Tainui interviews Tame Iti and Richard Bell about tent embassies and activism in Australia and Aotearoa, at the Māoriland Film Festival, March 2024. (Photo: Gaylene Preston)

The Aboriginal and Māori tent embassies set up in Canberra and Wellington in 1972 charged up Indigenous activism for ever, writes Tainui Stephens. They show us one pathway to peace.  

 

I arrived at Raukawa marae in Ōtaki half an hour before the formal welcome to visitors for our annual Māoriland Film Festival last month. I peeked over the high fence on Mill Road to see if anyone had turned up yet. There were maybe five people. Half an hour later, there were hundreds.

The theme for this year’s festival was “Kia Tau Te Rongomau” (Let there be peace). Many had come to offer and experience stories in film and art that show us how.

Every year, the karanga that starts our pōwhiri is a pretty reliable guide as to how the ambitious event will turn out. The calibre of the words that are used, the way the voices hang in the air, say much to me about the level of commitment and emotion that will shape the days to come.

One extra thing stood out in this year’s stirring karanga. They went on and on and on. There were so many manuwhiri, representing 168 films from 130 Indigenous nations. I had a lot of respect for the stamina of the women who kept the energy of the karanga strong as visitors from around the world filed through the waharoa to tread the land and be ushered to their seats.

There were two men coming to the marae that day who I was really looking forward to meeting, one of them for the first time.

The first was Tame Iti (Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Arawa, Waikato). This extraordinary man has dedicated his life to justice and Indigenous wellbeing, using his creativity as a vehicle for change. His artistic spirit over so many genres offers a vision born of love and shaped by a very Māori soul and wit. Tame has truly changed the course of history in Aotearoa.

The second was the celebrated Aboriginal artist Richard Bell (Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities). Another extraordinary guy with a passion for art and a love for protest. He’s a proud Black man who’s happy to scare the bejesus out of those in power. And he’s inspired by the oppressions of his youth and the bravery of his people. His penetrating satirical art makes difficult discussions possible. Richard had come to the festival with a hilarious documentary feature about his profound life, called You Can Go Now.

During the speeches of welcome, Tame rose to support the view that threats to peace come from the dark hearts of individuals, and not from any one race or gender. He reminded us: “Kei roto koe i tō Atuatanga.” (You are your own divine being.) He laid down a white flag as a gift to the festival. That simple act moved us all. The previous month, at Waitangi, hundreds of Tame’s supporters had marched with white flags as symbols of a new approach to the ongoing struggle for Māori rights.

Tame had come to the festival to erect his artistic installation Te Maungārongo (Peace). The scaffolding, the bold iron figures and pointed imagery, were topped with white flags. It was a large, impressive piece set up next to Ōtaki’s Civic theatre. During the day, people stopped to marvel at the ideas and soak up the energy of the discussions generated among themselves. Tame, his son Wairere, and his team, were happily at the centre of much of the kōrero. At night, it was brilliantly lit and became a tableau in the middle of our town that was startling in its beauty. It offered up a vision of what could be in our country, if we keep talking the talk that leads to peace.

Tame Iti’s installation Te Maungārongo (Peace) for the Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki. (Photo: Māoriland)

Richard Bell’s work Immigration Policy (2017).  (Image used with the permission of the artist.)

Tame and Richard came together after the pōwhiri and kai to discuss the tent embassy protests of 1972. The makeshift embassies in Canberra and Wellington that year had ignited and shaped Indigenous protest for decades after. They led directly to serious debate and trenchant action about native identity and sovereignty in both nations.

It was fun and meaningful for these two elders of the movement (who knew of each other but had never met) to discover their connection. We all witnessed a crucial moment in modern Indigenous history come to life.

Richard:

“The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was the manifestation of the struggle in Australia up to that time. After a meeting held with Aboriginal people in Sydney, they decided that four young men should go down to Canberra and set up an Aboriginal tent embassy.

“Tony Coorey, who was the poet of the Black rights movement in Australia, suggested that, because we’re treated like people from outside this country, in order to speak on equal terms, we had to have an embassy.

“But they were without a budget, without a tent. So they got down there and they went around, and asked all the Blackfullas if they had a tent. And no, none of them did. They then went around and saw all the white people who worked for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. And none of them had a tent either, but one of ’em had a beach umbrella. So that was the first Aboriginal tent embassy.

“Even with that modesty, the power was there. We weren’t allowed to talk about sovereignty back then, but having a tent embassy meant that it was an assertion of sovereignty.”

Umbrella Tent Embassy (2023): Richard Bell’s painting of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest of 1972, which led to a similar protest by Ngā Tamatoa in Wellington. (Image used with the permission of the artist.)

Tame:

“In 1972, I was hitchhiking, and I saw in the Wellington paper on the front page, a tent embassy in Australia. I read it. Wow, what an amazing idea! Kei reira au e pānui ana. I’m a prolific reader. Back in those days, reading was a way for me to learn the English language.

“I got up to our Ngā Tamatoa headquarters in Auckland, and I showed it to our hui. I put my hand up. I’ll put it together. They all said it was a great idea. And so, I did three months hitchhiking around and talked to everybody. Early activists, old activists. I talked to Māori and to other workers.

“Finally, I had to look for a tent. I didn’t have a tent.

“In 1972, I was trying to get to know my father. Trying to know my Waikato side. So, I called in to see him. I knew he had a tent because he visited me in 1970, down in Christchurch. He was hitchhiking around the place, too. So, I asked him: “Have you still got your tent? Kei a koe tonu tō tēneti? All right, can I borrow it?” I didn’t say why.

“Yeah, so he gave it to me. And, of course, he wasn’t too happy when he found out where the tent was, because he saw it on the front page of the Herald. And me getting dragged away by the police for pitching the tent. He’s never forgiven me for that.”

These stories were rolled out to tears of laughter from everyone.

Members of Nga Tamatoa on the steps of Parliament Buildings, during the tent embassy protest in 1972. Tame Iti is top right. (Photo: The Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library)

Both tent embassies in their respective countries were acts of strategic genius. They were created by frank and fearless young people sick of the status quo. They declared that the Indigenous tribes of these lands would no longer be aliens in their own country. These elevated political protests generated a movement of thinkers, that in the years to come would lead on to generations of doers.

Richard Bell also turned the original tent embassy concept into a simple art installation called Embassy that he took worldwide. Some say this is Australia’s greatest work of art.

Richard Bell’s Embassy has been touring the world since 2013.  (Photo: Daniel Boud)

Richard:

“It’s a space for us to have these conversations. I started doing that after noticing that the young people all around Australia were setting up tent embassies to have discussions about what it was that they wanted. They found it the most effective way to get their ideas across. I thought that was phenomenal.

“I decided that I would make a tribute to the original tent episode. I got with Gary Foley and just had a beach umbrella, and a couple of banana chairs, and a case of beer. You know, we just sat down and had a chat. And I’ve been getting invited all around the place. It was just gonna be a one-off thing, but then people in New York and Amsterdam and Moscow and all around Australia were asking for this tent thing.

“Basically, I find the people that I want to talk to in the tent. I generally go and see who my friends are living in that town. I contact them, bring them in, and pay ’em 500 bucks to speak in my tent. So yeah, it always costs me money to do it, or the gallery that invites me pays for it. I let them talk about whatever it is that they want to talk about. It’s a very conversational event. It’s meant to be for ordinary people to be able to understand what it is we’re talking about.”

Any embassy is a place of diplomacy. Diplomacy is about dialogue and negotiation. Embassies are one of the few places on earth where people and nations of difference can tend or mend the relationships between them — without resorting to war.

Kia tau te rongomau

Ki tēnei piringa

Ki tēnei nohoanga

Ki tēnei huihuinga.

 

Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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