25th January 2012
BY ADJUNCT PROFESSOR DENNIS EGGINGTON
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, ABORIGINAL LEGAL SERVICE OF WA
Tent Embassy 40th Anniversary
It’s January 26 and a teenage white boy swathed in an Australian flag makes his way down to the waterfront to get drunk on beer, nationalism and patriotic backslapping. His eyes turn skyward to watch fireworks as he revels in being a citizen of the lucky country. He sings along boisterously to songs of the past, some more than forty years old. Meanwhile countless Western Australians travel on boats like their ancestors across the ocean. Their destination is Rottnest Island where they will toast the good fortune that conquest has bestowed.
Meanwhile across the other side of the country, another teenage boy has also made a pilgrimage. His flag is black, red and yellow, representing our people, our country and the sun that shines down upon our world’s longest surviving civilisation, Aboriginal Australia. He chooses not to celebrate on the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) where Governor Stirling planted a foreign flag nor will he sail to the prison island that we Nyoongars call Wadjemup (Rottnest Island), where the graves of our ancestors are buried just metres beneath the picnic blankets of the Australia Day revellers. His journey has been longer, more sober and more sombre. He has crossed the continent from Western Australia to Canberra and has also sang songs of the past, some as old as forty thousand years.
He will not be blinded by fireworks and deafened by raucous music. Instead he will be looking to the ground that commemorates the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy forty years ago. As he breathes in the smoke of the campfire he knows he is not alone. Many Indigenous peoples have also made the journey from all corners of the country. In the weeks leading up to the commemoration, countless people representing the multitude of Indigenous nations across the country have been preparing to travel by bus, train, plane, car and even foot to honour one of the most symbolic and important points in Australian human rights history.
I am just one of these people, who see the Tent Embassy commemoration as a poignant reminder of the parallel worlds that mainstream and Indigenous Australians live in. We may all live in one country but we still live in significantly different worlds. In 2012 with such disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, I find it difficult to celebrate the 26th of January which commemorates the start of a process which decimated so many of our people. Such triumphalism beneath a flag which still bears the symbol of the Union Jack I still find very uncomfortable.
Instead I will reflect upon a day forty years ago when Indigenous Civil Rights campaigners, so frustrated with the lack of social equity, occupied this nation’s capital by erecting a Tent Embassy. I cannot escape the irony of my First Nations Peoples having to pitch a tent on traditional country in the shadow of opulent and palatial international embassies. Traditional owners who have become displaced, oppressed peoples, refugees in our homelands.
We have thousands of home grown Indigenous refugees in this country who due to ongoing injustices are unable to flee poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity. For many of our people who are still homeless in our own land, a tent seems to be a highly appropriate form of symbolism.
I hope that the teenage white boy swathed in his own symbolism of the coloniser may reflect as he enjoys the fireworks, that many of his fellow compatriots are singing songs of strength, solidarity and survival. Maybe then he can embrace his Indigenous brother in unity and together both can look forward to living in a lucky country.
Adjunct Professor Dennis Eggington