A Visit to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

I’d emailled an old high school friend. We used to share final year art classes. I told him of a photography exhibition. One of his favorite old Australian photographers–Max Dupain. He used to like him a lot. I told him how I liked Olive Cotton’s photo of the photographer himself (her husband at the time) “Max After Surfing“,1939.

One of the few images, when I first saw it, I’d call drop-dead-gorgeous. Probably because it was a woman’s eye view of desire, which I hadn’t often seen in visual history, or in society. Aretha Franklin and Bessie Smith express much of this in their music, but where else was it? I hadn’t known of this seductive view of Olive Cotton’s at school. Cotton wasn’t part of the school’s or wider community’s art knowledge like Dupain was. Wonder why! Let’s not encourage all those girls to create ideas of their own desires (sexual, financial, political or cultural). Let’s not teach them that 50 odd years ago, a woman called Olive Cotton was doing it.

I’d only heard of her and her work when doing an art school essay. Cotton’s photo “Teacup Ballet” 1935, had been an option in a choice of essay topics. I chose a comparative essay assignment. Cotton’s Teacup Ballet with Margaret Preston’s oil painting “Implement Blue”, of 1927, included by lecturers Jennifer Turpin and Bruce Adams. Comparative art theory essays were never my interest, as I didn’t believe that artists made their work for people to sit down and write complicated essays about. But I appreciated the introduction to Olive Cotton, and her inclusion in the selection. It was the late 1980s, when Cotton was over 70 years old, before Cotton’s photography enjoyed wider exposure in Australia.

The old school friend wrote of being overseas, and being far away from the sea. And in the middle of summer, missing the beach. He told me how he’d hung up Max Dupain’s iconic beach photo “Sunbaker“, 1937. The image summed up so much of what was missed, about the sea and Australia. The friend had educated himself as far as he could in Australia, in our open access, low fees uni system, which is under attack now, by the current government. He was in a far way land, but the photo exhibition of Dupain’s was nearby.

It motivated me to go, the remembering of him, leafing through a Dupain photo book, in late adolescence. Life lived through reproductions. Rarely seeing the real thing. So, I went. With my son. Put some apples and a plastic knife and a box of crackers in the car and set off for the National Portrait Gallery at the Old Parliament House. We parked. I thought ahead, and asked my son “Would you like some apple now?”

He saw the lawn. The lake. I saw the Aboriginal Tent embassy. The newly burnt out shell of the Tent Embassy’s Information Office. “Arsonists” had attacked it under a month ago. The Tent Embassy was started in 1972, and since then it has symbolized and expressed Aboriginal people’s fight for sovereignty. Aboriginal Australians are now approximately 1.1% of the population and received the vote and access to social benefits as late as 1967. The Greens politician for the Canberra area, “The Australian Capital Territory”, Kerrie Tucker, had been in the news lately, for conflicting with the Federal Minister for Territories Wilson Tuckey. The sequence of events after the arson attack on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy became confusing, so I called her office, and was emailed the following description by her office staffer Roland Manderson, of what had happened. Their names Tuckey and Tucker are so similar it might sound confusing, but stick with it!:

“Thank you for your email in support of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and our actions in challenging the Commonwealth Minister for Territories Wilson Tuckey on the matter. You won’t be surprised to learn that not everyone is pleased by what we have done on this issue, and so your support is particularly gratifying.

“Not everyone who has written to us knows the details of these recent incidents, so I have summarised the situation so far. At present the site shed, which was the Embassy’s information centre and subject to a recent arson attack, is a burnt out shell. Minister Tuckey argued that as the shed had been burned out, it was unsafe and should be removed. It is however still on site, directly in front of the Old Parliament House, and would be reparable.

“When, on the suggestion of friends of the Tent Embassy, we offered to cover the cost of a safety fence erected around the shed, to ensure it was safe and so obviate the need for Minister Tuckey to have it removed, his reaction was extraordinarily hostile. While legal action was threatened, none appears to be forthcoming. However, the contractor removed the fence, the next day under threat of legal action from the National Capital Authority (which has responsibility for Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle, in which the Tent Embassy is located) presumably acting under directions of the Minister.

“The Tent Embassy itself is listed on the register of the national estate as a protest site of heritage value. If a Commonwealth agency were to make any changes to the site, it would have an obligation to refer the matter to the Australian Heritage Commission.

“As I understand it, the National Capital Authority did refer the matter to the Heritage Commission. In explaining the position that the Commission then arrived at in regard to the removal of the building, Executive director Bruce Leaver concluded a letter to The Canberra Times with the following paragraph: ‘The Commission believed that the very nature of the debate about the arson incident and proposed removal of the structure clearly demonstrated that the national-estate values were not affected, indeed the removal of the structure might well heighten awareness of the site’s national-estate values rather than diminish them.’

“I have since written to The Canberra Times suggesting that, on the same basis, we spill oil on the Great Barrier Reef in order to raise awareness of its ecological sensitivity.

“It is a serious concern however that the Minister for Territories appears to dismiss an arson attack on the Tent Embassy (and its residents) as a mere reflection of its unpopularity, but threatens legal action against people who offer to pay for the erection of a security fence around the damaged building; and that the Heritage Commission will accede to the removal of the building simply because people DO appreciate its political significance.

“Thank you again for your letters to us, please feel free to share your thoughts with any of the above on this matter.

“PS . Previous to its life at the Tent Embassy , the site-shed was a permanent protest installation outside the South African Embassy when that country was run under the apartheid regime, so clearly there are quite a few heritage values at stake.”

I hadn’t crossed that green lawn before. It seemed a no-go zone. I’d met a camera film guy at a refugee rally a year or so ago, who’d been slowly making a doco of the Aboriginal Tent embassy. It seemed an unwritten Anglo code that non-Aboriginals didn’t venture down there, or shouldn’t go there, to those tents on the lawn with a fire smoking, with cars around, and washing hanging. You should believe in God, Queen and country, and not much else. Like how you grow up with any sort of cultural or social conditioning.

We walked over the road, to the grass and steps. My son, keenly carrying the lunch box, tripped on the steps. An Aboriginal guy came over. Helped him up. “Do you mind if we eat here?” I started slicing my apple on the lunch box lid and chatted about what was happening. My son observed the burnt out nature of the site-shed, which was the Information Center. A few Canadian journalists were sitting further away, with some Aboriginal people.

“Cold down here, isn’t it?” I say, as the wind seems to run up from the War Memorial, over the lake. He says “It was a 3 dog night last night”. I laugh. I hadn’t heard that in a while. Aboriginal people sleep at the tent embassy. A 3 dog night means he needed 3 dogs to keep him warm at night. 3 equals a cold night. Fur cover. An old outback drover saying, when men sleep under the stars. I knew how they felt. I’d slept near the full blowing gas heater. 3 hours away were the Snowy Mountains ski fields, in full winter flight, at top prices. I asked if they do interviews. “Come back tomorrow. We’ve got some Canadians now, and we’ve just had some Norwegians.”

The fire was burning. The old bush humpy, or “gunya”, a traditional Aboriginal dome shaped sleeping shelter, of tree branches woven with leaves, was standing with the War Memorial in view behind it. There were painted signs on and around the burnt out Information Center “Tent Embassy Information Center–Open to Public” “Sacred Sites. WorldHeritage.” “Aboriginal Tent Embassy”. Someone had put up sculpted metal razor wire around the burnt out building, to show unity with Amnesty International. It also tied in with the locking up of refugees behind razor wire in our desert. Another sign read “Native wisdom, Respect Culture, Sovereignty”.

There was one sign there, decoratively painted and signed “Bunja 03” which read, from top to bottom, in 13 lines: “Infiltrate, Annihilate, Incarcerate, Indoctrinate, I DID NOT GO AWAY. Assimilate, Educate. Graduate. Self Determinate. I WILL NOT GO AWAY. Pluralism. Multiculturalism. HOW ABOUT SOVEREIGNTY”. That last sign seemed to sum up so much Australia’s 215 year Aboriginal-Anglo history.

I’d learnt some things about Aboriginal culture from my father, who’d taught in a remote area of the Northern Territory, in northern Australia, for 3 years. At Beswick Creek, south of Katherine. Ten miles off the highway. He has a collection of Aboriginal paintings from that time, traded for dressmaking cloth and tobacco with the painter Charlie Lamjarrett. Lamjarrett was the Tribal Elder/ the Head Man, of the Djoun tribe. It was better for artists to trade their art for goods, more useful than cash. I’d watched those images all my childhood. Turtles. Kangaroos. Snakes. On tree bark. Pigments. Blues. Reds. Yellow Ochres. As kids, he’d tell us stories of going hunting with the kids, shooting kangaroos, bush turkeys, goannas, lizards. He once shot a pelican and then they’d go and cook it up and eat it. The kids loved the pelican taste.

The government sent up supplies of tinned food- tinned fruit, flour, tea, sugar. These Western types of food were later blamed for the prevalence of diabetes within Aboriginal communities. These foods were foreign, before, to these communities. The kids would go and fish at the waterhole. There would be fresh water crocodiles. The aim of the settlement, the government policy, was to assimilate the children into white ways. To teach them to work within white society. Many Aboriginals have been critical of government assimilation policy. See the above link to Beswick Creek regarding the return of this land to the Aboriginal people by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in June 1988, and the Barunga Statement, which was created on bark. Dad said that the biggest problem was for the kids to actually get a job after school. This is still an issue in Australia, and he pointed out that the town of Moree, in north-western N.S.W. is a contemporary example of the way in which communities are trying to deal with these issues. The documentary “Message From Moree” recently discussed these issues.

At Beswick Creek in the early 60s, there was no alcohol, and thus no alcohol related problems. Beswick Creek employed half a dozen white people, including the Superintendent and his wife. Aboriginal men worked the cattle and learnt horse riding, for the white cattle station. There’d be a bullock slaughtered once a week for the Aboriginal people. The kids ate in the canteen to “have a decent lunch”. They had a power generator lighting plant, and showed films. There was a garden to produce settlement fresh vegies. A church minister would come once a month–Brother Hamish. It was close to Arnhem Land. The Aboriginals would settle at Beswick, and then go off to Arnhem Land. Apparently they were free to move as they wished, to go hunting when they wanted. He’d taught the actor David Gulpilil who has acted in the films Walkabout, Storm Boy, The Last Wave, Tracker, to name a few. When I saw Storm Boy as a kid, I was proud of the connection my Dad had had to this actor.

Dad used to take the bark paintings into his history classes at an urban high school, to show the boys. He’d also regularly taken us out to La Perouse in Sydney, in an old purple Valiant station wagon, to walk around and see the snake man. Station wagon Valiant cars in the late 1970s were nicknamed “wog chariots”–a type of racist slang, racist when used by Anglos to people of Mediterranean origin, based on the old “worthy oriental gentleman” acronym. The comedy “Kingswood Country” was an Aussie suburban comedy, which used the phrase “wog chariot” in the late 70s, in reference to the comedy’s Italian son-in-law “Bruno”‘s car, and to many migrant families, in general, who drove a Valiant.

Now Valiants of 1967 vintage are quite chic, with their wind down back windows, but back then they were more pragmatic. Dad had told me later that migrants were proud of these adequate cars. They were good for families with more than 2 kids, although Volvos were more middle-class-Anglo desirable. My family drove their Valiant all the way out to La Perouse, often. A purple one at that.

The film”Vacant Posession“, written and directed by Margo Nash, shows this La Perouse region, the film being set at Botany Bay. Botany Bay being the site where Captain James Cook arrived with the first English Boat people. One of the interesting themes of that film is its exploration of the taboo of Anglo women falling in love with Aboriginal guys. Of crossing that unwritten line. The story told of pregnancy, a fight with the young woman’s father, the Aboriginal lover’s subsequent detention, and death. A forbidden desire. A broken culture in whole.

I think many towns in regional areas of Australia had their own story of these deaths, as well as urban areas. Often suicides, of quiet young Aboriginal guys. Perhaps in love with white girls. Perhaps for other reasons. Not always in detention. Sometimes just the relationship. All too complex and painful. Once the line had been crossed. It was quiet, and rarely mentioned, but the sadness stayed, for many years, in the silent faces of the mothers and the girls who had been loved. And, others girls learnt, by watching, to avoid that pain. The names of the boy, the girl, and the boy’s mother never vanishes. Remembering seeing them in the town, cuddling. Somehow stays in the memory. You knew that if your eye could see this, that it was better to transfer that site of desire to non-Aboriginal men. It wasn’t safe, socially. (The government’s aim was for the Aboriginal population to decrease, not to increase). But you couldn’t repress this desire. It’d perhaps be like being gay- something you couldn’t and didn’t want to run away from, but it had the same taboo. So, you learnt to keep that desire, for your own survival, but seek its expression/connection elsewhere.

Yet, transferring that desire to a non-Australian man means risking putting a lot of racial clutter on him, when you try and live within Australian society, and the man can end up feeling boxed in and revolted by the culture. Your own involuntary, internalized values of that culture can sit uneasily here too.

Looking at the bush humpy, or “gunya”, at the Tent Embassy, which seemed to sit out of place with the permanence of the over constructed War Memorial and the symmetry of Canberra behind it, I wanted a camera. The burnt out site-shed (which had been used also at the South African embassy as an anti-apartheid information embassy) painted with images and texts. The Aboriginal flag near it. A vacant plastic chair. Old Parliament House behind it. Well painted, white. It seemed strange, to go to a photography exhibition, when outside, there were photos to be taken. History to be recorded while apple slices were eaten.

Inside Old Parliament House were exquisite black and white portraits by Max Dupain, of distinguished artists and unknown Australians. Their framed front glass, in the deep grey areas of the photos, reflecting the viewer’s own portrait.

I remembered reading of Max Dupain saying that the skills of a photographer were in being able to take photos in your own environment i.e. of a magnolia or such. It was somehow as important, or more important, than travelling to far off, exotic locations in search of the alluring. Like Naguib Mahfouz living in Cairo and writing Cairo stories. Or Olive Cotton living out at Cowra and doing photography around there. Dupain had taken photos of Australian artists such as Lloyd Rees and Russell Drysdale in their studios. As a child at school, while lining up, I used to lean against a worn out Drysdale poster of his painting “Moody’s Pub“1941. Drysdale had been a painter who went to outback/ regional Australia and recorded his European perspective of non-urban, human oriented landscapes, which included varying depictions of Aboriginal Australia. Seeing Dupain’s photo portrait of the artist and former Art Gallery of NSW Director, Hal Missingham, reminded me of Missingham’s photographic books “Close Focus” or “Design Focus”, photographic studies of detail. The idea of detail has always interested me. It’s intimacy. It’s domesticity. It’s power. How detail can be overlooked, yet any whole experience is usually made up of many details and fragments. Think of Paul Cox’s film “Innocence“. All those details of memory, time, smell, music, place, touch and emotional experience. There were also many portraits of dancers, a couple of the writer Patrick White, one of the soprano opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland, architects. Musicians including Yehudi Menuhin. Conductors. Also, there were anonymous photos, amongst which was the portrait of a young boy “Smiling Boy at Glebe” 1939, . The eyes, or the smile struck me. Something about his young face.

Aboriginal Australia is one of the hardest realities to face and write about, without being a patronizing white twit. Maybe it’s not so hard, with some effort, but it is a difficult, complex, living, breathing complexity, which is hard to face and easier to avoid. Where does one try to start from? Where to commence? I think it’s better to leave the white critics aside. Better to read or hear Aboriginal people’s own stories. Talk to Aboriginal people on your own. (Just as Olive Cotton had done, by placing her eye behind the camera at Max.) Visit the Tent Embassy, sit down by the campfire. Listen, hear the stories, and have your winter jacket come home smoke saturated. And when your kids ask you where you’ve been, as they smell that smoke within the canvas, just say “Oh, just sitting by a campfire, listening to some Aboriginal people talk about their life”, and already at 6 years, one says “But there aren’t many Aboriginal people anywhere”.

A few days after seeing the photo show, I drove back to the Tent Embassy. This time, knowing why I was going there. I wanted to ask the name of the guy I’d been speaking with on that first unplanned visit, but no-one could remember. “Probably it was Uncle Neil. What did he look like?” Medium build I said. Perhaps a moustache or beard. “How old was he? How dark was he? Really dark or not?” At my hesitation to answer, we all laughed shyly a little. There was a chance now to sit down by the campfire, and listen. I didn’t own a mobile tape recorder so I’d just brought pen and paper. 2 other Aboriginal men turned up, strangers. Were offered a seat. I sat down. Listened to some talk about the embassy. The arson attack. It turned out that 3 of the men around the fire were adopted into white families at a young age. The men were in their 30s. It amazed me how they just slipped into each other’s company- strangers, but somehow not strangers. Asking if one knew the other’s relatives in the region where they’d come from. They’d establish shared connections, links to family and friends, and then keep talking. Opening up about the pain of adoption early in the chat. The different men spoke of being well cared for in their adoptive homes. The visiting men spoke of experiences in juvenile detention centers, of theft, of doing the Harry Holt (bolting off). The least pained of the adopted men seemed to be those who’d always known they were Aboriginal. Not so hidden. 2 of the men were caring for relative’s children. I thought the kids were their own. But they both said “Oh, no they’re my sister’s kids- giving the Mum and Dad a break to sort things out/ have some time together” Or they were a brother’s kids. As a parent I could understand that. Their strength in the extended family reminded me of the social fabric of Egyptian society, which I’d experienced in Cairo. Something adoption would (and did) threaten in Aboriginal communities. Some of the men spoke of the affect of alcohol on family breakdowns in general, and their decisions to delete it from their lives.

Ivan Sen’s film “Beneath Clouds” dealt with issues of Aboriginal youth in detention centres and the anger these young men carried within them. The music group “Tiddas” sing about deaths in custody in their song “Malcolm Smith”, 1993. A song about a boy who steals a bike, gets locked up, and dies in custody. The magistrate Pat O’Shane, herself Aboriginal, is aware of the frequent times Aboriginal youths are brought before court for offensive language. The artist Lin Onus did the sculpture “Fruit Bats“, 1991 –one hundred bats hanging upside down on an archetypal Australian Hills Hoist clothes line. Wonder what that’s all about? Many young guys end up inside, having done little to warrant it. Perhaps they stole a packet of textas and something else. After doing something else minor.

Later, another man came over. He sat down, and some Timorese women came over, who’d been in Australia for less than 2 years. One Timorese lady came over, came up close, and didn’t stand back. She crouched down by the fire, and held out her hands to the campfire grate “We cook like that, back home, on the fire, like that”, she motioned to the black kettle and saucepan on the grate. The Aboriginal man who’d come over, Damien Eade, welcomed them, and started talking, explaining to the women the buildings “One building, the one over there, was an East Timor embassy. The one with the snake on it. That one, the one that got burnt out, was used before outside the South African embassy, and was used as an information center, in the anti-apartheid struggle, to share information. In our country, we have to have an embassy. A tent embassy. In our own country. We still have problems in this country, we have people here living in third world conditions. We sleep here like white people did when the boats came 215 years ago. We’d like to govern our own country, like you East Timorese want to govern your own country- without the fighting. You have the UN telling you how to run your government and your lives. When people come here, they should have respect for our way of doing things, like how in East Timor, they should respect your sovereignty. We have the West Papua flag here, and other flags from around the world, from other indigenous nations, in solidarity with them …..They try and come and make us put out our campfire and we want to keep our campfire burning- it’s the oldest form of energy. If they let us manage our land, as we did before 1788, there wouldn’t be these problems like the firestorm (in Canberra in January 2003)….We want the chance to rule our country, so our kids can have a proper country” Then, Damien sang a welcome song for the Timorese ladies, and said to them to bring their flag, that they’ll fly it, near the West Papua flag. He gets paid nothing for this singing, and story, but people who drop by are welcome to leave a gold coin near the <steps.Then>, Damien sang a welcome song for the Timorese ladies, and said to them to bring their flag, that they’ll fly it, near the West Papua flag. He gets paid nothing for this singing, and story, but people who drop by are welcome to leave a gold coin near the steps.

Damien explains to me “As sovereign people we have always acknowledged, recognized, welcomed other sovereign people in this sacred land since time immemorial, (from the beginning). Always was, always will be yolngu, ngar, nungah, murrie, koori koories (Aboriginal) land. We are refugees in our own country. And we didn’t lock up other boat people who came into this country” i.e. the British, referring to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia, especially over the past 2 years.

Damien and I spoke of refugees coming here as boat people, taking that huge risk in unpredictable boats, escaping oppressive regimes. How when they came here, Damien wondered why they didn’t see this government as equally oppressive as the ones they’d left behind. I said I’d heard people in the migrant community express that frustration, but once you get here and start struggling to provide for yourself, learn English, and study to improve your work prospects, it’s hard to give all that up and return home. Yet other immigrants I’d met were simply happy with the money they could make, and a perceived political freedom.”

Damien also questioned the loyalty inspired by the fact that migrants to Australia, including British migrants, could often hold dual citizenship. Where exactly was the loyalty? They could leave and run at any unsuitable time. Especially when Aboriginal people usually had just one citizenship, and had only in recent history recently got the vote. And he questioned the ease in which foreign nationals could buy Australian land.

Tent Embassy resident Darren Bloomfield warmed up stew in a saucepan on the fire, another man later grilled a chop on the open grill. One man warms up toast, scraping off the burnt bits. Washing was hung up between 2 trees, on a line. Pots of dishwashing liquid were around basins for washing up. Kids were running around and jumping around inside cars or under trees, with all the formality of Old Parliament House behind them. Some men spoke of pinstriped blacks in well paid jobs, too cozy to remember the real struggles. How money compromised the bravest of men. They told me that the new Parliament House land site is a traditional sacred birth site for Aboriginal women, and how important sacred land is for them. I said that where my children were born seemed like a sacred site, and that the NSW Carr government had sold the Royal Hospital for Women’s old Paddington land site in Sydney, and the land was redeveloped. The birth of a child had meaning for these Aboriginal people, and me, but that significance was overridden by government bureaucrats and developers.

I’d never really understood why Aboriginal people slept at the tent embassy. Were they guarding the makeshift buildings, my Anglo property-centric mind asked, like a security guard is paid to protect property. Most Australians work their entire lives to pay off their own home. People make sure mortgage payments are met, or all else is lost, including social inclusion, stability and respect. It is a national obsession. There are many lifestyle programs on TV about renovating houses to make money, house auctioning programs, backyard improvement programs galore. People learn to identify greatly with the house they live in, or aspire to live in, the area they live in, and the worth of their home. Increasing house prices are making this even more of an issue, with there being talk of banks permanently owning part of the property, so people can get a foot into the expensive urban real estate market, and the banks would keep a good part of the profit on sale. All this will tie up people’s time more, and people will have less time to think about issues important to their lives or their nation, or their world. Less time to spend with their immediate or extended families. Or do what they want in their lives.

A shortage in urban housing should inspire the increased building of well designed public housing, to make sure people have stability, dignity and a decent shelter, not just motivate banks to come up with profitable schemes which capitalize on people’s desperation for shelter. But adequate supply of public housing would take the plug out of the real estate market, and this would not help those who make a profit out of the boom, which includes businesses which do well out of housing and building booms, and governments who collect large amounts of stamp duty. The most threatening thing to governments and big business about adequate supply of decent public housing, is that it would empower people, and allow them time to do what they want with their lives. It would also lower the price of housing in general, taking out the desperation factor, and make housing more affordable for all people.

As seductive as a big profit is, coming after you sell a renovated house, which allows people to accumulate wealth quickly, instead of slaving away at a job for years, the boom which has accompanied it will make housing largely unattainable for current and future generations. It might help your family now, but how will your kids and others of their generation catch the market? As the old saying goes, shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. It is important to have decent public housing, and an affordable housing market, for all Australians. It is important that this public housing is spread throughout a city, not just in immigrant or struggling areas. To cover all who might need it in the future, as well as those who desperately need it tonight.

I knew that the Aboriginal people at the Tent Embassy were there to make a point, to protest, and did not want to be removed. That it was an act of defiance. Did the Aboriginal people at the Tent Embassy like being together and hanging out together, despite the cold and, to me, the simple provisions? One man agreed that it was better to be there, than in a lonely flat watching TV. But, as a culture, we weren’t supposed to talk about loneliness and suicide. (The film “Ken Park”, which has been banned in Australia for adults to see, deals with suicide and self-asphyxiation issues. The film critic Margaret Pomeranz was one of a group calling themselves “Free Cinema”, who attempted to start a public screening of the film on July 3rd 2003, but police stopped the screening.)

In an article in The Canberra Times by Kirsten Lawson on July 5 2003, Lawson quoted Neil Simpson discussing why he has spent 31 years of his life, on and off, at the Tent Embassy “We went from being classed as vermin, but here now we have a political voice. We will maintain this site as it is, simply because a lot of our uncles, sisters and mothers and aunts and children have to live on the fringes of our society. A lot of us have nice places to go but we choose to live here and suffer as our people has.”

The men were not there to guard the buildings. This idea seemed odd to them. They were there to bring attention to their political cause, to keep their ideals alive, of sovereignty, and they were there to share information about their concerns and hoped to be there for a lot longer. The now burnt out Information Office was a means of storing information, which was the value. The building itself in its original condition was not exactly the value, but its political-resistance significance, artwork, national heritage value and its capacity to contribute to helping share the information on their ideals were. Just like if your own home was destroyed in a fire, and you get an insurance cheque, but a lot more was lost than just materials. Family photos, family heritage, personal treasure. The men didn’t speak of wanting a nice government building, in a nice quiet isolated location, to have an embassy from. And this probably would not further their cause. Especially in a country like Australia, where there is such limited media freedom, such tight concentration of media ownership, which looks like getting tighter. A quiet location for an embassy would make them hidden, as the government wants it all. These Aboriginal men want their own embassy, on their own terms, and they seemed to deeply want to have it accessible and open to people. Communication, sharing and access were the main priorities. Modern comforts were compromised, and were put as last priorities. Perhaps 3 dogs are better than a full-blown, bill arriving, gas heater. It seemed these “discomforts” and “compromises” were the price they paid for their struggle. Like Mandela in prison all those years.

Perhaps the significance of the Tent Embassy and its now burnt out Information Centre was like Aboriginal bark paintings- the bark being temporal, yet the spoken and visual history of storytelling ensured the story was passed onto the next generations, and not forgotten. The painted surface not expected to last forever, in traditional outdoor environments. Although rock and cave images have lasted, tree bark rarely does, except perhaps in galleries. The stories and political struggle are significant, and of great importance, and it is their content which is meant to be passed on. Access and sharing of the bark paintings, to the told story, and to the Tent Embassy, are of high importance.

After doing some of this writing, and having a siesta, I got up. And on the white wardrobe door, I saw a printed page stuck up. My husband had been cleaning up his papers, and had found an exhibition print out, from 1995. An Olive Cotton photography show I’d been to at the Josef Lebovic Gallery in Paddington. There it was: her photo “Max After Surfing”. Alongside “Teacup Ballet”. Placed there, in my own bedroom.

VANESSA JONES lives in Australia and can be contacted at: post4@bigpond.com.au.

NOTE: On SBS TV news, on July 17, 2003, it was reported that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s burnt out Information Centre was trucked away in the early morning, by police and contractors, and that one person was arrested in this process. This was put as the 2nd last item of news, during a 13 (thirteen) second (not minute) news reportage space given to the Tent Embassy. ABC Online told of police dressed in riot gear, numbering more than 40, to “guard” the site-shed while it was put on a truck by contractors. I called Damien Eade on his mobile, at the Tent Embassy, and asked his version of events in the early morning. Damien said that it came as a shock. I asked how he felt about it. He said that he felt “disgraced”, and that the removal of the Information Office on July 17 shows that discrimination still goes on in this country.

Thanks to the Aboriginal people at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra for welcoming me to their campfire and sharing their ideas and lives. The Tent Embassy is located on the lawn at Parkes Place, King George Terrace, Parkes, opposite the Old Parliament House, in Canberra. These are the English names for this location, but will get you there. The Tent Embassy is open to all visitors, all day, all week. A visitors’ book can be signed there, and gold coins can be left as donations.