Aboriginal ceremony held in Australia’s Parliament

>CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Aborigines in white body paint danced and sang traditional songs in Australia’s national Parliament on Tuesday in a historic ceremony many hoped would mark a new era of race relations in the country.

The ceremony was the government’s symbolic recognition, for the first time, that the land on which Australia’s capital was built was once owned by Aborigines, and was taken away without compensation by European settlers.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will offer a formal apology to thousands of Aborigines who were taken from their families as children under now discredited assimilation policies abolished in 1970 – an act that many people view as a vital step toward reconciling black and white Australians.

With faces and bodies painted white, and a digeridoo – an ancient wind instrument – blowing a deep drone in the background, Aborigines of the Ngunnawal tribe called on their ancestor spirits to welcome newcomers to Parliament in a ceremony held in a hall of the national legislature.

Rudd accepted the gift of a traditional “message stick” of welcome from Ngannawal elder Matilda House.

“A welcome to the country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors; the spirits who created the lands,” said House, who crossed the hall’s marble floor barefoot and draped in a kangaroo-pelt cloak to give her speech. “This allows safe passage to all visitors.”

Former Prime Minister John Howard had steadfastly refused to make an apology on behalf of the government for the policies, arguing that today’s generation should not be made to feel guilty for mistakes of the past.

Rudd defeated Howard in elections last November.

“I hope this will be a new start – a new way,” said Mike Williams, 55, an Aborigine from the southern Pitjantjatjarra desert area who rode a bus to Canberra to witness this week’s ceremonies.

Rudd has invited more than 100 Aboriginal leaders to attend Wednesday’s apology speech, and other dignitaries from business leaders to former prime ministers were also due to attend. A giant television screen was being set up outside the Parliament House so people who could not fit into the legislature could watch the proceedings.