Report on the Aboriginal Embassy Symposium 20-22 June 2011

Report on the Aboriginal Embassy Symposium 20-22 June 2011
Wednesday 14 September 2011

An ACIH-sponsored symposium on the Aboriginal Embassy was held on 20-22 June in association with the National Film and Sound Archive and the Museum of Australian Democracy. The symposium brought together Embassy activists and an interdisciplinary group of scholars to consider the historical and political significance of the Embassy as it approaches it fortieth anniversary on 26 January 2012.

The Aboriginal Embassy,June 2011, photo taken by Kurt Iveson

The conference opened with a free public screening of Ningla A-Na (Hungry for our Land) in the Arc Cinema at the NFSA. Directed by Alessandro Cavadini, the documentary records the events surrounding the establishment of the Aboriginal Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House. It incorporates interviews with black activists, the work of the National Black Theatre, Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Medical Service, plus footage from the demonstrations and arrests at the embassy. Excerpts of the film can be viewed on the NFSA website.

A highlight of the conference was a discussion panel (hosted by Tony Birch) with several 1972 activists: Pat Eatock, Sam Watson, Paul Coe, Michael Anderson, Isabelle Coe and Gary Foley. The panel demonstrated the contemporary relevance of the struggle for uniform national land rights that found dramatic political expression at the Embassy in 1972. The panel also highlighted how the history of the Aboriginal struggle has been misrepresented to legitimate state policies that are antithetical to Aboriginal self-determination.

Discussion panel at NFSA on 20 June. Left to Right: Pat Eatock, Sam Watson, Paul Coe, Tony Birch, Michael Anderson, Isabelle Coe, Gary Foley. Photo courtesy of NFSA.

The second day of the conference was hosted by the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House. Gordon Briscoe, John Maynard, Ann Curthoys, Tony Birch and Nicole Watson presented papers on the historical context and legacy of the 1972 protest. In the afternoon, Gary Foley introduced Ray Peckham, who had been active in the Aboriginal struggle as a unionist throughout the 1960s. The day closed with a screening of Frances Peters-Little’s 1992 documentary, Tent Embassy.

On the final morning of the symposium Jennifer Balint, Kurt Iveson and Fiona Nicoll presented papers on the history of the Embassy since the 1990s, including its relation to the Australian War Memorial, the genocide case brought before the Supreme Court and the regulation of the right to protest in the parliamentary zone.

During the symposium, Liz McNiven and Brenda Gifford recorded a number of oral history interviews with Embassy activists for the NFSA. Gary Foley and Andrew Schaap will co-edit a book, which will include the academic papers presented at the symposium, together with some writings by Embassy activists and a transcript of speeches recorded at the Embassy in 1972 by ANU academic, Derek Freeman.

The Symposium was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), the College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU, the National Film and Sound Archive and the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Further information:

Toni Hassan, 'Fire in the Belly' report on the Aboriginal Embassy for Awaye! ABC Radio National

Kurt Iveson reports on the symposium in his Cities and Citizenship blog.
Rebecca George reports on the symposium for The Wire, community radio.

Footage of symposium presenters:

Tony Birch

Pat Eatock

Sam Watson

Paul Coe

Michael Anderson


Australian Centre for Indigenous History


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