UNE hears eye-witness account of Tent Embassy foundation

Published 02 July 2012

A man who was present at the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra 40 years ago confirmed, at a NAIDOC Week ceremony at the University of New England today, that “the spirit of the Tent Embassy lives on”.

Steve Widders, Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer at Armidale Dumaresq Council, was speaking as the community representative at the ceremony. He explained how, as a young teenager, he had found himself on the lawns of Parliament House on that day in 1972 realising that he was “part of history”.

Now a member of the National NAIDOC Committee, which makes key decisions on the celebration of NAIDOC Week throughout Australia, Mr Widders said that change had come about “as a direct result of the establishment of the Tent Embassy”. “The Tent Embassy still stands – and the fire still burns – on the lawns of Parliament House,” he said.

The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week celebrations (1-8 July) is “Spirit of the Tent Embassy: 40 Years On”.

Mr Widders and the other speakers at today’s ceremony agreed that much progress had been made in the past 40 years but that there was “still a long way to go”.

The Vice-Chancellor of UNE, Professor Jim Barber, noted that NAIDOC Week this year was celebrating “unity, pride, equality, and education”. “That’s what the Tent Embassy stands for,” he said, adding that “education is fundamental to closing the gap”.

Professor Barber pointed out that the relatively high percentage of Aboriginal students at UNE was recognised, in the current Good Universities Guide, by the maximum rating of five stars for “Aboriginal participation”, and he paid tribute to UNE’s Oorala Aboriginal Centre for helping the University to “lead the nation” in this respect.

One of UNE’s current Aboriginal students – Victor Briggs – spoke about the significance of the Tent Embassy in the context of the struggle for equal rights by dispossessed peoples around the world, and the power of non-violent protest on the road to reconciliation.

The Oorala Aboriginal Centre organises UNE’s NAIDOC Week ceremony, which culminates each year in the raising of the Aboriginal Flag.