ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA — BARE feet planted in the ochre desert sand, towheaded Ngurajuta children giggle and point at characters on a television set under a shade tree. Back in Alice Springs - a modern suburban town 80 miles away - white patrons in air-conditioned pubs and caf'es watch the same station: Imparja Television.
In one year, this Aboriginal-owned TV station has become the most popular among blacks and whites in Australia's heartland. True, it only has one competitor. ``But there was a lot of skepticism over whether we'd ever get it off the ground,'' says station manager Dion Weston.
Now the near-universal acceptance of an Aboriginal enterprise stands as an important symbol for a people nearly wiped out by European settlers. ``For young people to see a black fella on camera - it's a big boost,'' says Gus Ntjalka Williams of the Ngurajuta tribal council.
Australia's natives often feel like second-class citizens. They face racism, high unemployment, poor health, and alcoholism. Every year, the federal government spends hundreds of millions on programs to improve their lot - with limited success. But many Aborigines are tired of handouts. Imparja and other new Aboriginal-run operations are indicative of efforts to take control of their lives, to achieve financial self-sufficiency, and regain self-respect.
``We can't fix up health problems or housing problems until we fix up people's heads,'' says Freda Glynn, director of Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), which owns Imparja Television.
To change attitudes among both blacks and whites, programming is aimed at building a positive Aboriginal self-image. CAAMA produces ``Urrpeye'' (Messenger), a weekly current-affairs show in English. It also produces Nganampa-Anwernekenhe (Ours), a series celebrating ``40,000 years of Aboriginal culture,'' broadcast in four different Aboriginal languages.
The rest of the air time is filled with standard TV fare. But there are plans for an Aboriginal nightly news show. The weather is already presented by an Aboriginal woman. And lest one forget this is Imparja, programming is broken up by Aboriginal public service messages. For example: An Aborigine heaves a kangaroo carcass onto an open fire while describing the best way to cook it.
The TV station, like CAAMA's popular four-year-old Aboriginal FM radio station, also runs dental hygiene and ``Beat the Grog [beer]'' messages.
THESE messages reinforce the work of the Central Australia Aboriginal Congress - a medical clinic which just moved to a $1.3 million facility in Alice Springs. It's federally funded and staffed by six white doctors, but 60 Aboriginal assistants do most of the work.
One of the busy clinic's goals is to correct eating, drinking, and medical practices picked up from exposure to Western society, says congress director John Liddle.
The infant mortality rate among Aborigines is twice that of all Australians. Life expectancy is shorter. Aborigines tend to distrust and avoid government hospitals except in extreme emergencies. But Mr. Liddle says the clinic has quickly become a social meeting place. It gets 40,000 visits annually. Most of the region's Aborigines are now on its client files.
``We've got black faces behind the counters. People here can speak their language. We've been trying for years and years to get interpreters in government hospitals,'' Liddle says.
The clinic, CAAMA's broadcasting ventures, and other aboriginal enterprises are unique to this part of Australia. The Northern Territory is the only region where Aborigines have been given back a major chunk of their land. (Aborigines make up about 25 percent of the Northern Territory population, but less than 2 percent of the total Australian population.) Thanks to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act passed in 1976, Aborigines own or have claims pending for almost 50 percent of the territory. With land rights have come royalties from mining and tourist enterprises.
In the Alice Springs area, royalties amount to $250 a year per head, according to an accountant familiar with Aboriginal funding. The benefits are unevenly distributed. Many tribes are dependent on government handouts.
Increasingly, tribes are saving their royalties to start businesses. Several have bought second-hand airplanes and set up air-charter services. And a year ago, three tribes pooled $300,000 and got a matching grant from the Federal Aboriginal Development Corporation. The result is a new hanger at the Alice Springs airport housing the Aboriginal Aircraft Maintenance and Services Centre.
Many Aborigine-owned enterprises are being run by whites until Aborigines can be trained to take over. Most aren't profitable yet, but they are creating jobs. They are slowly shattering the myth that Aborigines are a lazy, dying, stone-age culture which has no place in today's society.
``Only in the last few years, Aborigines have become more and more aware of who they are and what they've forgotten,'' Liddle says. ``But we're getting our self-esteem back and looking to the future.''