The longest protest for Indigenous land rights, sovereignty and self-determination in the world, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, located on Ngunnawal land in Canberra, will mark its 50th anniversary on 26 January. Established by Aboriginal activists to demand land rights, the Embassy has been a key site for the struggle for Indigenous rights ever since.
The foundation of the Embassy and the land rights movement, which emerged in the 1960s, was first laid in the 1920s and 1930s by the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the Australian Aborigines’ League and the Aborigines Progressive Association. Campaigning against hated protection boards—which controlled all aspects of Aboriginal lives—all three organisations called for Indigenous control of Indigenous affairs, equal citizenship rights, the right to education, the protection of cultural identity, land rights and an end to the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
Building on the work of early Aboriginal activists such as Fred Maynard, William Cooper, Bill Ferguson, Jack Patten, Pearl Gibbs and many more, a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists in the 1960s and 1970s took up the banner that had been unfurled by these organisations.
In 1965, Charles Perkins, a young Aboriginal man, organised a group of students to embark on a “freedom ride” around New South Wales. The Freedom Ride succeeded in drawing attention to the segregation endured by Aboriginal people, which included being forced to sit in “Aboriginal-only” seats in cinemas, being banned from swimming alongside white people in community pools and being prohibited from entering public bars and RSL clubs (despite many having served in the armed forces), while also raising awareness of the power of public protest among Aboriginal youth.
At the time, there was also a renewed struggle for land rights by Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. In 1966, the Gurindji people—led by Vincent Lingiari—in response to poor wages and working conditions, walked off Wave Hill, the largest pastoral lease in the Territory. Their protest quickly expanded into a struggle for land rights, drawing attention to the poor living conditions faced by Aboriginal people who continued to live and work on their traditional lands.
Three years before the Wave Hill strike, the Yolngu people of the Yirrakala region of Arnhem Land on the Gove Peninsula had also begun a campaign to win back control of their traditional lands. In 1952, large deposits of bauxite had been found on Yolngu land. The federal Liberal government then changed the law to allow mining companies access to Aboriginal reserve areas. A decade later, in 1963, Prime Minister Robert Menzies—without the knowledge of or consultation with the traditional owners—approved plans for mining to go ahead, including granting a mining lease for 140 square miles (36,260 hectares) of land that would be removed from the Arnhem Land reserve.
In response, the Yolngu people presented two bark petitions to the House of Representatives, written in Yolngu Matha and English. The bark petitions described the traditional owners’ connection to the land from time immemorial, explaining that the peoples of Yirrkala “fear that their needs and interest will be completely ignored as they have been ignored in the past”.
Although the Coalition government of John Gorton in 1968 established a bipartisan parliamentary committee of inquiry, which acknowledged the Yolngu people’s rights described in the petitions, it rejected handing back ownership of the land. Instead, it granted a special 42-year lease to the mining giant Nabalco.
In response, the Yolngu launched legal action. The “Gove land rights case” became the first significant legal case for Aboriginal land rights in Australia. However, in April 1971, Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu people, saying that “the Aborigines belong to the land, but the land does not belong to the Aborigines”. Blackburn said that any land rights that existed before European colonisation had since been invalidated. As a result, Nabalco was allowed to continue its mining project despite the objection of the traditional owners.
To try to stop any future claims, Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon released a white paper in January 1972. While claiming to understand “fully the desire of the Aboriginal people”, it rejected any recognition of land rights, saying they would lead to “possible challenge[s] in relation to land titles in Australia which are at present unquestioned and secure”. Instead, the government “concluded that it was in the national interest, as well as largely in the interest of the Aborigines themselves, for mineral exploration and development on Aboriginal Reserves to continue”.
The establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on 26 January 1972 was a direct response to McMahon’s denial of land rights. According to historian Gary Foley, who was part of the Black Power movement and involved in the Tent Embassy protests, Aboriginal activists in Redfern planned a major demonstration outside of Parliament House. However, because the protest would take time to organise, they decided that a small group of activists would be dispatched immediately to Canberra to “establish a visible presence and immediate physical response to the PM’s statement”.
After recruiting Noel Hazzard, a long-time member of the Communist Party and photographer for the Tribune, to drive them to Canberra, four Aboriginal activists—Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bert Williams—began their protest by erecting a single blue beach umbrella on the lawns of Parliament House. The founding of the Embassy was documented in a series of now famous photographs taken by Hazzard, which show the four young activists seated under the umbrella, which bore the sign “Aboriginal Embassy”. In establishing the Embassy, Foley later explained, the activists were highlighting the fact that “Aborigines were treated like aliens in their own land”.
The four activists were soon joined by others from Sydney and around the country, including Foley, John Newfong, Chicka Dixon, Shirley Smith and the Coe siblings Jenny, Isabel and Paul. The Embassy protest camp was expanded, with tents erected to act as a protest office and sleeping quarters. According to Foley, in his reflections on the first 30 days of the Embassy, “numerous offers of food, blankets and money” were received by the Aboriginal activists from a “growing number of supportive and friendly Canberra residents”. Local non-Indigenous students and anti-apartheid activists also assisted with the logistics.
On 28 January, a delegation of Aboriginal women already in Canberra for the National Council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Women conference arrived at the Embassy to show support. The women later moved a motion at their conference calling for McMahon and his minister for Aboriginal affairs to resign.
Asserting that Aboriginal people had never ceded sovereignty, the activists also set about designing a new flag. According to Foley, “the first flag that flew on the tents was a black, green, red and black pennant which was the flag developed 50 years earlier by Marcus Garvey as the symbol of his international black consciousness movement”. This was soon replaced by a flag “comprising a spear laid across a red and black background with four crescents looking inward to symbolise the black rights struggle from the four corners of Australia”. On 2 February, the red, yellow and black flag designed by Harold Thomas was raised for the first time at the Embassy.
Four days later the activists presented their demands to the McMahon government: control of the Northern Territory as a state within Australia; the parliament of the Northern Territory to be predominantly Aboriginal, with title and mining rights to all land within the Territory; legal title and mining rights to all other reserve lands and settlements throughout the country; the preservation of all sacred sites in Australia; legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all capital cities; and compensation for lands not returnable.
Unable to evict the activists or the Embassy because there were no laws preventing “camping” on the lawns in front of Parliament House, the McMahon government banned squatting, camping and the erection of tents on parliamentary lawns. On 20 July, more than 150 Federal Police descended on the protest camp to remove the Embassy and the protesters. Undeterred, the Aboriginal activists and their supporters re-erected the Tent Embassy three days later, only to have it destroyed once more by the police.
A week later, the protesters succeeded in re-erecting the Embassy for a few hours. On 12 September, the ACT Supreme Court ruled that the laws police were using as a basis for their actions could not be used to evict the protesters. In the wake of the ruling, Aboriginal activists once more erected the Tent Embassy for several hours, again asserting their demand for land rights.
In December, the McMahon government was swept from office, ending 23 years of Liberal Party rule. Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam—who had visited the Embassy in February and had promised to legislate for Aboriginal land rights—was now prime minister. Almost a decade after the Gurindji people began their struggle, the Whitlam government partly fulfilled its promise. In August 1975, Whitlam poured soil into the open hand of Vincent Lingiari, symbolising the return of control of 3,237 square kilometres of land traditionally belonging to the Gurindji people.
Although the Tent Embassy was again dismantled at the front of Parliament House in 1976, it continued to occupy several other sites around Canberra in the decades that followed. In 1992, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the original protest, the Embassy was re-established on its original site. Since 1992, Aboriginal activists have fought an ongoing battle to stop police removing the protest site, despite it being placed in 2015 on the Commonwealth Heritage list as part of the Old Parliament House precinct.
Today, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy remains a symbol of enduring protest and the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia. As Ngambri-Ngunnawal man Paul House—who attended the original protests in 1972 as a toddler with his mother Matilda House—told ABC News in June 2020, the Embassy is “ground zero for First Nations people in terms of our struggle for human rights, for First Nation rights in this country, for a whole range of rights that we need to speak up for”.
Kim Bullimore is a Murri woman and long-time socialist from north Queensland. She co-organised the first Australian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference in support of Palestine in 2010.