Roger Keyes, South Australia Regional Meeting.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, adjacent to Old Parliament House in Canberra, achieved the milestone of 40 years in the political landscape. Erected on 27 January 1972 by Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams (known as Kevin Johnson) and Tony Koorie, the Tent Embassy has iconic political status and has inspired, educated and informed Aboriginal people and others from Australia and overseas. The first protest on the site was by Wiradjuri men, Jimmy Clements and John Noble, at the opening of Parliament House in 1927.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established in 1992 and has been permanently occupied ever since. The sacred Fire for Peace and Justice in the centre of the site has been tended since being first made by Arabunna Elder Kevin Buzzacott and lit by Paul Coe Wiradjuri in 1998.
I went to Canberra not knowing what to expect. The website said there would be camping facilities, and we would self-cater. I purchased a one-person tent, self-inflating mattress and some cans of stew, and hoped there would be water and Porta-loos on site. I took the Greyhound coach overnight to Canberra and got breakfast after the cafe opened at 6:30 am. There were no showers in the National Capital’s Bus Station.
After 9:30 am I saw quite a number of Aboriginal people and supporters at the rendezvous not far away. I was glad to put my kit aboard a vehicle to be taken to the camp site. I was very tired, but glad to be asked to carry one of the Embassy banners. I spoke with Les Malezer (co-chair of National Congress of First Nations for QLD), and Congress members Brian Butler (SA) and Dennis Eggington (WA), who is the brother of Robert Eggington of Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation who with his wife Selina spoke to us at YM in Perth of their work in the area of Youth suicide.
The March was non-violent and peaceful, which mainstream media neglected to report. Marchers expressed frustration and anger at 224 years of illegal and violent foreign occupation. The theme of the march was a call for the recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of the First Nations of this land. There was much anger expressed at the theft of resources and the alienation of the People from their Land.
As we approached Capital Hill it was decided by the marshals that we would divert our course to the Embassy opposite Old Parliament House then visit the present Parliament House. This was incident free and after a short stay we turned back to the Embassy. By this time I was feeling pretty worn, not having brought water, and after my less than perfect night’s sleep.
When we arrived at the Embassy hundreds of tents had been erected, some quite extensive. Most were small one- or two-person tents whose occupants relied on catering for at what might be called a ‘food hall under canvas’. The small number of volunteers were kept very busy with cooking, cleaning, dish washing, garbage and recycling tasks, watering the Porta-loos and so on. I had brought my own supplies. My ‘next-door-neighbour’ had had an Esky with bacon and eggs, so at her insistence, I fared a little better than I might have with only my tins.
I spent a good deal of time talking with Whitefella supporters, and trying to decide whether to attend the celebration. I felt that this might be something at which Whitefellas had no real place. Over the past 224 years we have so readily believed that we know what to do and how to do it. In the end I responded to the invitation that had been generously extended, but I was nevertheless reticent to do more than stand with the First Nations’ appeal for respect for their sovereignty. I had learnt this at Hindmarsh Island Bridge when Ngarrindjeri elders invited us to ‘stand with’ them. Problems arise when terms like ‘help’ or ‘advise’ gain currency. White supremacy is the underlying assumption but what was called for was respectful acknowledgement of First Nations’ Sovereignty.
There were numerous musical and rhetorical expressions of this aspiration from the main stage. I did not hear some of this as there was discussion in small groups and so much going on. There was much discussion on the second day, Friday 27 January, the actual birthday of the Tent Embassy, in the Big Tent. At one point a clear call was made by one, and agreed to by a number of the Nations’ elders, for a National Council of Elders without Federal or State Government involvement. Many among the First Nations see the newly created Congress, which is under the auspices of the government, as not sufficiently independent and self-determining. I felt increasingly uncomfortable sitting among the people in the tent, because I felt that Whitefellas presence might be frustrating or embarrassing to those who wanted to speak out strongly against our interference in Aboriginal life.
Other elders called for caution, patient waiting until they caught up with those who had been able to re-establish their cultures, their connection to Country, and their languages. There were many different aspirations. It was felt, I believe, that a Council of elders from around the Nations, away from the Federal Minister, might well address the problems being faced in the Big Tent.
At length there was a request that non-Aboriginal people should leave the gathering, so that First Nations people could feel freer to make their statements.
On the same day an incident at the Lobby Restaurant Cafe was portrayed by mainstream media as violent. I was not nearby, but I am assured that there was no violent protest; nobody was in any danger. Federal Police have laid no charges. Burning a flag by young people was not good public relations and regrettable. That is not the first time that the Australian flag has been maltreated, and it was symbolic, not causing actual harm.
I was frustrated that the mainstream media did not cover the celebration as a whole, with meaningful interviews with people attending the corroboree. This could have brought the basic soundness of the whole event into the light and informed Australian people of good things that happen in the Aboriginal community.
I was also disappointed (but not surprised) at media response to the frustration of some of the people at the now notorious cafe rendezvous between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Why do we not understand that Aboriginal protesters become impatient when our leaders are insensitive to injustice? What a great opportunity they neglected when they failed to go down to the Embassy and sit down with the Elders.
The Tent Embassy has survived police brutality, politicians’ ridicule and general popular ignorance. My hope is that there will come a day when there is no need for the First Nations to have an Embassy in their own land.
For more information visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy web site and 40th Anniversary pages. For positive media stories visit New Matilda.