A milestone for Black sovereignty in this country: celebrating 50 years of the Tent Embassy

20 Jan 2022

Fifty years on, Canberra’s Tent Embassy is proudly adorned with symbols of an everlasting culture

“In 1972 the Tent Embassy really highlighted to me what sort of strength Aboriginal people have got when we all come together in unity.”

This was said on 27 January 1992 by Billy Craigie, one of the four men who erected the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra almost half a century ago.

On 26 January this year the Aboriginal Tent Embassy will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This is a milestone for Black sovereignty in this country.

It’s been 50 years since those four proud men set off from Redfern in Sydney to Canberra.

It was January 1972. With Craigie were Tony Coorey, Michael Anderson and Kevin “Bert” Johnson (formerly Williams).

“He was in bed with his girlfriend and he’s the only blackfella that I ever seen in my life that got out of bed with a woman to go to a protest,” Anderson said of Johnson. “Not too many people would do that.

“He made a major contribution to Aboriginal affairs. He’s now deceased, unfortunately.”

Described by Gary Foley in his book The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the trip to the Australian Capital Territory was sparked by a speech given by the then prime minister, William McMahon.

McMahon had rejected Aboriginal land rights and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to its ongoing assimilation policy.

“We were at the Aboriginal Medical Service and we decided (there was Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie and myself) to go down to Canberra and protest by going on a starvation diet to try to capture the Australia’s attention to the deplorable conditions that Aboriginal people were living in, subjected to,” Coorey said.

Anderson said: “We couldn’t think of anyone who’d go on a starvation diet, we really couldn’t because we like our tucker, us Murris!

“We were young. None of us had any degrees from university so we were treading on thin ice all the way, because we did not know what sort of murky waters we were going to find beyond where we were going. We were just living day by day.”

With pride in their blood and intolerance in their soul at the treatment of their people, the men made the three-hour drive to the ACT to make a stand.

That stand was a beach umbrella.

“At that time we were all unemployed, we had no money to buy a tent,” Craigie said. “We got down here and we went around to one of Charlie’s mates and the best that they had was a big beach umbrella.”

It was soon replaced by several tents. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was, and still is, proudly adorned with symbols of an everlasting culture, pioneered by people who say they will never let it die.

The internationally renowned meeting place is well known as a place where a fight for national land rights and self-determination continues year after year.

Although not considered an official embassy by the Australian government, 50 years on it is a legend to many.

Established only five years after Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were granted citizenship in the 1967 referendum, the Tent Embassy is a deliberate reminder of the ongoing atrocities subjected to the oldest living culture on the planet, on the same soil our ancestors have walked upon since time immemorial.

“The white people thought that, OK, they’ve done their bit and they’ve passed this referendum and that was going to fix up the Aboriginal ‘problem’ that existed,” Anderson said. “But you see that was only just the start of the things.”

Over the years the Tent Embassy has caused great controversy in Canberra and has been destroyed or damaged for multiple reasons. Although many people have requested its removal, it became a permanent fixture of the Old Parliament House lawns on its 20th anniversary in 1992.

Leading up to celebrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary, elders and community members associated with the Tent Embassy have condemned a separate protest group who have set up camp close to where the embassy stands.

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