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Thursday, 4 July, 2002, 23:19 GMT 00:19 UK
Australia's new 'black pride'
Aborigines dancing
Being aboriginal is seen as something to celebrate

The census shows strong growth in the aboriginal population, up 16% in the last five years.

Aborigines are becoming more assertive too
It is not only high fertility rates that are responsible. Thousands of Australians are now willing to publicly acknowledge their black roots and identify themselves as part of the indigenous community.

In the past that was something many hid with a mixture of shame and fear of discrimination.

"Folks are no longer frightened to admit their heritage and are no longer intimidated by the white-dominated system," says Ken Foster, the chairman of La Peruse Aboriginal Land Council, south of Sydney.

"Our pride in ourselves has never been in doubt, but so many of our people have been forced to live in the shadows that in the past many hid their aboriginality," he told BBC News Online.

"We're still on the bottom rung of the ladder but things are beginning to change."

Census findings

Official figures show there are 460,000 aborigines in Australia, or 2.4 % of the country's total.

The indigenous population is much younger than other groups, but the problems of the past continue to plague the present.

Many native people live in third world conditions. Life expectancy is 20 years lower than for white Australians. The indigenous community suffers disproportionately high rates of ill-health, unemployment and imprisonment.

Aboriginal dancers
Aborigines are being encouraged to celebrate their difference

Sydney-based author Colin Tatz, who has written widely on aboriginal issues, told the BBC that past and present injustices have encouraged more people to come out and fight and declare their connections to indigenous Australia.

"Ten years ago everyone would run for cover and hide their aboriginality but now there's great pride in being aboriginal and having aboriginal roots."

This has, he says, created a new mood of determination within the community:

"This country's black population is beginning to assert itself very strongly."

There is a feeling that the voices of native people are growing louder and more self-confident, and now is the right time to intensify efforts to advance their neglected interests.

Celebrating difference

Michael Mansell, a prominent aboriginal lawyer, believes the challenge facing black Australians is to ensure their distinctness survives and is not swamped by white culture.

"We either accept the assimilation policies of the government and make the best of it," he says, "or we agitate for more political autonomy to shape our long term future."

In practice this would mean more indigenous control of education, social services and criminal justice at a local level as well as greater land rights.

A treaty - or formal agreement - between black and white Australia is seen by many aborigines as the way to achieve true reconciliation and finally deal with the legacies of the past.

Moral victory

An apology for the way indigenous people were treated in recent times - including an attempt to dilute native culture by forcibly separating mixed race children from their aboriginal families - is also a priority.

That is highly unlikely to happen while conservative Prime Minister John Howard is in power.

Mr Howard has opted for what he calls 'practical reconciliation' rather than formal apologies or agreements. Actions, he says, are better than words.

Most aborigines feel that is not enough.

"The white domination we've endured for 200 years still exists," says Mr Mansell.

"But what we have on our side is the enormous integrity of our people and our cause."

See also:

03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
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