Robbie Thorpe and I met at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which is a protest for indigenous sovereignty that has been standing on the lawn of Parliament House since 1972. It was January 26th, which is a national holiday known as Australia Day but a growing number of people are participating in protest marches that call it Invasion Day or Survival Day. The holiday commemorates the anniversary of the first fleet of British ships landing and claiming this land as property of the Crown, so it essentially celebrates the start of colonialism and genocide as a point of nationalistic pride.


As Invasion Day approached, I carpooled to the capital with some activists from Australian Student Environment Network, aka ASEN. The ASEN crew knew some folks at the Tent Embassy from collaborating on anti-mining and anti-nuclear campaigns. We arrived the night before the march and with permission from the elders we set up camp at the longest running protest in Australian history. I ended up spending a week there mostly hanging out by fires, listening to stories and attempting to help cook.


This is where Robbie found me, struggling to stir a giant stir-fry for the dozens of people camping out there. He made fun of my stirring technique and we got to chatting - but chatting probably isn’t the right word. It was more like he was a fountain of historical wisdom - the lived experience kind that you don’t get in history books - and I was sitting under the fountain, soaking it all in. This episode is only a select trickle of this fountain. His stories intertwine and span from the big picture resilience of aboriginal people in the face of colonialism to the smaller scale acts of resistance, like his mother creating her own aboriginal health service.


A podcast with lifelong aboriginal activist, Robbie Thorpe


My introduction to the word resilience was as “the new sustainability”. The first definition I heard came from ecologists, Brian Walker and David Salt, who define it as “The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedback.” These days it seems to have gone from an academic theory of change to a buzzword as everyone tries to build and measure resilience, from companies to cities.

When I asked Robbie about resilience – how the Tent Embassy has sustained itself for 45 years, how his people have survived colonial oppression for two centuries, how he doesn’t burn out – his answer came down to the spirit. “You gotta know how to use your spirit,” he told me, and I don’t think my Western, secular brain is currently capable of understanding what this means. But I do know that I want to incorporate the spirit into my definition, remembering that some aspects of resilience may not fit into theories, reports or measurements.