26 January 2022
"Hope’s ragged symbol": 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in poetry and prose
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this post contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.
On the evening of 26 January 1972, four men set up a beach umbrella on the lawn opposite Parliament House (now known as Old Parliament House) on Ngunnawal Country in Canberra and established the Aboriginal tent embassy. The four men, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie, and Bert Williams, erected a handmade sign claiming the site as the 'Aboriginal Embassy' and became the first occupants of the longest continual protest site for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights. Numerous, and often violent, attempts since 1972 to remove the embassy have ultimately failed and it remains a site of continued resistance. In recognition of its significance to Australian history, the site was included on the Commonwealth Heritage List in 2015. This blog will look at some of the poetry and prose which inspired or was inspired by the Aboriginal tent embassy.
In 1962, the poet, educator and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, prepared a poem for the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement in Adelaide. Entitled Aboriginal Charter of Rights, the poem gave voice to the feelings of Aboriginal people, articulating them in 44 lines for the rest of Australia in a way that they had not heard before. Noonuccal, a descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), uses short, sharp, repetitive lines to make clear the disparity between demands of basic human rights and the current conditions imposed on Aboriginal people:
We want hope, not racialism,
Brotherhood, not ostracism,
Black advance, not white ascendance:
Make us equals, not dependants (Noonuccal, 1962).
Aboriginal Charter of Rights was subsequently published in her first book of poems We are going: poems (Jacaranda Press, 1964, shelfmark X.900/2567.); the first collection of verse published by an Aboriginal poet. The poem reverberated in the Aboriginal rights demonstrations of the 1960s, fueling a growing civil rights awareness amongst students and leading to the 1965 Freedom Ride. Aboriginal Charter of Rights nears an end with Noonuccal asking "Must we native Old Australians, In our own land rank as aliens?".
Noonuccal's words were revisited by Gary Foley, the Gumbainggir activist and academic, who played a key role in the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy. In the 2014 edited collection of writing on the tent embassy, The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State (Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107), Foley recalls the decision to name the protest site an embassy was to reflect how Aboriginal people were treated as "aliens in their own land" and so, like other aliens, needed an embassy of their own. However this embassy wouldn't be a grand government building like the one across the lawn, but one which would reflect the living conditions of Aboriginals; a simple tent which Bobbi Sykes designated "Hope's ragged symbol" in the liberal newspaper Nation Review in 1972.
Bobbi (or Roberta) Sykes was a writer, activist, and the first Black Australian to attend Harvard University in the US. She became the executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Her piece in the Nation Review begins by outlining the symbolism of the tent:
From the first, the Aboriginal embassy represented the people. It was an embarrassment to the government same as the people are. It was poor and shabby just like the people. For many of the residents who passed through and stayed for a while it was more luxurious than their own homes despite the cold, the lack of facilities, the constant need for money, for food. The embassy was everything that the people still are (Sykes, 1972, 165).
and continues with her personal account of the multiple, violent clashes with police who attempted to remove the protesters and tent from the site; "I was hurled to the ground on several occasions, and walked over by heavy cop boots. 'The whole world's watching, the whole world's watching' we chanted". Sykes later revisits these struggles from 1972 in a haunting description of the tent being torn down in the second volume of her autobiography, Snake Dancing (1998, Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826). Bobbi Sykes was instrumental in publicising the fight for Aboriginal rights to an international audience and inspired many others to do the same.
In her 1998 speech for International Women's Day in Sydney, the Wiradjuri woman and activist Isobel Coe declared:
Now the Aboriginal tent Embassy is all about Sovereignty, this is Aboriginal land, always was and always will be and we are there to tell the truth about Sovereignty. [...] The time has come for us to sit down, we’re mothers, we’re grandmothers aunt’s we’re sisters and we all have a common goal and we all have a stake in this country because we all have children and if we are to go into the next century in peace and harmony we have to address the sovereignty issue. That dirty word that no-one wants to talk about, Aboriginal Sovereignty (Coe, 1998).
Another 'dirty' word in her speech that Coe, a prominent figure at the Aboriginal tent embassy, wanted to get people to talk about was genocide, "We are the first people, not just of this country but of the world and that recognition hasn’t come [...] and when there is another genocide you people [...] will be a part of the conspiracy to commit genocide now!". In 1998 Coe, along with three others, applied to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory to get the crime of genocide recognised as a crime in Australian law. The application was dismissed and the words in her speech here reflect the shared frustration among Aboriginal people that 26 years have passed since the embassy was established and little progress has been made.
One year later in 1999, that frustration is echoed by the essayists Felicia Fletcher and John Leonard in Australia Day at the Aboriginal tent embassy; an evocative account in the literary journal, Meanjin, of the corroboree ceremony for Aboriginal sovereignty which took place on Australia Day at the embassy in 1999 (58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn.). The piece oscillates between descriptions of the ceremony itself, which involved merging water and fire; "All day the smoke continued to billow out over Parliamentary Triangle; fragrant wood-smoke blowing over the non-native trees and formal gardens", and bitter humour:
'Dear Aboriginal people/s, I hereby enclose your citizenship rights. I have retained my rights to dispossess you of your land. Making a fuss will not prove worthwhile because we are many and you are few. Our God is now your God. Enjoy. Goodbye erstwhile companions of my explorers, and thanks for all the land' (Fletcher & Leonard, 1999, 13).
Canberra poet, Paul Cliff, who has co-published with Oodgeroo Noonuccal, similarly employed a particularly ignorant, non-Indigenous voice to great effect in his poem, Tent Embassy, Winter (Parliament House Lawn, Canberra) which features in his 2002 collection The Impatient World (Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502). In this short but striking poem, Cliff takes the position of an outsider looking in: "Frost grips the tents [...] 9am: and no one's stirred. Is that -- traditional?". This question brings us to one of the final writers to feature in this blog; Lionel Fogarty.
The poetry of Lionel Fogarty, Murri poet and activist, subverts the question of what might be considered 'traditional'. Described by poet, John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living Australian poet’, Fogarty's work is abstract, radical, and at times indecipherable through his mutinous approach to traditional grammatical structures. His poetry draws inspiration from Oodgeroo Noonuccal and is directly informed by his involvement in Aboriginal activism since the 1970s. His 2015 collection Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land (Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977) includes the poem Tent Embassy 1971-2021 as well as number of his own drawings which push and pull at the reader. Mogwie-Idan ends with the poem Power Lives in the Spears:
Power live in the spears
Power live in the worries
Power air in the didgeridoo
Power run on the people heart
Bear off the power come from the land (Fogarty, 2015)
Fogarty's words here are reminiscent of the closing lines of Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a poem from the Wiradjuri poet, playwright, printmaker and activist, Kevin Gilbert, which features in his award-winning 1994 collection Black from the edge (Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312.). Gilbert was instrumental in the continual occupation of the tent embassy site and spent the final year of his life there. A memorial was held at the embassy for him following his death in 1993. Gilbert's poem, Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, begins with the lines; "We see them, shoulders hunched, standing in the rain", and pays homage to the undiminished, and vital, flames of anger and hope in those who have kept the Aboriginal tent embassy site running for fifty years. The poems ends with the following lines which feel an appropriate way to conclude this blog post:
human spirit flames for love
to light the pages of history
with their heroic form (Gilbert, 1994, 30).
Pay attention,"The whole world's watching."
Lucy Rowland, Oceania Curator
Cliff, P. (2002). The Impatient World. N.S.W. : Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502
Coe, I (1998). Speech for the virtual tour Sydney 1998 IWD. [Online] Available at: http://www.isis.aust.com/iwd/docos/tour98/coe.htm
Fletcher, F., & Leonard, J. (1999). Australia Day at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Meanjin, 58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn. Also available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.898736456225388
Fogarty, L. (2015). Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land. Newtown, NSW : Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977
Foley, G. (2014). A reflection on the first thirty days of the embassy. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
Gilbert, K. (1988). Inside Black Australia : an anthology of Aboriginal poetry. Harmondsworth : Penguin, published with the assistance of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Shelfmark YH.1989.a.6
Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312
Sykes, R. (1972). Bobbi Sykes 'Hope's ragged symbol' Nation Review, 29 July-4 August 1972. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. 165-168. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826
Walker, K. (1964). We are going: poems. Brisbane : Jacaranda Press. Shelfmark X.900/2567.
Watson, I. (2000). Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 28 years after it was established [Interview with Isobell Coe by Watson, Irene.]. Indigenous Law Bulletin, 5(1), 17–18. Available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/ielapa.200104820