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Pride in Aboriginal Roots Grows in Australia - 2002-07-31

Australia is experiencing a surge in black pride. Census figures show strong growth in the aboriginal population, up 16 percent in the last 5 years. One reason for this is that thousands of Australians are now willing to identify themselves as part of the indigenous community.

In the past, fear of discrimination caused many Australians to hide their aboriginal ancestry. But these days, the mood has changed. A growing sense of pride is giving aborigines a bigger voice in their fight against disadvantage.

Twenty-six-year-old Tim Bishop is a student at NAISDA, the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, a dance college for the indigenous community in Sydney. Just recently, he discovered his aboriginal roots, which had been kept a secret by his parents.

"I consider myself being very lucky that I have indigenous blood," he said. "There's a sense of pride knowing that you're a part of one of the oldest living cultures in the world."

According to the census, there are 460,000 aborigines in Australia, about 2.5 percent of the population.

Lenor Lovegrove, another dance student, is among them. Ms. Lovegrove says her mother was taken at an early age with other mixed race children to live in a church-run institution. The aim was to cut their ties with aboriginal culture. She says her mother hid her past to protect her children from discrimination.

"Basically I grew up not knowing about my identity," she said. "My mother, she grew up on a mission and basically was, I suppose, brainwashed in a way to believe that it was bad to be black and so growing up was very hard because I didn't know who I was."

Michael Guyer is another Australian whose family history is marked by government abuse. Mr. Guyer, a 25-year-old dancer from Queensland, says the government took his grandparents from their homes to live on an aboriginal reserve on Palm Island off northeastern Australia.

"It's hard for them to talk about it. And sometimes it's hard for me to talk about it as well," he said. "It still upsets me, what's happened. But from that hurt and pain and everything comes strength, and that's what I think gets us all by day-by-day."

Prime Minister John Howard's government has promised what it calls "practical reconciliation" to achieve greater racial harmony in Australia. Mr. Howard has, however, refused to issue an apology for the way some native people were treated in the past.

But for many aborigines, it is the problems of the present that cause concern. Life expectancy for blacks is 20 years less than for white Australians. They also suffer higher rates of unemployment and imprisonment.

Gary Lang, a dance coordinator at NAISDA, says despite these disadvantages, the spirit of young Aborigines continues to shine brightly.

"You see our black people today," he said. "Youth, there is still that sense of pride regardless. No matter how many times they've been pushed down, stood on and all that sort of thing, that pride is still there."

This surge in black pride could give greater impetus to the community's demand for expanded land rights as well as more control of education, welfare services and criminal justice.

And just as important, it could address what many see as the greatest challenge facing black Australia to ensure that its distinctness survives amid the majority white culture.