About this record
This is a black-and-white photograph of activists at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of (Old) Parliament House in Canberra in 1974. The photograph shows placards placed against a canvas tent and a few men standing in front of the tent. One man is waving an Aboriginal flag.
- This photograph shows the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, set up on the lawns of Parliament House on Australia Day in 1972 after the McMahon coalition government failed to recognise land rights. The embassy existed intermittently until 1992, when it became a permanent fixture. By engaging in direct protest action, the embassy contributed to a politically independent Aboriginal rights movement.
- The Tent Embassy encampment was intended to represent the living conditions of many Aboriginal people in Australia. The name ‘embassy’ was used with intentional irony, but (according to activist Gary Foley) it also referred to the fact that ‘Aborigines are treated like aliens in their own land’.
- The 1967 referendum had enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be counted in the Census for federal government purposes. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists then focused on land rights, particularly in the Northern Territory, where mining companies wanted access to traditional lands. The embassy helped place land rights on the political agenda.
- One placard shown in the photograph refers to the land claim made by the Larrakia people for Kulaluk, a stretch of coastal land in Darwin. The Larrakia‘s petition for a treaty was rejected by the Australian Government. Other placards refer to the failure of the Australian Government to grant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples recognition as a people, rights to land, or compensation for loss of land. Although ‘land rights’ was the central platform of the embassy in 1972, issues of self-determination and sovereignty also assumed importance.
- Another placard refers to suspended Aboriginal public servant Charles Perkins. Perkins had been suspended for alleged improper conduct after he called the Liberal–Country Party government in Western Australia ‘racist’ and ‘redneck’. The placard also refers to Barrie Dexter, who was the Secretary (head) of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
- The demonstration outside the tent embassy coincided with the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, on 28 February 1974, to open the 28th session of the Australian Parliament. Demonstrators used this occasion to protest the suspension of Aboriginal leader Charles Perkins from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and to call for land rights. According to a newspaper report, 400 protesters—including members of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the public—attended the demonstration.
- One man in the photograph is waving the Aboriginal flag. The original Tent Embassy protesters experimented with a number of designs before selecting the black, red and yellow flag designed by Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas. In 1995, the Australian Government proclaimed the flag as an official ‘Flag of Australia’.
- In the 1970s many Aboriginal activists were inspired by, and adopted, the symbolism of Black Power, a wing of the civil rights movement in the USA. The person on the right of the photograph is giving the clenched Black Power fist salute. The person also has an ‘Afro’ hairstyle, which in the USA represented African-American pride.
- The Tent Embassy site has come to symbolise the political struggle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 1995 the embassy was listed on the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission as a place of special significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Learning resource text © Education Services Australia Limited and the National Archives of Australia 2010.