“Our lives are not a trend”: Resounding calls for justice mark 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

“Our lives are not a trend”: Resounding calls for justice mark 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

Aboriginal community leaders, artists and young people highlighted the urgency of long-standing calls for justice through speeches and performances at the Survival Day event on unceded Kaurna Yerta on January 26. (Image: Anisha Pillarisetty)

By Anisha Pillarisetty | @nishkinsilk

Chants of “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” echoed through the streets of Kaurna Yerta (Adelaide) during the Survival Day rally on January 26, 2022 – 50 years since the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established.

The Embassy was first set up in 1972 on the lawns of the then Parliament House (now Old Parliament House), on unceded Ngunnawal country (Canberra), in response to the McMahon Government’s “commitment to its ongoing assimilation policy” and refusal to acknowledge Aboriginal land rights.

The longest-standing protest site for First Nations land rights, sovereignty and self-determination in the world, the Embassy has faced various hurdles – from the government amending trespassing legislation hours before a violent eviction of protesters, to suspected arson prior to another attempt at forcible eviction.

Aboriginal academic Bronwyn Carlson, and Wiradjuri & Badu scholar Linda June-Coe say the Embassy still stands “as a reminder of the successive failures of subsequent governments to address the demands for justice represented by the embassy and its people”.

Speaking at the rally on Kaurna Yerta, Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna person Kodi Rigney, whose father recently travelled to Canberra with Black Death Australia IPC to commemorate 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, said January 26 “is a day of mourning”.

Rigney said the day is also a reminder of the resilience of Aboriginal people, despite centuries of demands for justice going unheeded by the government.

“It’s time governments stopped blaming our understaffed, underfunded, grossly undervalued Aboriginal staff, colleagues, businesses, services and communities for the issues that are so deeply embedded in our country,” they said. “It is not enough to throw a tokenistic bone by slapping some art on a letterhead and a generic acknowledgement of Country.

“We need Aboriginal-driven and led initiatives and policies through to communities and we need autonomy to reinforce our core values – culture resilience and culture strength. We want real commitment from our country’s leaders. 50 years is too long and 234 years is too late.”

Rigney said “little has changed” in terms of government policies and actions to address systemic injustices such as Aboriginal deaths in custody.

“Numbers of our children in out-of-home care rise and institutional systems still refuse to adhere to or embed community-led solutions that work for our community,” they said. “This government knows and has been told time and again what our communities need to change.

“But they also know real change means … dismantling systems that they benefit from, and they don’t want that.”

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) shared similar sentiments in December 2021.

“Governments continue to stall on urgent action to end these injustices,” NATSILS said. “Our organisations have called for practical and necessary policy and law reform solutions for 50 years.”

Survival Day rally in Tarndanyangga, Kaurna Yerta on January 26, 2022. (Image: Anisha Pillarisetty)

Australia is the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with First Nations people. The activism around this issue, as Gamiliraay writer and lawyer Nat Cromb says, ties into “Indigenous sovereignty” and “the pursuit of self-determination”.

Arrabunna Elder Kevin Buzzacott – who Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Narungga community leader and rally organiser Natasha Wanganeen introduced as “one of our biggest freedom fighters” – said, because of the atrocities committed against Aboriginal people and Country, “Australia Day is like every day for me”.

“They’ve got no right to jail our people, to do all these horrible things to them,” he said. “Our kids, our Country, everything Blak belongs to us – not the judges and jury and the constitution and the policies and the government and whatnot.

“We’ve got a lot to offer to the world for peace and, some of us, we got to keep rattling the cage. Peace is not going to fall out of the sky. You’re gonna have to work hard to get it and we need all people on deck to help us, support us – not only on big days like today.”

Natasha Wanganeen said while Aboriginal people continue to educate others on systemic racial injustice, and have been for over 200 years, it is time for non-Aboriginal people to take the initiative. She said everybody has someone in their family who has conservative views, and it is time to step forward and have difficult conversations.

“You fellas who are non-Aboriginal people, you need to educate yourselves and find … compassion as human beings to fight for us,” Wanganeen said.

She said she doesn’t want the children in her family to have to do what she’s doing at rallies – and has been doing for years.

“You need to understand what we’re here for. This is not a trend; our lives are not a trend. Black Lives Matter marches are not a trend. That’s our lives,” she said. “I wholeheartedly appreciate all the non-Indigenous people that rock up and stay through it all – thank you. But you got to keep that up, because being Blak don’t just end on Survival Day – we Blak every day!”

Wanganeen said she, and the rest of the organising team, worked closely with relevant authorities to make sure this year’s event could go ahead in a COVID-safe way. 

Information was regularly posted to the event page, and all attendees were encouraged to check in using the QR codes provided, socially distance, sanitise regularly, and stay home if feeling unwell.

The event was held outdoors in Tarndanyangga (Victoria Square), with attendees staying in the groups they arrived in. Masks were worn even when sitting down for most of the performances and speeches. Before the march, designated volunteers handed out sanitiser and ensured attendees were checking in.

As well as speeches, the Survival Day rally featured various musicians and artists including Bec Gollan, Eskatology, Zenadth Kes community leader Eddie Peters, and Kaurna Elder Major “Moogy” Sumner accompanied by a group of dancers.

As Wakka Wakka woman Bizzi Lavelle writes, there are many ways to show solidarity with Aboriginal-led movements for justice on January 26 and beyond. These include researching issues by listening to and foregrounding Aboriginal voices, following Aboriginal-led media like CAAMA Radio, IndigenousX, Koori Mail, Speaking Out with Larissa Behrendt, and Presence by Amy McQuire, attending rallies, and paying the rent.

Paying the rent can mean regular or one-off donations to Aboriginal-led organisations and initiatives like Black Rainbow, Dhadjowa Foundation, Seed Mob, Anaiwan #LandBack, Wuurn of Kanak and the grassroots collective Pay the Rent.

Podcasts to listen to for a First Nations perspective on January 26 include Boe Spearim’s Frontier War Stories, Lorna Munro’s 232: The Last Day of Freedom and Take it Blak.

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