Aboriginal protestors gathered to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy last Thursday, the majority of media coverage focused on a perceived threat of violence towards Prime Minister Julia Gillard, rather than on the group’s calls for representation and the recognition of sovereignty.
Michael Anderson, the last surviving founder of the Tent Embassy, stressed that the 1872 Pacific Islands Protection Act (which includes Australia) asserts Queen Victoria saying “I know not claim dominion or sovereignty over the Aboriginal people and their places or their leaders.” Mr Anderson continued by adding “the Government and the courts in this country haven’t got a high hope from now on, to take us on… because we will force these issues.”
Mr Anderson addressed the 1000-strong crowd, many of whom had gathered from interstate, on the subject of land rights, saying “we own this country; we’ve never given it away.
They’ve never beat us in war, they’ve never asked us to cede, they’ve forced us into situations, and look at us… we’re still standing, we’re still strong.”
One of the original Tent Embassy activists Paul Coe, spoke about the creation of Australia as a sovereign entity, contrary to Aboriginal people’s sovereign rights. “They never asked us. They never included Aboriginal people in what they were on about; we were excluded, marginalised, as if we didn’t exist… and unfortunately, that same process is still going on right now as we speak.”
The three-day-long program of events and workshops held at the Embassy were designed to celebrate the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists, but also to honour those who defended the Embassy and have since died. “Here in 2012 we gather at this very sacred site, to pay tribute to those generations of patriots, to those men and women who’ve stood for the struggle… our blood is on that ground. The cops came here and smashed us, and we stood there as one mob, and we got up again,” says Murri Activist Sam Watson.
Prominent activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks stated that the Invasion Day ceremonies were emotionally taxing for many involved, after hearing a roll-call of names of the deceased members of the original Tent Embassy protests in 1972. “Today we’re reminiscing about the struggles that we’ve had and just listening to that and thinking of the plight of the First Australians… Australia Day still brings a lot of pain.”
Throughout the day, speakers from a cross section of nations and age groups spoke about a desire for self-determination and adequate national representation, with many referring to oft-quoted Indigenous public figures in Government as ‘gate-keepers’. Ms Kunoth Monks said: “the acknowledgement of black people as the first residents of this land is denied by our Government and it is a heartless, uncaring attitude by those that are supposed to be representing us.”
Elder Harry Nelson of Yuendumu, also brought attention to what he sees as a misrepresentation of his people, by those Aboriginal members on the advisory board with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, saying “I find it really disgusting and shameful that these advisors to the Minister have never been to these communities, never spoken to us or sat around in a circle, discussing our problems.
The only advice that they give the Minister, is what they read in the papers.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by members of the Aboriginal Provisional Government, who issued an Invasion Day statement, saying “in a democracy, it is the right of Indigenous peoples to select their own representatives.
In the last 16 years, the opportunity for Aboriginal people to have our say has been stage managed by government and its lackeys, and the agenda has been theirs, not ours.”
Redfern community leader Lyall Munro stated that Northern Territory Intervention should also be on the lips and tongues of all Aboriginal people in this country and claims “we cannot be free in the south unless our people in the Territory are free.
“We have to attack this racist indoctrination of our people for the want of land… what is happening up there is disgraceful and defies all international conventions that this country has signed and ratified.”
Barbara Shaw of the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs feels strongly about the impact of the Intervention on the lives of local Aboriginal people, saying “four years I’ve been fighting the Intervention, and then they announce they’re going to have another Intervention for ten years.
We’ve had an Intervention for 200 years… we know what we want for our people. When will enough be enough?”
On the subject of Tony Abbott’s earlier comments on the Tent Embassy, in which he stated activists should ‘move on’, Ms Shaw said: “he is a coward to say that behind closed doors to the media… politicians and their parties need to recognise and understand and acknowledge that people were here before them. And we’ve got nowhere else to go, we were here first and we’re here to stay.”
Isabelle Coe is the wife of the late Billy Craigie, another of the Tent Embassy’s original founders. She has devoted her life to working for Aboriginal sovereignty and recognition. Looking back on the birth of the Embassy, Ms Coe said: “the people that came here back then, we only came here for one thing, and that was tell to the government that this country belongs to Aboriginal people.
I hope I don’t have to stay here for another 40 years.”