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Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Aborigines dreaming of land
Hundreds of Australian Aboriginals march in Sydney, Australia, 12 July 2002 to celebrate National Aboriginal Day
Aborigines are determined to make their voices heard

Australian Aborigines have launched a landmark native title claim to vast areas of Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.

The Larrakia people have told the Federal Court the region has cultural and historic importance.

Last month the Martu Aboriginal tribe in Western Australia celebrated a judge's decision to hand over to them a giant swathe of desert the size of England.

An Aboriginal family joined hundreds of Australian Aboriginals marching in Sydney,  July 2002
Aborigines are among the poorest people in Australia
It was the largest piece of territory to be returned to traditional owners since land claims began to be settled a decade ago.

Hundreds of similar applications are waiting to be processed across Australia.

Indigenous groups say it is not a massive land grab but insist the future of their unique culture rests on unfettered access to sacred country. At the heart of this, is what Aboriginal people call the Dreaming.

Author Robert Lawlor wrote that many Aborigines believe every significant event or life leaves behind a metaphysical imprint in the earth.

He said "the shape of the land - its mountains, riverbeds and waterholes - and its unseen vibrations echo the events that brought that place into creation."

The origin of each site is called the Dreaming and has left many black Australians with an unbreakable spiritual attachment to the land.

Culture threatened

Professor Richie Howitt from Macquarie University in Sydney said that denying indigenous communities ownership of holy areas has been a disaster.


We need to... hang on to our culture, our dreams, our past

Clayton Nelson, aboriginal leader
"The Dreaming provides a set of relationships which are very intimate between people, their country and the forces and processes that produced both," Professor Howitt told BBC News Online.

"So the idea for Aboriginal people who are living the Dreaming being separated from their country is tantamount to annihilation."

In the Western Australian goldfields, the Ningha Mia Aboriginal settlement sits five kilometres (two miles) from Kalgoorlie. Barefooted children chase scrawny dogs across the red dirt under the gaze of the city's giant gold mine.

Alcohol is banned as the community tries to reverse the destructive cycle of excessive drinking, unemployment and run-ins with the police.

The people say they have endured a history of dispossession and dislocation from traditional lands since the arrival of European settlers and, more recently, mining companies.

Clayton Nelson, the deputy chair of Ningha Mia, told the BBC that despite the disadvantages, the community's spiritual bonds to its customary homelands were as solid as ever.

"Dreaming is instilled in us. It never disappears, it's with us all the time," he said.

Western influences

However, there are signs that some native people are rejecting their culture and the Dreaming stories that sustain and help it grow stronger.

Aborigines
Elders fear the young are losing interest in the past
"Sadly with the way Aboriginal people are trying to live like Europeans, the old ways are starting to go away from them as they move from the land," said Mr Nelson.

"They're losing their identity.

"I find that a sad problem. We need to be strong as Aboriginal people and hang on to our culture, our dreams, our past, what is ours."

The Dreaming creates an image of the land as a dynamic, breathing mass, full of secrets and wisdom.

"When you know the stories that go with the earth, you can see that the whole country is alive," Gary Cooper, an indigenous community worker in Kalgoorlie, told BBC News Online.

He too believes many Aborigines fear their culture is slowly being swamped by the Western way of life.

And he believes now is a time for defiance.

"Our spirit will never be broken, never," he said. "Our ancestors who've gone before are with us to give us support and power."

See also:

27 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
09 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
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