Editor's note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.
Fifty years ago, on Jan. 26, 1972, four young First Nations activists made their way to the grass opposite Australia’s Parliament Hill in the middle of the night, opened up a beach umbrella, planted it in the ground, and sat down.
The next morning, their protest placards could be read: “Land Ownership Not Lease,” “Why Pay to Use Our Own Land?”, “Which Do You Choose?? Land Rights or Bloodshed!” and, most importantly, a hand-made sign with the words “Aboriginal Embassy.”
They couldn’t have known it at the time, but their act of protest would reverberate around the world for decades, shining the spotlight on a number of issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and starting global conversations about the legacy of colonisation and dispossession, land rights, sovereignty, and the Stolen Generation. Read more about Australia’s Stolen Generation here.
It’s now 50 years since the Aboriginal Embassy was born from that act of defiance and it remains a site of protest to this day, making it one of the world’s longest running continuous protests. Although the original protesters, who are now in their 70s, have left the site, they continue to campaign for First Nations’ rights and justice.
3 Facts to Know About the Aboriginal Tent Embassy
1. It Started as a Protest Over Land Rights
When the colonisation of mainland Australia first began in 1788, the colonists took over the land First Nations’ people were living on, stripping them of their ownership rights.
Not only did this displace them, but connection to the land is a key part of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultures.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy protesters were initially making a stand following the then Prime Minister William McMahon’s speech that dismissed any hope for Aboriginal land rights. Their protest on the lawn became the catalyst for a powerful and global movement for Indigenous land rights.
2. They Called It an ‘Embassy’ to Reclaim That Patch of Grass
According to Ghillar Michael Anderson, one of the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy protesters, the Embassy sign was created “so that little block of land that we squatted would be seen as neutral land where Aboriginal people could come and voice their opinions about the occupation that we were under from the British.”
A year before, a piece of legislation had come into place that meant embassies were “privileged areas.” In practice, this means that the plot of land an embassy sits on legally belongs to the country it represents and local authorities have no rights to enter.
This meant that, in theory, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy — despite being made up of four people and a beach umbrella — belonged to the First Nations’ people. And the people “within it” could not be arrested by Australian police officers.
3. It’s One of the Oldest Protest Sites in the World
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is one of the longest-running protests for Indigenous rights on the planet. It started off as a simple beach umbrella back in 1972 but has been through many guises since, until it became a permanent brick and mortar fixture in 1992.
What’s the Situation for First Nations’ People Like Today?
Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ land rights were formally recognised in over 40% of Australia’s land mass in 2020, they are still disadvantaged in many areas. Here’s how:
They Face Police Brutality and Criminal Injustice
Since 1991, when a royal commission gave recommendations to prevent Indigenous deaths in the justice system, 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody — many under suspicious circumstances, some due to negligence or lack of medical assistance. Yet, no one has been convicted for any of those deaths.
In fact, Indigenous Australians are over-represented in prisons. Despite making up less than 3% of the overall population, they represent 28% of adult prisoners.
They Live on Average 9 Years Less Than Non-Indigenous Australians
Between 2015 and 2017, Indigenous Australian men lived for an average of 71.6 years while non-Indigenous Australian men lived until 80.2 — a difference of almost nine years.
What’s more, First Nations children aged 0 to 4 are more than twice as likely to die than non-Indigenous children.
They Don’t Have Equal Access to Education and Employment.
About 25% fewer First Nations students finish secondary school as non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous children are 17 times more likely to go to jail than non-Indigenous youth. In fact, an Indigenous teenage boy is more likely to go to jail than to university.
When it comes to the workforce, Indigenous Australian unemployment rates are three times the non-Indigenous Australian rates.
What Action Can We All Take?
Staying informed on the different types of intersectional issues Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face is essential to taking action. You can do that by subscribing to the Global Citizen newsletter and following social media accounts including those of Felicia Foxx, Brooke Blurton, and Sianna Catullo. Find more Indigenous Australian activists here.
You can also join Global Citizens around the world in taking action to help achieve the UN’s Global Goals and the human rights outlined by those goals — like education access, nutritious food, health care, and more — for all people, everywhere.