Land, Law & Language: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s Enduring Legacy In Shaping Australia’s Land Rights Movement

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that this article contains names of deceased persons.
Dhawura nguna, dhawura ngurambangu gunanggu Ngunnawal. This here Country is the ancestral and present Country of the Ngunnawal people; my people. I am a Ngunnawal and Gamilaroi woman. My bloodlines through my mother come from Tingha, Bingara, and Walcha. Through my traditional adopted mother Serena Williams, I come from Erambie 32 Acres, and the Canberra area.  
A woman lies on her back. My mum calls her mulleun; the same name as our totem, the wedge-tailed eagle. Her body stretches from Weereewa (Lake George), to the foothills of Namadgi. Upon her belly sits a city. It only rose up in the last century or two, but now it hurts her in a way she hasn’t felt before. On her womb, there is a hill of manicured grass, closed to public access; a white building of marble floors, where settlers meet to make big decisions. A spire with a foreign country’s flag flies on top. Across the lawns, over the carcass of the old parliament, there is a gathering of tents and tarpaulins that have been there almost as long.
In those chambers, the colony invented the public holiday of Australia Day in 1994. Aboriginal people have always understood the date as a day of mourning – it marks the first flying of the Union Jack in the Sydney colony. It was the day when word was sent back to England that the British had officially claimed the east coast as their own ‘sovereign’ territory.
Since at least 1938, Aboriginal people have protested against the anniversary celebration of such a crime. It is nothing but a crime. In 1788, there were three avenues for lawful colonisation: conquest through war; cession by treaty; and occupation of a land declared terra nullius. Australia knows that this land was not terra nullius. Anybody who denies it is not worth wasted breath. Every 26th of January, Aboriginal people reinvigorate the discussion of our sovereignty, which was never won, never ceded, and never extinguished. This is a story of that day on my Country. 
On the 26th of January 1972, four men drove across the lands of the Darug and Gundungurra to reach Ngunnawal dhawura. Their names were Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson, and Tony Coorey. My grandfather knew they were coming, and was there to meet them. They demanded the ownership and mining rights of all reserve lands. They demanded the preservation of all sacred sites, and statehood for the NT. Pitching a beach umbrella in the hot evening sun, they demanded compensation for stolen lands from annual gross national income starting at $6 billion. They erected a sign: the Aboriginal Embassy.
Over the following days at the Embassy, many joined them on those lawns of Old Parliament, including my grandfather. Gary Foley was there too, stating that Aboriginal people are “aliens in our own land, so like other aliens, we needed an embassy.” Many others, from many nations, were there too; my mum tells me, “Dad always said – the Embassy was nothing without the mob.” 
That place had, however, already been a meeting place for thousands of years. White Parliament sits on our woman’s womb, but further up her chest was where we came together. On the limestone flats now submerged by Lake Burley Griffin, both Ngunnawal and those from surrounding nations would meet, for ceremony, trade, and feast. The Yuin, Walbunja, Gundungurra, Wiradjuri, and Ngarigu would walk hundreds of kilometres for these gatherings. Nearby rock shelters in Tidbinbilla, a ceremony place and passageway from the west, date to at least 25,000 years, with others in the region spanning tens of thousands of years further. In a way, the limestone banks of the Molonglo were the first Black Parliament. 
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has lived on, despite incessant pressure from the federal police and capital authorities. In the year following its initial establishment, the McMahon government orchestrated police attacks on the site. The protest was eventually forcibly shut down by authorities, but the movement continued nationwide. 
In 1992, the Embassy was permanently reinstalled on the lawns of Old Parliament. My mother, Aunty Serena Williams, remembers the scene vividly. “Men were camped up Capital Hill well before too, they protected that hill because it was the womb.” Leading up to the ‘92 establishment, many were arrested for taking over Old Parliament House, Mum recounts. “And those workers on Capital Hill, they wouldn’t lay a peg in that ground til Dad said so… They’d promised us the Old Parliament House as our own Black Senate.”

The land back movement isn’t just about physical property. It’s not just owning our land and living on it, but having sovereignty over our language, culture, and songlines, all of which rely upon our land.

1993 saw the Commonwealth and the State of New South Wales being sued on behalf of the Wiradjuri Nation. For eighteen pages, the High Court ran in circles trying to avoid the indisputable sovereignty presented to them, citing myriad lies about the colonisation of this continent. Justice Gibbs laid out in the majority judgement: “The contention that there is in Australia an aboriginal nation exercising sovereignty, even of a limited kind, is quite impossible.” But of course, our people will never take anything less than land back for an answer.
The first protest I led at the Tent Embassy began in conversation with Uncle Robbie Thorpe. He inspired me to take the path I have, into studying law here on my Country, through his lawsuits against the Commonwealth. He has brought multiple cases to the High Court of Australia, the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and various other international courts. Alongside his presence in community and lifelong grassroots activism, he has been working since 2020 on another lawsuit against the Crown. Uncle Robbie accuses the Crown and public officials of ongoing genocide, and criminal failure to respect the sovereignty of the First Peoples of this continent
“The basis of the case is that the colony lacks any jurisdiction,” Uncle recounts. “They never got our consent, and in my mind, we haven’t lost none of our land.” Uncle Robbie’s cases have historically been evaded by the courts, who we agreed are afraid of his arguments because they know them to be true. He says that the act of blocking us from court as victims of genocide, is a silent continuation of Australia’s crimes. “We’re still in an undeclared frontier war zone.”
Despite the cowardice of the courts, Uncle Robbie has no intention of stopping. “I always knew the Embassy was the perfect place for this to play out.” The site is not just a legacy, but an active place imbued with both colonial law and our own. “Our tribal law comes out of our fire business,” Uncle tells me. The Embassy fire has burned since 1994. One of its firekeepers, Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, worked with Robbie on the genocide cases. He explains that at that sacred fire, they didn’t just follow law – they made it from those flames. 
In the coming years, Uncle Robbie will continue working on his lawsuit, and encourages us to work together towards what has always been our purpose: land back. “Blackfellas in this country should aim for a treaty republic… and we’ve gotta work together, I couldn't stand none of this legal stuff without the help I’ve got!” To me, Uncle Robbie embodies the phrase coined at the Embassy’s 40th Anniversary meeting. Keep the fire burning.
In the angst around January 26th, people seem to forget that the land back movement isn’t just about physical property. It’s not just owning our land and living on it, but having sovereignty over our language, culture, and songlines, all of which rely upon our land. My family dances under the name Yukkumbruk Dreaming, honouring Poppy Crow every time we paint up. Mum and Uncle T stand proud in the white Parliament, speaking our language and reminding politicians that we are the true owners of this place. There are many others of our Old People who stood by that Embassy, whose names and work must not be forgotten.
The Embassy has always been a polemic site, but regardless of individual politics, “it started everything,” Mum tells me. “Native Title, community organisation, the land councils, the whole movement! That’s why the legacy of Dad, and of the Embassy, will never die. It’s not just the individuals, it’s in all Aboriginal people.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to remove the names of some deceased people out of respect. We apologise to the impacted family members. We have also added a note for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples alerting them to the fact that this article refers to people who are deceased.
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