Wisps of smoke emanate from an ever-burning fire. The Tent Embassy's main inspiration, Isabell Coe, a slight, gray-haired 50-something woman more commonly known as Auntie Isabell, calls it "the fire for peace and justice." Encircling the fire are huge tree trunks. This circle is the nerve center of the Tent Embassy. People come and go asking Mrs. Coe's advice about various subjects.
Auntie Isabell is one of the most well-known aboriginal activists in the country, having played a leading role in the setting up of the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an occasional presence in the nation's capital, Canberra, since 1972.
The Tent Embassy in Sydney is a focal point for Aboriginal anti-government protests during the Olympic Games. The temperature between the country's native inhabitants and the white establishment has risen significantly in the past year due to the refusal by Australia's prime minister, John Howard, to apologize for past injustices, most notably the taking away of thousands of Aboriginal children (especially those of mixed parentage) from their parents and the placing of these children with white families or religious missions. It was a practice that continued until as recently as the 1970s.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, though, stands for far more than an official apology; instead, Coe and her supporters are demanding "sovereignty and self-determination." "This needs to be done in a negotiated fashion," she says. "We want the war against the indigenous people to end."
Coe argues that the Aboriginal people have been subject to "genocide," and that this genocide is continuing. "The community is constantly under attack," she says. "From the police and legislation. Now they kill us with a stroke of the pen. We have no say in the legislation or the justice system."
She points to dramatic differences in life-expectancy figures. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1991-96, life expectancy was estimated to be 56.9 years for Indigenous males and 61.7 years for Indigenous females, compared with all-Australian estimates of 75.2 years for males and 81.1 years for females. Half of all Indigenous males die before the age of 50. In the 35-to-54 age range the death rates were six to eight times higher for Indigenous males and females than for their non-Indigenous counterparts.
The statistics continue: Babies born to Indigenous mothers are twice as likely to be of low birth weight and more than twice as likely to die at birth. Although they account for just more than 2 percent of the population, 40 percent of the children in "corrective institutions for children" are Indigenous. The imprisonment rate for Indigenous adults was over 14 times that for non-Indigenous adults. Alcoholism, petrol-sniffing and violence are endemic in the many Aboriginal communities.
Coe reckons that this sad situation "reflects the trauma unleashed by 200 years of undeclared war." And though she believes that the Tent Embassy is "far more important than the Olympics," she also realizes where most of the world's attention will be focused and hopes that just a small part of that attention will be diverted to her continuing struggle.
Alan Morris is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Sociology of the University of New South Wales.