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The End of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy?

On June 14th, 2003, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra was destroyed by fire, in what authorities suspect is a case of arson. The debate arising from the ashes is whether to rebuild or remove the Tent Embassy from the site.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been a subject of controversy since its inception in 1972 on the front lawn of the old Parliament House. The Embassy began as a protest under a lawn umbrella and was transformed into a permanent structure in 1992.

The Federal Territories Minister, Wilson Tuckey, has been particularly vocal in calling for the Embassy’s removal, claiming that the camping arrangement is unsanitary, illegal, and a disruption to the community. Tuckey is joined by many other members of the government who feel that the Tent Embassy is an eyesore and must go.

The Tent Embassy Elders and supporters are just as vehement in their battle to rebuild and keep the Embassy where it is, right in front of Parliament. They feel that the authorities should be concentrating on finding the perpetrators of the crime and protecting the Tent residents, rather than plotting to remove them from the area. Embassy supporters placed a wire fence around the site as a safety precaution and to prevent the Embassy’s removal. The police quickly removed the barrier on June 20 and arrested one member of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as he resisted their efforts.

The Australian Heritage Commission has given the Federal government permission to remove the burnt remnants of the Tent Embassy, despite the fact that the Commission recognized the Embassy as a symbolic site in 1995. The Commission’s decision eliminated the last of the barriers for the Embassy’s removal. Embassy supporters, however, have not given up. They have filed an emergency declaration for the protection of the site under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act. The matter is now under review by the Heritage Minister, David Kemp, who will determine if the Embassy is culturally significant enough to warrant legal protection.

The Australian media has been covering the issue, but has generally ignored the stated reasons for Embassy supporters’ desire to protect the Aboriginal Tent Embassy; and why they deem it worthy of preservation as an important piece of national history.

The Embassy began as a protest against the government’s refusal to acknowledge indigenous land rights in 1972, and evolved to encompass the demand for recognition of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Tent Embassy protestors designed the current Aboriginal flag. The establishment of a physical Aboriginal Embassy – even if it was originally housed under an umbrella - implied the existence of a nation within a nation and offered a vivid expression of Aboriginal claims that a condition of apartheid existed in the country. The resulting situation made the government extremely uncomfortable. The Australian government, consequently, has repeatedly removed the Embassy by force, only to see it rebuilt time and time again.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has taken on a strong symbolic significance for the indigenous rights movement in Australia. The continued re-establishment of the Embassy has come to represent the never-ending fight of indigenous Australians for their rights. In recent years a fire has been burning continuously outside of the Embassy to reinforce the message of an ongoing struggle.

Since 1972 the Australian government has attempted to remove the ‘eyesore’ that is the Aboriginal Embassy, either by forcibly removing it, declaring it illegal, or moving it to permanent meeting rooms in a less conspicuous location. The Embassy supporters meanwhile have continued to rebuild it where it was first set up, boldly in the public eye, in the belief that the power of the Embassy lies precisely in its utterly public setting. Their ongoing efforts reflect a strong determination to ensure that the difficulties and discrimination faced by many Aboriginal people is not forgotten.

Sarah Wolfrum is a Cultural Survival intern and a student at Colby College.