Curiosity leads to connection at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy Canberra

Respect: Aboriginal flag painted at Aboriginal Tent Embassy

To those who ask me (and I am asked, with astounding frequency) what the point of travelling and exposing my children to different cultures and people at such a young age is? Let me tell you a little story.

The EatsWorlds and a giant plastic pineapple named Johnny (don’t ask) are visiting the National Capital, dodging the knives and bitchiness being flung in all directions by our esteemed politicians (I’m taking particular caution on this mission, given I’m a red-haired female).

We’re visiting kid-friendly Canberra, or Ngunnawal country, to see a little, do a spot of museum hopping and, of course, eat.  But on this chilly winter day, instead of our filling bellies we’re filling our hearts and minds with a little history and a whole lotta love for Australia’s Traditional Custodians.

After a morning of earthquake-simulating, free-fall sliding scientific fun at Questacon, we walk the shortish distance to Old Parliament House. Our plan is to stop and smell the roses in the gardens and breathe in a little fresh air (and by fresh I mean we have frost forming on our runny noses). But that plan is scuppered once Sugarpuff spots some ducklings in a pond and five-year-old Raffles’ curiosity is aroused by a bunch of tents on the lawn.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

“What’s that, mama?”

That is the heritage-listed Aboriginal Tent Embassy, erected in 1971 to symbolise and peacefully protest the land rights struggle of Indigenous Australians.

“What’s Indigenous, Mama?”

“What are land rights?”

“What’s a protest?”


Is this a freakin’ test? The questions are coming as thick and fast as only a five-year old or a Spanish Inquisitor can shoot them. So I find myself wiping away the snot icicles and explaining in the simplest of terms (Raffles being too young for an undiluted dose of mummy’s “tree-hugging, bleeding-heart, hippy” exhortations) that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy represents the pride and political rights of Indigenous Australians who have been historically marginalised and still experience massive inequality and disadvantages in education, health and life-expectancy. A conversation that still isn’t all that five-year old friendly.

Taking in what I’ve said, he momentarily wanders of with Sugarpuff to frolic between the protest signs (just quietly, there’s something a little disturbing a about watching your kids circling a drum marked toxic waste), but an interested Raffles soon returns, demanding to know more. It as this point I rue the education system’s whitewashing of Australian history. So much so, I’m feel distinctly unqualified to answer his questions. And tell him so.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

For those readers not au fait with Australia’s indigenous history, here’s the two-minute idiot’s guide (I’m the idiot) that I share with him as we sit in the cold on the lawn opposite Old Parliament House.

Aboriginal peoples have occupied this country for more than 60,000 years, making them the oldest continuing cultures in human history. Captain Cook rocked up in 1770, so it’s fairly safe to suggest that they were here first… but only by 59,757 years, give or take a millennia. However, as the natives didn’t farm or build disease-ridden towns and cities on the land, Captain Cook decided that the country was “unoccupied” and promptly declared it the property of England. As you do.

Of the Aboriginal people, Cook wrote that “these people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans”. 

So 18 years later England sent 11 ships full of convicts to ensure they were miserable too.

The arrival of the First Fleet altered the life and traditions of Indigenous Australians in the most brutal way. Not only did the new settlers (predominantly convicts) bring guns, which they used to full effect, but an arsenal of diseases that the Indigenous population had never before been exposed to. Take small pox for example, a sociable little germ that quickly wiped out about 70% of Sydney’s Indigenous population.

Conflicts between the early settlers and Aboriginals, other introduced diseases and the introduction of alcohol reduced the population further. The small minority that survived got to sit by and watch as their land was over-run, and their heritage and cultural identity stripped away. And by sit by, I actually mean persecuted or enslaved. This, despite a Royal instruction that “Aboriginal people were legally subjects of the King and protected by law”.

I’m ashamed to admit that some of these new settlers were my relatives, my ancestors having arrived on convict ships. And for their actions I apologise.

As Australian cities grew, the new settlers forgot to put the “civil” into civilisation and banned First Nations People from using their traditional names or continue traditional customs. Segregation was widespread and children, known as The Stolen Generation, were forcibly removed and placed into missions. Those who attempted to assimilate into white society were shunned and forced to live in poverty and unemployment. Even as late as the 1960’s, Indigenous Australians were denied the right to vote or even be counted as existing in the national census.

Inn 2013, though things have improved and First Nations People have the right to vote, better access to education and the same right to free or low-cost health care as the rest of the population, they have the worst health status and suffer the highest mortality rates in this country. And though statistically there have been improvements to education, Indigenous people still have the lowest attendance and continuance of education which, combined with the racist social attitudes of certain members of society, leads to high unemployment in the Indigenous population.

Now call me crazy but I think that sucks. Hard.

Steps have been made to create better relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non indigenous Australians to help break the cycle of degradation and disadvantage. In 2008, the Australian Government even offered a formal apology on behalf of the successive parliaments and governments whose policies and laws “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. But there’s still a very long way to go.

But enough of my ranty-pantedness and back to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

I am doing my best to answer Raffles questions in an age-appropriate way, when a gentleman catches our eye and waves us over, inviting us to stand by the warmth of a log fire in one of the communal tents of the Embassy.

He introduces himself to us by his traditional name which, out of respect, I will not reproduce here. You see, I was so entranced by what happened next that over the next hour it didn’t even occur to me to ask this gentleman permission to use his name or the pictures we took of he and Raffles together. Ergo, out of respect for his anonymity, I shall refer to him here only as The Dude.

The Dude asks Raffles if he has any questions. Big mistake. My little inquisitor lets fly! This kindly man happily fields every question, answering his every query with patience and grace. He is the one qualified to answer these questions. He has lived these experiences.

Irrespective of a five decade age difference, the two of them click and are soon chatting like old mates. Raffles new BFF invites us on a tour of the Tent Embassy and explains the meaning behind the Aboriginal Flag to my little man in a way that’s easy for a five-year old to remember. The black represents the Aboriginal people, the red the earth and a spiritual connection to the land and the yellow the sun, giver of life and protector.

The Dude leads him to the site’s Sacred Fire, first lit more than 40 years ago, and shares a message of equality and respect which I hope my son will carry with him forever.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy

An hour after we first wandered by, this beautiful soul reaches out and takes my son’s hand in his, and tells him it was an honour to meet him. Pointing towards Parliament House he tells my wide-eyed baby that he hopes one day that he’ll get the top job there, because a boy like him could make a big difference.

And with the words, “Love you forever, my brother”, he shares a special handshake and bids us farewell. While I quietly blub.

Making connections at Aboriginal Tent Embassy

When we wake the following morning and ask our son what he’d like to do today (keeping in mind there’s the temptation of a shiny Xbox in our hotel room and a surplus of kid-friendly fun on our doorstep), Raffles asks if he can go back and visit his friend at the embassy.

Instead I suggest he be thankful for The Dude’s time and stories and the lovely connection he made. And that he take what he’s learned back to school for news, to help raise awareness and knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture and assist in changing attitudes built on prejudice. And so, his teacher tells me, he does. Beautifully.

And that folks, though it took me a very long time to get here, is the point!

What is the point of travelling and exposing my children to different cultures and people at such a young age? This.

Kids at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

40 Comments on Curiosity leads to connection at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy Canberra

  1. MrsD
    July 30, 2013 at 11:26 pm (11 years ago)

    Well your rantypants and Raffles questions has taught me loads this evening! I didn’t know any of that about Australian history and I think you had every right to be up on your soap box! They’re never to young to experience life :)))

      July 31, 2013 at 9:55 am (11 years ago)

      I think the younger they learn the better. 🙂

  2. Lizzi Rogers
    July 30, 2013 at 11:34 pm (11 years ago)

    Oh proud heritage of the Empire.

    Rock up with a flag and claim it as your own. Any protests from the natives? Do *they* have a flag? No? Get lost then.

    Thank you for your contribution to enlightenment – now that the internet has made the world a global village, perhaps we’ll begin to understand we’re all KIN. All of us. Every one.

    Your message here is vital.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:58 am (11 years ago)

      Thank you. That means a lot.Especially, given I very nearly didn;t post it. But teaching equality and respect for all people is too important not to discuss. And I’m so proud of my boy for embracing that philosophy with empathy and openness. x

      • lrconsiderer
        August 5, 2013 at 10:17 pm (11 years ago)

        So glad you did. It’s wonderful and true and I’m REALLY glad you linked in to the ‘I don’t like mondays’ hop so I could read it again 🙂

        He’s an amazing young man, your boy.

  3. Cooker and a Looker
    July 31, 2013 at 8:01 am (11 years ago)

    I sincerely hope that Raffles fills the top job too. I think I’d like to live in a country that has such a well-rounded little bloke as Head of State. Sounds like Canberra is providing memories for a lifetime. xx

      July 31, 2013 at 10:05 am (11 years ago)

      Sadly Amanda, Raffles has no political aspirations. His life plan is to become a ninja. It’s a shame because at the age of five he’d probably do better job at running the country than the muppets we currently have to choose from. And think how much more fun the sledging at question time would be if it were attended by Kindergartners…. “You’re a poo poo head!” “No, you’re a poo poo head!” Brilliant.

  4. alwayslauren
    August 2, 2013 at 8:17 am (11 years ago)

    Loved your post. So very very special.

  5. Kaz n Ang (@MeltingMoments_)
    August 2, 2013 at 9:12 am (11 years ago)

    This topic makes me feel guilty and emotional. Guilty because I don’t know as much as I should about our indigenous culture and emotional because of the struggles Aboriginal people have faced and still do. I was never more aware as when I visited the NT. I hope future generations can embrace Aboriginal culture and help bridge the gap with health issues and the young mortality statistics.

      August 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm (11 years ago)

      I understand the guiilt. I knew a fair bit but still felt ill-equipped to answer Raffles questions. I visited the Northern Territory when I was in my late teens and it had a profound effect. The good and bad I saw there was life changing. x

  6. Raising Explorers
    August 2, 2013 at 9:25 am (11 years ago)

    After I finished laughing at the image of wiping snot icicles whilst trying to explain indigenous history, you had me blubbing through the story of The Dude and your little guy. Wow. THAT was beautiful, and that’s what travel, near or far, is all about. Great post.

      August 2, 2013 at 7:59 pm (11 years ago)

      Thanks. I keep welling up when I think about that handshake and those words. So sincere and accepted as offered by an innocent kid. We were so lucky that The Dude was there that day to answer and share and bond with my boy x

  7. This Charming Mum
    August 2, 2013 at 9:27 am (11 years ago)

    Wow, what an experience for your little ones. I don’t think kids are ever too young for travel and adventure (as long as the grown ups in their lives can manage it). Even if they don’t remember every detail of this encounter, it sets things in motion about the way they will see the world when they’re older. Good on you for helping your kids understand their heritage and a bit more about the country they live – and the world around them.

      August 2, 2013 at 8:50 pm (11 years ago)

      I agree. They are sponges and the important bits do stick even if only subconsciously..

  8. Have a laugh on me
    August 2, 2013 at 10:02 am (11 years ago)

    What an amazing post, and as a New Zealander I have always been so amazed at how the indigenous Australians have been treated, disregarded. While NZ’ers weren’t perfect, there has been a lot of change over there and there is a lot more equality than what there is over here. I’m not trying to say “we’re better than you” but it’s hard to explain, we are more accepting I think, then again that’s a generalisation because I know not all Aussies are non accepting – DIGGING A HOLE MUCH! Love this x

      August 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm (11 years ago)

      Thanks hon, I’m half Kiwi and have been to NZ a few times.the difference is startling. In NZ the Maori culture is embraced, protected and taught in a way it isn’t here. We could learn a lot…

  9. Go Camping Australia
    August 2, 2013 at 11:51 am (11 years ago)

    Thats a lovely story, and a great introduction to your little people on our troubled history with the ndigenous people of this land. It would have meant more to them, learning like that, than anything taught in a classroom.

      August 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm (11 years ago)

      Absolutely. The world is the best classroom there is.

  10. NewLifeOnTheRoad (@NewLifeOnRoad)
    August 2, 2013 at 7:46 pm (11 years ago)

    Well it just goes to show that they learn way more through life experiences then through a class room setting! I never realised that the Aborigine Tents in Canberra would have a person so friendly to learn from! They sure could teach our Children of today about what life is really like, instead of being taught from books.
    I like how two different cultural back grounds can reach past the barriers and communicate so that each can learn from the other. Will have to add the Tent Embassy to our Must see list 🙂

      August 2, 2013 at 8:57 pm (11 years ago)

      I think we were very lucky that the absolute right person was there at the right time. It could probably have gone quite differently give Raffles age and understanding. It’s certainly worth a visit. The indigenous people of this country deserve respect. x

  11. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella
    August 3, 2013 at 2:14 am (11 years ago)

    Kids really do have the right attitude don’t they? And that last picture really says it all 😀

      August 3, 2013 at 10:54 am (11 years ago)

      People aren’t born with the wrong attitude, they’re taught them. I want mine to grow up with respect for everyone. So far so good. A x

  12. Lisa@RandomActsOfZen
    August 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm (11 years ago)

    Your little ones are just so lucky to be out there experiencing the world, such a fabulous opportunity!! The grace this gorgeous man showed towards an inquisitive Raffles is beautiful, I certainly would have been blubbing along with you.
    Thanks you for sharing this meeting with us, and I say Raffles for PM! xx

      August 8, 2013 at 9:39 pm (11 years ago)

      I’d vote for him. 🙂

  13. megansmagickey
    August 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm (11 years ago)

    What a fantastic post! I am not ashamed to admit it brought a tear to my eye…Good on you for being such a stellar parent

      August 8, 2013 at 9:39 pm (11 years ago)

      Awww, thanks. But I can;t take any credit for my boy’s loveliness. That’s all him 🙂

  14. FlipB
    August 6, 2013 at 7:19 am (11 years ago)

    Fab post Aleney, very touching. One lasting impression made I’d say.

      August 8, 2013 at 9:37 pm (11 years ago)

      Thanks so much, lovely. 🙂

  15. elleroy was here
    August 6, 2013 at 10:43 am (11 years ago)

    So interesting. I love your posts and I’m so glad whenever you link up to my Monday hop. This was beautifully written.

      August 8, 2013 at 9:37 pm (11 years ago)

      Glad to get people thinking. And thank you x

  16. rhian @melbs
    August 17, 2013 at 10:42 am (11 years ago)

    I really enjoyed reading this post, I didn’t know a lot about this as I’m from the UK but I am really glad I read it as you put it really simply. Never mind the kids needing it simple, I think the adults do too!

      August 18, 2013 at 9:02 pm (11 years ago)

      Simple works for everyone. Glad you found it interesting x

  17. Kate
    October 12, 2013 at 12:00 am (11 years ago)

    The questions don’t stop. The kiddo (11) asked about the Miss Saigon songs her father had copied onto her iPod. I started explaining about the Vietnam War to someone with few points of reference for global modern history … this spiralled rapidly into a potted history of communism and world politics from 1945 to 1975 covering East/West Germany/Berlin, Russia to the Soviet Union, the Korean War, the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Phew.

  18. Lydia C. Lee
    January 22, 2014 at 11:30 am (10 years ago)

    What a great story – I love that he said ‘get a job there and you can make a difference’. That will stick with him for life.

      January 22, 2014 at 1:00 pm (10 years ago)

      “The Dude” was amazing… every thing he said and did was perfect for a child of Raffles age and it has all stuck with him including the fact that everyone can make a difference. Education comes in many guises. 🙂

  19. mammarajsays
    January 25, 2014 at 7:43 pm (10 years ago)

    Such a great way to teach your children! And what an even better way to support this with our new 2014 Australian of the Year !

  20. coloursofsunset
    January 26, 2014 at 2:15 pm (10 years ago)

    I hope there’s a dude that can teach my son the way this dude has taught yours. It seems the schools won’t do it. I don’t remember anything!? Fantastic story, thanks for sharing!

      January 27, 2014 at 6:41 am (10 years ago)

      We were so lucky to have met someone who was so genuine and so able to communicate with a small child but I think there are plenty of Dudes out there if we are open to meeting them 🙂

  21. Louise
    May 24, 2014 at 3:42 pm (10 years ago)

    What a memorable trip. And what a fantastic mother Raffles has. Whilst his mother may be justly proud of her son. I am just as proud of his mother. Lucky children. We can but hope that ninja Raff may become Prime Minister Eats World one day. I know a couple of politicians or so that could do with a ninja style awakening.


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Hey, I’m Aleney! A mum, award-winning travel writer, magazine editor and gallivanting glutton. He’s Raff, the “boy” in boyeatsworld, and a fearless foodie, adventurer and eco-warrior. Along with his all-singing, all-dancing, all-adventurous sister, Sugarpuff, we’re exploring the world’s colour, culture and cuisine on a food safari for the junior set.

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