Tomorrow the nation celebrates a day traditionally set aside as one of mourning for Aboriginal people. While for Australians it may be a celebration of booze and bogans, for us it symbolises the loss of land, of children and of culture. It highlights the struggles of our elders, and the battles inherited by our youth.
But tomorrow will also be one of reflection, as we look back on those struggles and come together for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
About 1000 people are expected to converge on Canberra for the “Corroboree for Sovereignty” and many are expected to stay for the two-day talk-fest following Survival Day. On the 26th of January 1972, four young Aboriginal men — Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Tony Coorie and Bertie Williams, camped themselves on the lawns across from what is now Old Parliament House.
The protest began small, under a donated beach umbrella, but was grounded in the resilience of land rights warriors from across the country, from the Yolngu peoples’ bark petition at Yirrkala to the Gurindji’s defiant stand at Wave Hill, right down to the political rumblings from the deep heart of Redfern.
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These four youths may have been there first, but they were not the last to come and place their mark on land now sacred to Aboriginal political history.
Their solitary umbrella was quickly replaced by a sea of tents. Names now synonymous with the fights of the ’70s moved south, people such as Chicka Dixon, Kevin Gilbert, Gary Foley, Sol Bellear, Sam Watson, John Newfong and many many more.
At that time, Aboriginal nations across the breadth of this land came together united in one fight — land rights. It was the spark that compelled them to Canberra, spurred on by the refusal of the McMahon government to deliver true land justice. At its heart, the protest was about Aboriginal sovereignty, about the ability for Aboriginal people to control their own affairs.
Aboriginal Australia wanted an acknowledgement for a sovereignty that was never ceded. It was also a unique time in our political history. Aboriginal people were able to force both sides of politics to take notice of the issues that deeply concerned our communities.
For once, it was us who chose the agenda. Not only did they make politicians take notice, but they were able to broadcast their demands to an international audience. Forty years on, the tent embassy remains unmoved, but sits on the lawns of a different Australia.
Governments have come and gone, and the issues we protested so ferociously for have slipped off the political agenda.
Those activists are also now moving on. We’ve already lost legends such as Chicka Dixon, Kevin Gilbert, John Newfong, Charlie Perkins and Bobbi Sykes, the memories of whom now live on in the grainy black-and-white footage of protests past.
Has the time when Aboriginal people were able to drum up a national conversation about sovereignty and land rights passed as well? Last week the expert panel on constitutional reform’s report were handed to the Gillard government.
It dedicates an entire section to the issue of Aboriginal sovereignty, and concludes that recognising the sovereign status of Aboriginal people in the constitution would “be highly contested by many Australians, and likely to jeopardise broad public support for the panel’s recommendations”.
But it also acknowledged that in most of the consultations, sovereignty was a continual issue. I don’t doubt that constitutional recognition is a worthwhile pursuit, but it is obvious that it is not the key priority for Aboriginal people. It was, after all, a promise governments bound us to.
The fact we are still calling for sovereignty and self-determination, 40 years on from the first steps of the tent embassy, shows just how central it is to Aboriginal aspirations. So why do we instead focus on constitutional reform?
Prominent Tasmanian Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell last week raised his concerns over the expert panel’s recommendations, stating it would never pass at a referendum, and instead said a better focus would have been legislative reform.
Instead of arguing over the constitution, we should instead be focusing on issues like Aboriginal self-determination and national land rights.
As we gather to celebrate the 40th birthday of the tent embassy, and as we reflect on the solid fights of those days, I can’t help agreeing with him. In 10 years, will we still be crying out for constitutional reform? Or will we continue to echo the cries for sovereignty and land rights of those four young men who first camped on those lawns?