Bury my heart at the Tent Embassy

“We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.”

Please excuse the duration of that first paragraph, but it is necessary to quote it at length. It is an excerpt from one of the greatest speeches in Australian history – Paul Keating’s 1992 oration to an  Aboriginal audience in the disadvantaged Sydney suburb of Redfern. (Things are looking better in Redfern these days, with the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence, improved redevelopment, and a planned revitalisation of The Block.)

What we lack in our dealings with the indigenous people of Australia is empathy. We fail, as Keating put it, “to enter into their hearts and minds,” or as it’s so often described, “to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra is relevant today as a memorial to the suffering that we as white Australians have inflicted upon indigenous people – whether intentional or unintentional. It really is as simple as that. It’s like the memorial in Montgomery, Alabama to 40 people who died during the US civil rights struggle from 1954 to 1968; or Soweto in South Africa where there’s a memorial to 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was carried away during the uprising in 1976 — the photograph of the dying teenager becoming a defining image of the bloody protests when police opened fire on the demonstrators. Or the memorial outside the police station in the township of Sharpeville where 69 innocent protesters were shot and killed by police for not carrying their identity documents in 1960. (Read more: http://bit.ly/yFgXh4 )

I know that many of you who read this will say I am going too far.

But I cast my mind back to 1981 when I was on location in coastal Victoria, near Warnambool, for the acclaimed Women of the Sun series shown on SBS. (Read more: http://bit.ly/z13S4h) As the television critic for The Australian,  I was there to interview the cast and crew of Episode 1, Alinta, The Flame, about the impact of the arrival of white men on the Nyari people around modern-day Portland and the Twelve Apostles. Two convicts are washed ashore on their tribal lands, and the subsequent “invasion” of other settlers – speared because they settled on land, not knowing it was sacred — leads to the massacre of the tribe by the “invaders.” Only Alinta, “The Flame,” and her child survive. I was shown the spot where the massacre took place on the beach below a cliff where the Aborigines were slaughtered and tossed on to the bloody shore. I stared at that cliff for what seemed like ages; I can still picture the carnage. Surely that spot deserves a memorial as well.

There are many memorials in the United States to the nation’s Aborigines – the American Indians, who like their Australian counterparts, fought a losing battle against the white settlers. Perhaps the most interesting, and poignant, is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, originally called the Custer Battlefield National Monument, named for the loser of the battle against a group of Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors in Montana. Lt Col George Custer and 262 soldiers, scouts and civilians attached to the 7th US Calvary died in the fight, known as Custer’s Last Stand, on June 25, 1876. Fourteen years later, 350 Indian men, women and children were killed at the 7th Calvary tent camp at  Wounded Knee, South Dakota, after the US army had disarmed them, looking for their chief, Big Foot.  One of the survivors, Louise Weasel Bear, quoted in Dee Brown’s wonderful Indian history of the American West, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, said: “We tried to run, but they shot us like we were a buffalo. I know there are some good white people, but the solders must be mean to shoot children and women. Indian soldiers would not do that to white children.” By 1891, all native American Indians had been shunted off to reservations, their culture in tatters.

In a tribute to the 100 American Indians who also died in the defence of their families, land and “traditional way of life” – remember Paul Keating’s words at Redfern – the US Congress changed the name of the battlefield to Little Bighorn in 1991, and ordered construction of a privately funded memorial for the Indians.  (More on the memorial: http://1.usa.gov/w6ckg3 )

A Navajo-Irish writer, Lindsey Catherine Cornum, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, wrote a piece for an American Indian online publication: Indian Country, about another famous protest when members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee and held it for 71 days in 1973. (Here’s a link: http://bit.ly/x1nuqx )

Just substitute the word “Aborigine” for “Indian” and “Sioux” in her final call to arms and see if it resonates: “Many lives were taken at Wounded Knee and many lives continue to be taken in prisons, reservations and more subtly in the melting pot. You don’t have to let them take yours. You can be a part of the resistance, not the tragedy. Today, whether full-blood, half-blood or mixed-blood, we can all stand as an Indian. We can all stand with the Sioux. Together we can say “We are here and we shall overcome!”

The important issue is not whether the Prime Minister’s former adviser told the Aboriginal protesters where Tony Abbott was on Australia Day – any demonstrator, journalist or media adviser worth his or her salt could have found out where he was in a 45-second phone call – but whether Aborigines will finally get the sovereignty they deserve. And the recognition that Paul Keating talked about in his Redfern speech: “Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.”

PS Sat Feb 4, 2012 One of my best mates, who never comments on my blog, but reads them most of the time, complained that I wasn’t critical in the above post. The reason I didn’t mention the protests at the Lobby restaurant, the ugly scenes and security scare outside and the odious burning of the Australian flag the next day is that my belief is that these events would have never occurred if sovereignty had been granted to the Aborigines. The Tent Embassy would more than likely be a memorial and any anniversary commemorations would be dignified. And Tony Abbott, who spends several weeks every year visiting and helping Aboriginal communities, would not have been asked about the relevance of the site, but only the successful campaign of the Indigenous people in finally achieving sovereignty. We live in hope that someday they shall overcome.

3 thoughts on “Bury my heart at the Tent Embassy

  1. Serious question ie not a baiting one. It has never been explained to me just what the claim of ‘sovereignty’ entails.
    This is Collins on-line dictionary definition.
    sovereignty |ˈsäv(ə)rəntē|
    noun ( pl. -ties)
    supreme power or authority :
    • the authority of a state to govern itself or another state : national sovereignty.
    See note at jurisdiction .
    • a self-governing state.
    ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French sovereinete, from soverain (see sovereign ).
    None of three definitions seems remotely feasible or likely, so is there another interpretation? Just what is it that the 360 or so discrete indigenous tribes want? Whether I agree with it or not, I genuinely would like to know.

    • Magpie, A difficult question, but I will give you my interpretation. From what I can understand, the Aborigines want control of Aboriginal Affairs. And, of course, the Tent Embassy movement is critical of the recently created indigenous representative body, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and the 22-member panel which presented its proposals on indigenous recognition in the constitution to the Prime Minister last month. I am quoting Dan Harrison, the Indigenous Affair Correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald here: “The panel proposed specifically recognising the prior occupation of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and acknowledging their continuing relationship with their traditional lands and waters, and their cultures, languages and heritage.” It also “proposes prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin and recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as ‘the original Australian languages’ and part of our national heritage.” The fly in the ointment is that the panel said the issue of sovereignty should be dealt with separately, which was dismissed by Michael Anderson, the only survivor of the four Aborigines who started the Tent Embassy forty years ago. He wants self-governance as well as compensation. As Debra Jopson (a terrific journalist who you might remember from The Australian back in the 80s) put it in the SMH on Jan 28-29, the Aboriginal anger at the Tent Embassy protests is “about native title laws and land rights acts delivering much less than had been hoped for, about the Northern Territory intervention continuing and about the lack of recognition of these first people in the nation’s fabric, such as the constitution.” That’s what Aboriginal sovereignty means to me. They also want mineral rights to their land, given what they are now worth.
      I know I probably didn’t answer your question, but I did give it a go. And I still think Aborigines deserve as much sovereignty as we can give them, and it should be proclaimed in the constitution.

      • PS Magpie, I found this at the end of the 22-member expert panel report mentioned in my previous reply, re the question of sovereignty and what it means:

        “While questions relating to sovereignty are likely to continue to be the subject of debate in the community, including among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, the Panel does not consider that these questions can be resolved or advanced at this time by inclusion in a constitutional referendum proposal.
        Qualitative research undertaken for the Panel in August 2011 found that ‘sovereignty’ and ‘self-determination’ were poorly understood concepts. (My italics) Given the apparent diversity of current understanding in relation to the meaning of sovereignty and its significance, any such proposal is also unlikely to satisfy the fourth of the Panel’s principles, namely the requirement that it be ‘technically and legally sound’.”

        So what the expert panel is saying is that “sovereignty” is a “poorly understood concept,” and would be difficult to defend on legal grounds. No wonder Michael Anderson was unhappy with the report.

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