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Musgrave Park and ‘the embassy in my own land’

The Canberra Aboriginal tent embassy. Should the protest in Musgrave Park be seen in the same light? AAP/Alan Porrit

This weekend, South Brisbane will play host to the Paniyiri Festival, one of Australia’s largest cultural events.

From May 19 to 20, thousands are expected to join the celebrations and delight themselves with beautiful presentations of Greek culture.

There is, however, a political battle of global significance interfering with one of the festival’s choice venues - Musgrave Park. Today there stands what certain commentators have come to call a “Tent Embassy”.

The Embassy is a political place where Aboriginal people (imaginably the Jagera and Turrbal nations who were in majority the first occupants of what is approximately the heart of contemporary Brisbane) are declaring their sovereignty. This is, at least to some democratic theorists, a moment where a citizenry (or in this case a group of citizens) are declaring their right to their native land.

But this is not the way this movement has been viewed by the media or other civil groups. Brisbane City Council Mayor Graham Quirk has stated that the citizens that have established their Embassy have been offered a different site to use so as to continue sharing their message with the public.

It appears that Lord Mayor Quirk may have missed the point and is treating Aboriginal people as they have been treated by others - with disregard. This is not an Embassy that should be moved. This is a declaration of sovereignty which should be respected and afforded its place in the processes of democratic governance.

International examples

Movements similar to this have happened in Canada and the USA for example - but usually through protests and blocking industrial access to sovereign territories (like forests and islands most often having no major non-indigenous human settlements within the territory seeking protection).

One good example comes from the Haida Gwaii and Nisga'a peoples found in contemporary British Columbia. Both of these nations had blocked industrial activities in what they self-recognised as their own sovereign territories which led to direct political engagement.

After having proven, to the best of their abilities, that this land was under the care of their respective nations before the arrival of Europeans, it was placed - at least for the Haida Gwaii - under indigenous stewardship by law.

Now, these nations have the choice of whether they would like to engage industry and are also in powerful positions should contractual discussions with industry begin.

Urban space versus wilderness

But the Jagera and Turrbal nations are dealing with a dense urban space and not, for example, mostly pristine forested lands. This is similar to the situation of the Iroquois in Toronto, or, of course, the Ottawa in Ottawa. It is much more difficult to gain sovereign territorial rights where such a move could affect millions of people.

An unidentified protestor at the Musgrave Park indigenous embassy. Patrick Hamilton/AAP

There is also no precedent for empowering the indigenous owners of contemporary urban lands. This is, in other words, virgin political territory. That is quite possibly all the more reason why the Aborigines in Brisbane that are positioning themselves for peaceful political contestation should be allowed to do so without eviction notices or threats of legitimated forceful removal.

Solidarity among communities

The organisers of the Paniyiri Festival, and too the residents of Brisbane and beyond, have here the opportunity to declare solidarity with this movement. They might even look to using a different park nearby so as to support the Embassy.

The Greek culture is after all not trying to exercise its right to sovereignty and, no matter how great the festival is and how much I enjoy it, it should stand by the Embassy - not otherwise. Perhaps the Embassy could be included as a partner in the Festival and officially sanctioned as a movement supported by the Greek community.

This point raises the broader issue of civil societies demonstrating solidarity with those battling for their political rights. The Musgrave Park situation is comparable to the plight for Polish sovereignty under the USSR. Solidarity to Poland came quickly from not only those in the undergrounds of then Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany, but too from peoples outside of the USSR.

This situation in Brisbane is analytically no different: the Jagera and Turrbul, like the Polish or Slovakians, held a territory wherein they practiced their own distinct national cultures. These lands, and consequently the powers of these nations, were removed by invaders: British colonists and the USSR respectively.

Nations within nations

There is too the opportunity for Australia to be quite possibly the first in this world to break into innovative legal territory.

By establishing an official indigenous Embassy and recognising it within the boundaries of the Brisbane City Council, Queensland, and Australia, this would be a step beyond the legal actions of the USA which has only recently come to view Native Americans as “nations within a nation” thus affording them the right to increased self-governance and greater political engagement.

Indigenous leader Sam Watson addresses protestors at Musgrave Park as police look on. AAP/Patrick Hamilton

This would also make progress in Australia allowing, for the first time, “Tent Embassies” (such as the now famous Tent Embassy in Canberra) to transform into actual Embassies.

Political evolution

The Musgrave Park Embassy, like the Embassy in Canberra, has global significance for indigenous people. I for one have indigenous ancestors from the Huron-Wendat Nation in North America and identify as an aboriginal person. I can see the similarities between the Jagera and Turrbal stand with the idea of the Huron creating their own Embassy in their own native land in Georgian Bay, Canada. Almost 400 years ago most of this land was known as Wendakia (or Ouendakia) and was home to the Huron Confederacy before genocide and violent dispersal by a European and Iroquoian alliance led to the diaspora of my ancestors.

What the Jagera and Turrbul of Brisbane or those in Canberra are doing is innovation: they are leading the way for other indigenous peoples internationally with the tool of the Embassy. It’s a step forward politically and has the potential to offer new spaces for the growth of aboriginal peoples.

Recognising democratic rights

In Australia today, the sovereign rights of the original owners of this land are recognised, grand political apologies have been issued, and the wish to undo the wrongs of the past has been stated. But these, as many commentators have observed, are just words.

Indigenous peoples are asking for action and the Musgrave Park Embassy is such an action. I think that Musgrave Park should become a formal Embassy for the Aborigines that rightfully own the territory over which Brisbane now sits. It should be there to continue to engage how the Aborigines here wish to progress in an urban space and how those living in Brisbane today wish to exercise solidarity with them.

There is, of course, one final point that needs to be drawn upon. It is the very tragedy of a nation needing to have an Embassy on its own land. Aborigines have not only been dispossessed of their sovereign territories and have faced genocidal hardships, but they have also been excluded - at least in Brisbane - from local democratic politics.

Moving the Embassy, and forcefully evicting its staff, is an abrogation of both human rights and citizen rights under the expectations of democratic theory.

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