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‘We want land, not handouts’

1972: Aboriginal Tent Embassy established in front of Parliament House, Canberra

Photo Noel Hazard. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Tribune / SEARCH Foundation
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Why do you think the Aboriginal Tent Embassy still exists today?

2. Do you agree with John Newfong that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy ‘has been one of the most successful press and parliamentary lobbies in Australian political history’? Give reasons for your answer.

 

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the setting up of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

 

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Alan Sharpley (holding the sign) and John Newfong (far right) at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra</p>
Photo: Ken Middleton. National Library of Australia obj-149418663

In a snapshot

On 26 January 1972 four Aboriginal men set up a beach umbrella on the lawns opposite (Old) Parliament House in Canberra. Describing the umbrella as the Aboriginal Embassy, the men were protesting about the Australian Government’s land rights policies. The Tent Embassy still exists today, but the protesters’ goals have changed over time to now include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty and self-determination.

Alan Sharpley (holding the sign) and John Newfong (far right) at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What were the two land rights cases in the 1960s and 1970s that came before the Tent Embassy?

2. How did the actions of the McMahon government prompt the creation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy?

 

3. What is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and why did Aboriginal people use the word ‘embassy’ to describe it?

Why did Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights become a national issue?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have been fighting to keep their traditional lands since European colonisation. During the 1960s and 1970s campaigns for land rights began to get national attention.

There were two especially important land rights cases that took place in the Northern Territory. The first began in 1966 when 200 Gurindji stockmen, domestic workers and their families walked off Wave Hill Station. The Gurindji were protesting against low wages and the loss of their traditional lands; their protest lasted for seven years. In the second case, the Northern Territory Supreme Court decided in 1972 not to grant the Yolŋu people, an Aboriginal group in Arnhem Land, the land rights they had argued for. Instead a mining company was allowed to mine on the Yolŋu’s traditional lands. 

In response to the growing demands for land rights, Prime Minister William McMahon’s government announced a new land rights policy in 1972. Under this policy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups could apply for 50-year land leases, but they wouldn’t be given independent ownership of their traditional lands. This angered many Aboriginal groups.

‘With its flags fluttering proudly in the breeze, the Aboriginal Embassy on the lawns opposite federal parliament has been one of the most successful press and parliamentary lobbies in Australian political history.’

 

John Newfong, Identity, 1972

How was the Tent Embassy set up? 

On 26 January 1972 a group of four Aboriginal men protested against Prime Minister McMahon’s land rights decision by putting up a beach umbrella on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra. They said they were setting up an Aboriginal ‘embassy’. The Aboriginal men said that they felt like foreigners in their own country because they couldn’t have the land they traditionally owned.

Research task

 

Find out how many embassies and high commissions are located in Canberra. What is their purpose?

View from Parliament House of police and protesters at a land rights demonstration, Canberra, 30 July 1972.

The beach umbrella was soon replaced by tents, and Aboriginal protestors and their non-Aboriginal supporters started camping there. The Australian Government ordered the protestors to move, and the police were sent in several times to remove them, but the protesters always returned.

Groups from the Tent Embassy organised protest marches, and spoke with politicians and the general community about land rights. 

Between 1972 and 1992 the Tent Embassy was temporarily set up at several different places around Canberra.

<p>Sign used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, 1972</p>

National Museum of Australia

<p>Sign used at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, 1972</p>

What happened to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the 1990s?

In 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the original protests, the embassy was permanently set up again on its original site on the lawns outside Old Parliament House. In 1995 the site was listed on the Register of the National Estate, which recognised the Tent Embassy as an important historic place.

What does the Aboriginal Tent Embassy want to achieve today?

Over time the goals of Tent Embassy protestors have changed. Today the Tent Embassy is focused on campaigning for Aboriginal sovereignty over the continent and the right to self-determination. 

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task

 

Do some research to find out which famous Yothu Yindi song released in 1991 came from the fight for land rights, including the Yolŋu people’s claim to their land.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What were the two land rights cases in the 1960s and 1970s that came before the Tent Embassy?

2. How did the actions of the McMahon government prompt the creation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy?

3. What is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and why did Aboriginal people use the word ‘embassy’ to describe it?