Son of Tent Embassy co-founder Bertie Williams marches in his honour

Ernie Pontecorvo

Ernie Pontecorvo and his sons Ethan and Logan marched on Friday 6th July at the NAIDOC parade in Mackay, Queensland, to honour Ernie's father, Bertie Williams, a co-founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.

Ernie is a proud Wiradjuri man, and the 2012 NAIDOC celebrations hold a special significance as the national NAIDOC committee chose to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and acknowledge the key contributors to its long history.

NAIDOC Week 2012 official theme is the 'Spirit of the Tent Embassy: 40 years on'.

"I just want to march in honour of my father and for what he stood up for back in 1972 (when) four men got up in the middle of night and decided to go to Canberra and start the tent embassy," Mr Pontecorvo said.

Tent embassy co-founder Bertie Williams was Mr Pontecorvo's father.

Mr Williams died when Mr Pontecorvo was young, and as a result, Mr Pontecorvo was raised by his step father, whose name he shares.

Originally from Cowra, in central western New South Wales, Mr Williams created a wave of controversy in 1972 when he Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey erected a beach umbrella surrounded by placards in front of Parliament House and proclaimed it the 'Aboriginal Embassy'.

Mr Pontecorvo said he was tremendously proud of all that Bertie Williams achieved.

"For me, it's extremely important because we might not be here today if not for the four men who marched on their land," he said.

"I never got the chance to meet (Bertie), he died when I was a baby.

"(But) he's made me feel strong as an Aboriginal person and I make sure I pass him down to my kids so they know where they're from and where they belong," he said.


From left: Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Bert Williams and Tony Coorey

Brief history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The text of Prime Minister William McMahon's speech was released on 25 January, the day before Australia Day. Aboriginal activists in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney, heard the speech on the radio. They understood that it rejected the idea of an Aboriginal title to land and decided on action, so the four young Aboriginal men travelled from Sydney to Canberra.

By 1:00am on the 26 January 1972 the four Aboriginal men established the Aboriginal Embassy by ramming a sun umbrella into the lawn outside Old Parliament House in Canberra with a sign that read 'Aboriginal Embassy'. Michael Anderson told the press, 'The land was taken from us by force ... We shouldn't have to lease it ... Our spiritual beliefs are connected with the land'

The next day Quakers came and helped out by erecting tents. The Tent Embassy was established in response to the McMahon Coalition Government's refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights and saw a new general purpose lease for Aborigines which would be conditional upon their ‘intention and ability to make reasonable economic and social use of land’ and it would exclude all rights they had to mineral and forest rights. The embassy has existed intermittently since then, and continuously since 1992.

The Aboriginal people involved in setting up the embassy were the founder and first ambassador, Michael Anderson and three co-founders, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams.

Other people associated with the embassy in the foundation year include Gary Foley, Chicka Dixon, Pearl Gibbs, Roberta Sykes, Pat Eatock, Kevin Gilbert, Dennis Walker, Paul Coe, Isobelle Coe, John Newfong, Mum Shirl Smith, Kevin Buzzacott and Neville Williams.

In February 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy presented a list of demands to Parliament.

Control of the Northern Territory as a State within the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament in the Northern Territory to be predominantly Aboriginal with title and mining rights to all land within the Territory.

Legal title and mining rights to all other presently existing reserve lands and settlements throughout Australia.

The preservation of all sacred sites throughout Australia.

Legal title and mining rights to areas in and around all Australian capital cities.

Compensation money for lands not returnable to take the form of a down-payment of six billion dollars and an annual percentage of the gross national income.

The demands were rejected, and in July 1972, following an amendment to the relevant ordinance, police moved in, removed the tents, and arrested eight people.

In October 1973, around 70 Aboriginal protesters staged a sit-in on the steps of Parliament House and the Tent Embassy was re-established. The sit-in ended when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam agreed to meet with protesters.

In May 1974 the embassy was destroyed in a storm, but was re-established in October.

In February 1975 Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins negotiated the "temporary" removal of the embassy with the Government, pending Government action on land rights.

In March 1976 the Aboriginal Embassy was established in a house in the nearby Canberra suburb of Red Hill, however this closed in 1977.

For a short period in 1979, the embassy was re-established as the "National Aboriginal Government" on Capital Hill, site of the proposed new Parliament House.

On the twentieth anniversary of its founding, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established on the lawns of Old Parliament House. Despite being a continual source of controversy and many calls for its removal, it has existed on the site since that time.

The embassy was partially destroyed in an arson attack.

As well as political pressure, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy has also been under attack from criminal elements, having been fire bombed on a number of occasions.
Some local Aboriginal Ngunnawal people have also called for the eviction of residents of the tent embassy.

Despite this, in 1995 the site of the Tent Embassy was added to the Australian Register of the National Estate as the only Aboriginal site in Australia that is recognised nationally as a site representing political struggle for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

A symbol at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is the 'Sacred Fire' which represents peace, justice and sovereignty. The Sacred Fire has been kept alight since 1998.

Other sovereign embassies have been carried out intermittently around Australia since 1992 and in 2012 there has been a new revival of Sovereign Tent Embassies - See Tent Embassy Map