A file image of three of the original Tent Embassy founders.
NATIONAL: The Land Rights movement is Australia’s oldest, continuing political struggle.
While it remains vitally important to each one of us, I often find it difficult to express in words what the Movement actually means to me. But given that this issue of Tracker is dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW), I thought that it would be fitting for me to try.
I come from a community that is yet to gain land rights. I have no real idea of what it is like to live on land that is owned and governed by Aboriginal people. Nonetheless, the Land Rights movement is indelibly etched into my soul.
It is there because of extraordinary leaders who battled against politicians, omnipotent industries and the collective conscience of a nation. It is those giants who taught us that real power lies in neither money nor parliaments, but in the strength of one’s character.
My earliest memories of the Land Rights movement go back to when I was a very young child in the 1970s. In those days, my father (Sam Watson) spent a great deal of time in Canberra; much of it at the Embassy. But I can recall some of the giants of the movement visiting our little house in Mount Gravatt, Brisbane.
Although I don’t remember all of the stories that were shared on those occasions, I can still feel the laughter and the excitement. Many of the conversations I overheard during those years involved police brutality. That our elders could not only overcome such violence, but joke about it, still surprises me today.
Something else that surprises me now, was the relative youth of many of the leaders from the 1970s.
The young warriors who built the Tent Embassy were really only on the cusp of adulthood. Throughout 1972 they would be joined by young men and women from communities around the country.
When I reflect on my own youth, I have to concede that I was studying and pretty much consumed by my own goals. I never would have had the selflessness or sense of purpose that drove them to achieve so much for our people.
When watching 1970s interviews with the likes of Paul Coe and Gary Foley, I’m always struck by the power of their convictions. They spoke eloquently, courageously, and in language that was accessible to all of us. When I see some of those individuals speak today, they strike me as having the genuine freedom that comes from staying true to one’s beliefs.
They still name the situation as they see it. They still speak from the heart. Unlike some of today’s high profile individuals, they have no use for verbose oratory.
Australian filmmakers often have to create characters in order to accommodate the public’s love for the stereotypical battler who overcomes adversity. Movies such as Crocodile Dundee, Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle all celebrated individuals who fit into the mould of the underdog. Indigenous people, however, don’t need to look to fiction for heroes, because the Land Rights movement is built on David and Goliath battles.
The warriors of the Day of Mourning spoke out at a time when protectionist bodies ruled our families with iron fists. Vincent Lingiari and his people had little by way of material possessions when they took on the Vestey Group.
The founders of the Embassy confronted those within the Australian Parliament with only a beach umbrella and placards. Eddie Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs had little more than faith in the justice of their case, when they went to battle against the heinous Bjelke-Petersen government. Those heroes taught us that ordinary people can rise against oppression, and achieve the extraordinary.
One of the most enduring legacies of the movement has been the privileging of black experience. That has enabled us to name the invasion our ancestors experienced as opposed to ‘settlement’. Above all however, the Land Rights movement has been about the restoration of a wounded black dignity.
Whereas protectionism and assimilation reached into our ancestors’ minds and strangled their ability to hope, the Land Rights movement re-awakened that essential quality to dream of a better tomorrow. It empowered us to talk about a future beyond colonisation, one in which our people could lead self-determining lives.
The Land Rights movement continues today, but arguably, the battle is more brutal. Our resistance fighters now have to contend with the indifference of a generation of Australians whose affluence was unknown by any before them.
Encouraged by insipid politicians and tabloid journalism, many Australians have settled into an insular existence. But we are nothing if not a resourceful people, and like their forebears, today’s warriors will create their own ingenious means of challenging the nation’s conscience.
Not all of us can be at the frontline, but we can offer our gratitude, love and support to those who sacrifice so much in order to keep the movement alive.