interests
Summary Information:

On Australia Day 1972, a group of Aboriginal activists established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to protest against the government's refusal to acknowledge Indigenous land rights. 


The activists initially planted a beach umbrella on the lawn of Parliament House and the next day declared the site to be an 'embassy' for Aboriginal people to show that Aboriginal people felt like aliens on their own land (First Peoples' Assembly, 2022). 


The protest gained momentum throughout 1972 and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy became an important meeting place for Indigenous rights activism.

Detailed Information:

Historical Background

During the 1960s, there was increased awareness and activism around Indigenous rights in Australia. This culminated in the 1967 constitutional referendum. The referendum successfully amended the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in national censuses and granted the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws for Aboriginal people.

In 1971, a group of Indigenous claimants argued they had a claim to native title over traditional land where a bauxite mine was going to be built (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd(1971) 17 FLR 141). Their argument was rejected by Justice Blackburn in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory (note: this decision was later overturned byMabo v Queensland (No 2)(1992) 175 CLR 1). This was a source of disappointment and frustration for many rights activists who wanted Indigenous interests in land to be formally recognised by Australian law. Wiradjuri woman Jenny Munro remembers this decision as giving 'extra impetus to the Land Rights campaign', especially in the lead up to the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (Korff, Creative Spirits, 2020).

The 1972 protests

Just prior to Australia Day 1972, the McMahon Coalition Government announced a new Indigenous land rights policy. This allowed Indigenous people to request a 50-year lease over land from the Commonwealth, provided they could demonstrate that they would use the land in a socially and economically viable way.

The policy was criticised by many Indigenous Australians, who viewed it as undermining their legitimate land rights. This led to the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy by four Aboriginal Australians: Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Bert Williams. Indigenous activist Michael Anderson emphasised that 'the land was taken from us by force. We shouldn't have to lease it. Our spiritual beliefs are connected with the land' (Deadly Story).

In February 1972, the activists presented the government with a set of demands relating to land rights. The Coalition government did not respond to the demands, but the Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to discuss the petition, indicating that the Opposition was willing to legislate on Indigenous land rights.

The protest movement gained popularity throughout 1972. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy became a meeting place to advocate for land rights.

In July 1972, activists clashed on two occasions with police who sought to remove the tents. This attracted significant media attention and raised awareness for Indigenous rights. The Coalition government then introduced lawto authorise the removal of the tents and prevent their re-establishment. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was subsequently removed from Parliament House in September 1972.

Legacy

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy continues to raise awareness and support for Indigenous rights in Australia. In 1992, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was permanently re-established on the lawns of Old Parliament House after moving locations numerous times. The Embassy is now a heritage-listed landmark due to its status as a site of Indigenous rights activism.

While the protest movement in 1972 was mainly concerned with land rights, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has become a symbol for broader Indigenous rights. Activist and Yuwaalaraay Gamilaraay woman Frances Peters-Little views the Embassy as 'a place anchored into the psyche of the Australian people a place that recognises Aboriginal people's sovereignty' (Bourchier and Midena, ABC, 2020). The Embassy is also a reminder of the hardships Indigenous people have encountered while advocating for their rights and interests to be recognised by law.

Over the last few decades, other tent embassies have been established throughout Australia as a symbol of Indigenous people's grievances and goals. In 2020, the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy was used as a meeting place to protest against Indigenous deaths in custody.

In 2022, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This presents Australians with an opportunity to reflect on the importance of Indigenous rights activism. According to Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder, Matilda House, the Embassy is 'more relevant than ever' as Indigenous Australians still seek for their rights to be acknowledged by law (Bourchier and Midena, ABC, 2020).


Related Entries

Event
  • The 1967 Referendum
  • Case Law
  • Mabo v Queensland [No 2] (1992) 175 CLR 1
  • Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141

  • References

    General Reference
    Kate Midena and Dan Bourchier (29 June 2020) Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra still 'the ground zero for First Nations people' nearly 50 years on
    Deadly Story Tent Embassy formed
    Jens Korff (12 August 2020) Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra
    National Museum Australia (13 March 2020) Aboriginal Tent Embassy
    National Archives of Australia Activists at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House
    Tim Leslie (27 January 2012) The history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy
    First Peoples' Assembly of Victoria (20/01/2022) 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy with Professor Gary Foley

    Glossary

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Australia)

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