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Looking back 50 years: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Aleisha Orr -

Back on January 26, 1972 when Euahlayi man (Ghillar) Michael Anderson was just 20-years-old, he arrived in Canberra to bring the Aboriginal people's fight for land rights to those making the laws.

He was there with Billy Craigie, Bert Williams and Tony Coorey and their presence at Parliament House was the beginning of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a movement that has continued on since then in different forms and been taken on by different people.

This month marks five decades since those four men started a protest that brought the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia to the world's attention.

Like others who became involved in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy's push for land rights and self determination for Aboriginal people, it was day to day life that led Michael into "black politics."

His mother was the secretary of the Aboriginal Progress Association and his grandmother was taken from her family as part of the Stolen Generation.

"I just listened to what was going on, you know, about the troubles, I watched what was happening around me, and it was just full of racism," Mr Anderson said.

He deferred university studies in economics after a year, despite being one of very few Aboriginal people to gain entry to a tertiary education institute at the time and worked for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

Mr Anderson said despite the 1967 Referendum giving Aboriginal people the right to vote, Aboriginal people were far from equal in their treatment in society.

"White people were not ready to accept Aboriginal people in general society. We were banned from shops, we were controlled by where we could go and who we could mix with."

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy came about as a response to the Prime Minister at the time rejecting the concept of independent ownership of traditional land to Indigenous people and instead announcing a plan for 50-year leases.

Looking back

In addition to those four men who set up a garden umbrella on the lawns over from Parliament House in Canberra on that first day, people came from different parts of the country to base themselves at the tent embassy and lend support over the following months.

"We fielded any inquiries, media and otherwise. We also, you know, we're at dinners with various embassies and ambassadors, who invited us to talk about what the issues were," Mr Anderson said.

"So yeah, it became much bigger than what people realise. You know, what went on behind the scenes. And during that time of our presence here."

Mr Anderson said the embassy brought to the Australian public's attention that there was something "terribly wrong in this country and issues to be addressed" and that it also brought attention to the world that "no, not all the Aboriginal people were wiped out, we were still here and we want what was taken from us."

He acknowledged that while the tent embassy itself was a visual reminder of the work that needed to be addressed and much of the work to progress Aboriginal rights and especially land rights was done across the country by not only him but others fighting individual cases.

"There was stuff that could not be done from the embassy, you know, there was action on the ground out there in the community. And the only place you're going to make those changes would get out there working with the people."

Mr Anderson said he stayed at Canberra at the embassy until about March when there was some "internal turmoil".

Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Photograph: Aboriginal History Archive, Victoria University

Continuing the fight

He continued his work to improve the lives of Aboriginal people by working on an Aboriginal voter education campaign and black politics remained a focus throughout his life working on numerous projects and being involved in campaigns including one that improved rates of pay for Aboriginal workers on cotton farms.

Mr Anderson admitted his involvement in such action led to a number of threats and dangerous situations.

He remembers a lot of brawls with those who disagreed with the black power movement but he said those were the least of his worries.

Mr Anderson recalls being told by the police that his brake lines in the car he'd been driving had been intentionally cut after his brakes failed when heading downhill and he had to plow through paddocks and fences before coming to a stop.

He tells of being warned to steer clear from certain people, some of whom were understood to have had connections to the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr Anderson said his family members tried to look out for him and he remembers at one stage when he had been camping by a river and sleeping in a tent at night time, one of his aunties insisted he come stay at her place to ensure his safety.

"That first night I went up there about two o'clock in the morning, all I know is it was a white vehicle, Toyota or something, came ripping down through the camp in the night and then a double barrel shotgun was fired into the tent where I would have been sleeping," he said.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Photograph: Aboriginal History Archive, Victoria University

Many gains, since lost

Mr Anderson said progress for Aboriginal rights were made in the 1970s but much of that was undone in the 1970s and 1980s.

"There was a National Aboriginal Conference, which was the black Parliament. So when they talk about national voice we've already had the bloody thing," he said.

"Within our own Aboriginal people we brought ourselves undone, the infighting in communities, for example the housing companies, we had our own housing companies all over the place, we had amassed wealth and assets in our communities but communities imploded and ATSIC found an ability to work with dissenting agencies," he said.

"Instead of improving what was wrong, they shut it all down and sold it up."

"In the 1980s and 1990s they ended up deregistering a huge number of Aboriginal organisations, these were all organisations that where we focused on self determination."

He said "dissenting voices" brought down some successful chapters in the Aboriginal movement.

"Unfortunately it's like a cancer in the Aboriginal movement right now."

He said while the issues remained the same the order of priorities has taken "a different turn"

The government funding specific organisations and listening to their voices alone is an issue.

"Aboriginal people want different things but unfortunately it's those who are funded, who are in the know and have friendly relations with government, they're the ones whose voices have been heard, no one else."

Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Photograph: Aboriginal History Archive, Victoria University

Looking to the future

Mr Anderson said what is needed is "mature government leadership" but said that was not the case currently.

"Within the Aboriginal society our problem is we are divided big time," he said.

Mr Anderson said the government needs to work with and recognise the Aboriginal people and the separate Aboriginal nations.

"If we are going to achieve anything we are going to achieve it nation by nation," he said.

Mr Anderson said he does not believe a national movement would bring much progress.

"Fifty years on and we're still struggling."

Mr Anderson said his message to young people today fighting for Aboriginal people is to look back at history.

"If you don't look back you are going to repeat the same mistakes, you need to see what wrongs were committed and how they were committed and the reasons why things collapsed, you're going to continually make the same mistakes," he said.

By Aleisha Orr


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