The legacy of the Tent Embassy

At 1 in the morning on January 26, 1972, four men set up a beach umbrella on the lawns across from Australia's Parliament House, sat down and waited for the city to wake up.

Those four men – Billie Craigie, Michael Anderson, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey – were protesting the Australian government's opposition to the First Nations land rights movement. They did not know that they had begun the longest-running protest in Australian history.

It was the start of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – a symbolic 'embassy' to represent the interests and struggles of First Nations people against the colonial entity that had displaced them since British colonisation began in 1788. 

For First Nations peoples in Australia, January 26 is a day fraught with painful and insulting associations. It marks the day the British Empire's First Fleet of 11 ships dropped anchor in what is now Sydney Harbour, and the unofficial beginning of the penal colony of New South Wales.

It wasn't until 150 years later that the anniversary was widely celebrated as 'Australia Day' across the former colonies, which united into a federation in 1901. The government commemorated the 1988 bicentennial anniversary with lavish celebrations, including a full-scale re-enactment of the First Fleet entering Sydney Harbour. Since then, governments have turned January 26 into one of Australia's national touchstones – a day of near-mandatory celebration.

For as long as the colonial narrative around January 26 has been imposed from on high, First Nations people have been resisting it, using the anniversary to draw attention to the ongoing dispossession and violence that began in 1788. 

1938 marked the first Day of Mourning, a protest held in Sydney by the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association "against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years'' and a demand for "policy which will raise our people to full citizens status and equality within the community". In 1988, 40,000 people marched against the whitewashed version of Australian history promoted by the bicentenary celebrations. Today, there is growing public support for 'Australia Day' to be either moved, renamed as 'Invasion Day' or 'Survival Day', or abolished entirely.

It was in that tradition that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was founded in 1972. It quickly drew the attention of local police, who approached the four men in the early hours of the morning and encouraged them to leave. When told that the protest was in support of land rights for First Nations people, one of the officers replied, "That could be forever".

Word spread, and the Embassy grew quickly. As people from all over the country travelled to Canberra to sit on the lawns and show support, the Embassy issued statements demanding compensation for stolen lands, a government acknowledgement of First Nations sovereignty, and the preservation of sacred sites. Foreign diplomats turned up to pay respects, as did the international media. At its biggest, the Embassy housed more than 2,000 people.

As the Embassy's profile grew, so did the push from government and police to shut it down. In July, 150 police attacked the protesters several times, making indiscriminate arrests and causing widespread injuries. While the tents were uprooted, public anger at the police's actions drew more attention to the Embassy's cause, and seriously embarrassed the government.

The Embassy's physical location eventually moved into local housing, but its impact on Australia's consciousness was just beginning. Along with the Wave Hill walk-off and the Eddie Mabo case, it is now regarded as one of the pivotal moments in the history of the First Nations land rights movement.

On the twentieth anniversary of its founding in 1992, the Embassy was permanently re-established on the original site opposite Old Parliament House, where it remains today. In 1995 it was listed on the Register of the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Council, in recognition of the political significance the site holds for First Nations people.

In spite of its newfound status, the Embassy lives in an uneasy limbo. Officially, there is very little recognition of the work it does, or even that it exists. Unofficially, however, the Embassy works with Canberra institutions, education bodies and even within Parliament to advance First Nations causes.

Clayton Simpson-Pitt is a Ualaroi, Kamilaroi and Weilwan man, and a Tent Embassy ambassador who is helping organise the 50th anniversary commemoration. He is also related to Michael Anderson, one of the Embassy's co-founders.

He believes the ties the Embassy has formed have allowed it to persist, even in the face of official hostility. 

"We put a lot of work into keeping stakeholders onside, which is why we're still around," he says. "They've been wanting to get rid of the Embassy for years, but we've built good relationships with the people around us."

One of the Embassy's most important functions over the last five decades has been the quiet, consistent work it has done helping First Nations activists from across the country navigate Canberra's halls of power.

"We coordinate media, meetings, you name it," Simpson-Pitt says. "We organise logistics, accommodation. We help activists meet the politicians and the people they need to meet to advance the cause. We look after them while they're in town."

The Embassy has also become an unofficial stop for thousands of school groups on the traditional Canberra field trip. 

"Every day during school season, about five schools a day come by," Simpson-Pitt says. "You have kids all around the fire. Representatives will host a workshop and teach them about the history of the Embassy and what we do."

50 years after that beach umbrella was first set up, First Nations people are still fighting for land rights, sovereignty and self-determination. 

"We still don't have land rights," Simpson-Pitt says. "We're still renting our own land. We've got tribal Elders renting the same houses they've been in since the 1960s. Everything we were fighting for back then, we're still fighting for today."

For First Nations people, the Tent Embassy remains a symbol of defiance, resistance, and pride. The fight for justice and sovereignty continues, and the Tent Embassy will keep leading the way.

By Larissa Baldwin

Learn more about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy's 50th anniversary commemorations here.

Donate to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy here.