Rainbow Chai Tent and flags at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, January 2009


Rainbows at the Tent Embassy

Report from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, January 2009

A 40 degree day, the Canberra sun beats down on the Rainbow Chai tents and Benny's brilliant flag array flutters listlessly. In the Chai Tent shade empty chairs and bare carpets; what Tent Embassy crew that there are in camp are stretched out in the shade of trees like kangaroos at midday.

But Michael Jack and his 78 year old mother Liffy are working away keeping the kitchen clean and ready to serve.

Benny Zable is painting a new set of toxic waste barrels near by.

Michael Jack and his mother, Liffy, proprietors of the Rainbow Chai Tent, and Benny Zable brush in hand.

Robert "Spooki" Corowa is at the Chai Tent PA making droll comment and announcing himself to sparse and somulent as "Aboriginal Tent Embassy Radio Live!" in a voice as sweet to the ear as honey.

And this old word smith is tapping out this story in his van.

Another Rainbow Chai Tent season at the Tent Embassy and mad dogs and Rainbow Region rebels go out in the midday sun.

It's quiet not only because of the heat but also because it is a rest time between two events: two days after Sovereignty Day and 4 days before the actions of 3 February, the first sitting day of the federal Parliament for 2009; then a convergence of convergences will take place.

One will be an Stop the Northern Territory Intervention rally which will bring many elders and community leaders from NT and elsewhere together; the other a Climate Action Summit being organised by Greenpeace which will bring climate change activists together from all over the country - they aim to circle the Parliament holding hands.

The Tent Embassy will in effect be hosting both these events; its sacred fire providing spiritual focus and the Chai Tent providing the catering and artful ambience. Those koori green flags with the Nimbin Rocks profile are much appreciated here and on 3 Feb their koori-green alliance symbolism will have perfect fit.

Those flags, Benny's and others looked great as the Sovereignty Day walkers crossed Commonwealth Bridge on 26 January. Some 80 walkers had gathered at Garema Place Civic to meet the eight walkers led by Darren Bloomfield and Winiata who over 10 days had walked to the Canberra from Botany Bay.

Sovereignty Day walkers cross Commonwealth Bridge led by Darren Bloomfield.

Like pilgrims of yore the walk had blistered their feet and opened their hearts. Along the way they been welcomed into communities and had talked up Aboriginal Sovereignty. Arriving in Canberra and at the sacred fire, they carried the glow of saints.

At the Tent Embassy they were welcomed and smoked by Auntie Isabelle Coe, matriarch in residence. She was proud to proclaim that the Tent Embassy was in its 37th year, the longest continuing protest in Australia. Other elders present and engaged were Neville "Chappie" Williams, Ellie Gilbert, and Ron Gardiner.

Auntie Isabelle Coe at the sacred fire. Uncle Chappie Williams with Winiata by Happy Wheels and camp neighbour Uncle Ron Gardiner, now legless but still organising from the back of his Subaru.

But for all the flagged and lanterned glory and kind catering, the celebrations of Sovereignty Day and Sovereignty Day eve at the Tent Embassy did not pull big crowds; no more than a hundred at any time, kooris and whites.

This crowd compares with at least 10,000 and maybe as many as 35,000 who gathered nearby for the free Australia Day concert outside the new Parliament on evening of 25 January.

As that crowd streamed by the Embassy we were struck by the many young people and young families dressed in Aus flags either as capes or as prints on shorts, halter tops, Tshirts and stickers on cheeks.

The Union Jack to me is the international symbol of white supremacy and I have never seen so many in one place before. Although on the whole it was a gentle, happy crowd, it gave me the neo fascist willies.

The Tent Embassy may not be making much impact, at this time, offering an alternative to the red, white and blue brigades of 26 January, but what a cultural asset it is none the less.

What a privilege and pleasure to camp amongst fountains and rose gardens on the magnificent vistas of Commonwealth Avenue; between the Parliament and the War Memorial, a humble camp, an enduring resistance and a refuge.

Also in residence are about 30 young people, in town for activist training workshops organised by the Australian Student Activist Network (ASEN) at the ANU. Last evening, after a hot dry day, the rose garden sprinklers came on and a bunch of young women let out a whoop and ran from the Chai Tent into the spray.

A joy in itself just to sit about listening to stories from the extraordinary people who are draw here, but add water nymphs dancing - what more can an old man want?

The Rainbow Region folk have had a long association with the Tent Embassy and its service as an activist base in Canberra.

Benny remembers that in 1983, after the success of the Franklin River campaign, he and other Rainbow warriors including Dudley Leggett and his Peace Tent, had come south again and set up an anti uranium mining camp outside the office of the newly installed Prime Minister Hawke at old Parliament House.

Others remember the passage of the Uncle Kevin Buzzacott walk from Lake Eyre to Sydney Olympics in 2000, the protests associated with the visit of GW Bush in 2003 and the mighty Sorry Day gathering of 2008.

Many the story told, and much the touch-the-Earth resistance organised, at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. May it always be so.

For the Earth!

Graeme Dunstan
written for and published in the Nimbin Good Times,
page 6, February 2009 edition

Sovereignty Day concert in Garema Place Canberra 26 Jan 2009 and parade to Tent Embassy. Photos: Jude Deland


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