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Activist Isabelle Coe and a traditional dancer take part in a scared fire ceremony.

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.”

Activist Michael Anderson in front a line of police.

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.”

1972 Aboriginal protest flag.

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.”

Amnesty International's report into Indigenous homelands.

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty recently met with MP Jenny Macklin and opposition MPs in Canberra to demand an end to the Northern Territory’s Growth Towns policy, which encourages the removal of Indigenous people from their traditional homelands into regional hub towns.

After spending 12 days touring the country and meeting local spokespeople and community members living under the N.T Intervention in the Utopia region, Shetty said shocked at what he saw.

“I can’t believe I’m actually in one of the richest countries in the world and you have people, Aboriginal communities here who are living in conditions which are really almost inhumane,” adding “I think it’s quite shocking that you can have this level of poverty and this level of lack of basic facilities.”

Shetty’s visit coincided with last month’s release of Amnesty International’s report The land holds us: Aboriginal Peoples’ right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory, which recommends urgent political and financial support for homelands and details the ways in which current Government policies undermine the basic rights of Aboriginal people who wish to stay on their homelands, as well as directly ignoring aspects of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Government is currently funding the creation of 20 major growth towns or “mega shires”, which receive almost $800 million in housing, while on remote communities and homelands, no new houses are built and the minimum standard of repairs are maintained.

As Community Leader and Utopia resident Rosalie Kunoth Monks told Salil Shetty, that her people want to stay on the land, but are forced to deal with overcrowding, and lack of access to basic facilities like electricity and water. She believes the Government policy is about forced assimilation and the acquisition of land for mining.

“It’s not that they’re coming here with bulldozers or getting the army to move us it’s that they’re trying to starve us out of our home,” she said.

“They won’t support us becoming sustainable in our own right.

“If you’re made to feel a second class humanity, if it’s not ethnic cleansing please let me know what it is.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People James Anaya has echoed the report by Amnesty, saying the “health of Indigenous people living on homelands is significantly better than those living in larger communities.”

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty. Photo: Matt Writtle

As well as maintaining a spiritual and cultural connection to their country, Amnesty International have also supported the voices of many Indigenous Elders who oppose the policy, saying that homelands communities also retain some measure of community control and agency, quoting many examples of strong self-governance models.

“I think there is a fundamental problem. I think at one level the government doesn’t fully understand how central the relationships Aboriginal people have with land,” Shetty said.

“It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s a cultural aspect, it’s their identity, it’s their spirit, and it’s their ancestors.”

A 2005 research paper entitled Healthy Country: Healthy People? Exploring the Health Benefits of Indigenous Land Resource Management shows that Indigenous Australians living on their traditional homelands are significantly healthier and live a lot longer.

Further research conducted by Amnesty International Australia has also shown that homelands can be economically sustainable, forming a central part of the N.T tourism industry and contributing almost 6 percent of the Territory’s economy.

Paddy Gibson some impacts of the N.T Intervention.

Sail Shetty has said that during their discussion, Jenny Macklin admitted that homelands communities were one of the most disadvantaged in Australia, saying

“She has given us a commitment, from the guarantee that these homeland communities will not be pushed out of their land, and that they will get their requisite funding, with a clear plan and budget in the coming months,” he said.

“We have offered to work closely with them, to support and help them, and, at the same time, we will be holding them to account.”

Barbara Shaw, resident of Mt Nancy town camp in Alice Springs, on the effects of the Intervention.

For Professor John Altman’s discussion of the destruction of traditional homelands in The Conversation, click: here.

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