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Australia and Its Aboriginals

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Part One: Reconciliation reconsidered

May 22, 2000 -- For all their genial reputation, Australians live with a disturbing past. The English settled a land where other people were living - the newcomers were frequently brutal and racist, and as they evolved into Australians they were very slow to change for the better.

Aboriginals were massacred into the late 1920's. The circumstances of many remain awful today - shockingly so, with rates of disease and early death that are difficult to comprehend . For ten years, a commission on reconciliation has attempted to draw up a document that would recognize the realities of Australian history and attempt to heal some native emotional scars. The goal was to have settled reconciliation by the time of the Olympics - certain to go unmet. The big event to announce a settlement was to come on Saturday, May 27, when tens of thousands of people were to rally in Sydney for an Aboriginal celebration.

Now, many Aboriginal leaders are boycotting the event in response to the prime minister's reluctance to agree to a formal apology in the reconciliation document. There are recriminations and accusations on all sides, and many Australians look on in horror and disbelief as their national attempt at reconciliation self-destructs.

Listen as NPR's Alex Chawick talks with a prime Aboriginal leader from the Northern Territory, an Aboriginal cultural historian from the South Australia Museum, and the government minister for reconciliation. He examines reconciliation history, and points to news development later this week.

Part Two: Life and Death for the Tiwi

May 23, 2000 -- The Tiwi people, a community of maybe 2,500, exist on a couple of islands just off the coast of northern Australia near Darwin. As with other Aboriginal communities, they depend largely on government support checks. Their existence is a mix of the traditional and the contemporary. They live in ranch style homes, drive around in cars and trucks, and regularly fly to the mainland for visits and shopping.

But they also follow old cultural values that define and determine every relationship that every group member has with every other group member. They speak Tiwi -- and at least a couple of variations on it -- mixed with English, in which they are also fluent. They are extraordinarily skilled in the outdoors, masters of botany, zoology, medical lore as well as hunting, fishing and general survival. They have produced a body of painting, sculpture and textile work that draws high praise and high prices at galleries around the world.

Yet as a people, their own survival is very much in question. They suffer from alcoholism, disease and early death. Most disturbing, increasing numbers of young men are so afflicted with despair that they are simply killing themselves. The suicide rate among the Tiwi is the highest in Australia, and surely one of the highest in the world. Listen as NPR's Alex Chadwick takes us on a Radio Expeditions visit to the Tiwi community, talking with a number of islanders about Aboriginal life today.

Tiwi Women Tiwi women

Tiwi Artisans drying Tree Bark over a Beach Fire Tiwi artisans drying tree bark over a beach fire



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