White-Aborigine relations on a better track

Construction of a train line through sacred land shows how much progress has been made for native Australians.

When the late English writer Bruce Chatwin traveled through central Australia researching a novel in the mid 1980s, he met an anthropologist mapping Aboriginal sacred sites for a proposed railway.

Almost two decades later, construction is finally under way on that 900-mile railroad linking this desert outpost with the northern city of Darwin. And Mr. Chatwin's book "The Songlines" is a must-read for those seeking a primer on Aboriginal culture.

Chatwin may have anticipated decades of delay in building the railroad, the result of disagreements over its economic viability. But he couldn't have predicted that it would become a vivid example of the evolution of the relationship between white Australians and the country's 400,000 Aborigines.

As recently as the 1960s, Aborigines throughout Australia were not regarded as citizens. In Alice Springs not so long ago, Aboriginal culture was treated derisively. These days, though, it's widely celebrated and the centerpiece of the tourism industry.

"When 30 percent of your population is indigenous Australians [Aborigines] you have to take what they say to heart," says Fran Kilgariff, Alice Springs' mayor.

At a cost of $728 million, the train line is one of Australia's biggest infrastructure projects and, Aboriginal leaders say, an excellent example of involving indigenous Australians. The Northern Territory government paid Aboriginal landowners $4.7 million for the right to lay tracks though their land. Aboriginal groups also received a 5 percent stake in the line, and a priority has been placed on training and employing indigenous Australians.

But underlying that, too, is an intense respect for Aboriginal sacred sites, protected by law in the Northern Territory. It is a subtler sign of the way things have changed.

Those building the railway have to carve their way through a landscape where not only rocks and ridges but in some cases the ground itself is sacred according to Aboriginal lore, says Sarah Dunlop, who heads up the Alice Springs office of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, the agency charged with protecting sacred sites. That, she says, has made the railway "1,500 kilometers of constant negotiation."

The route itself is a done deal, Ms. Dunlop says, so the negotiating now is focused on the fences that will run either side of the track to prevent stray cows from wandering into the paths of trains.

How detailed those negotiations can be was evident one day last month when anthropologists from Dunlop's office set off with Myra Hayes, one of the ceremonial custodians of the land in question, and two other Aboriginal women to check on a proposed fence line.

After trundling along the proposed route in a four-wheel drive vehicle for a few hours, they came to a hill 11 miles outside Alice Springs. If erected as proposed, the fence would run over part of the hill.

"That's no good," said Ms. Hayes. "That hill is sacred."

So an anthropologist made a quick decision – the fence could run along the bottom of the hill without disturbing the site. Later, during lunch in a dry creek bed, Hayes explained that the hill was important to an Aboriginal legend dating to "Dreamtime," or creation. She wouldn't elaborate – many such stories are closely guarded secrets.

But like other Dreamtime stories, it delineated who had a ceremonial right to the land. In this case, it was her father's ancestral land, Hayes said. So she had a responsibility to care for it, even if it was now occupied by a sheep and cattle farm and technically not hers under modern law.

On the surface, the process looks protracted, adding a layer of bureaucracy that somehow needs to resolve the desires of modern businesses with the world's oldest living culture.

Because of cultural protocols, Hayes and the other women could only speak for the land up to the creek. The anthropologists would have to pick up another group at a later date to check the next section.

But according to Duncan Beggs, community relations manager for ADrail, the company building the railroad, respecting sacred sites is just part of life for contractors in the Northern Territory.

"People know that they have to obtain a sacred-sites clearance. It's time consuming, but after a while you understand that it's just another process, like doing an environmental impact statement," he says.

The issue of land has been one area where the lot of Australia's indigenous population has improved markedly since Chatwin's time.

Last month Australia celebrated the 10th anniversary of a high court ruling clearing the way for Aborigines to claim "native title" over much of the country's land. The ruling allowed people like Hayes to claim rights to her father's ancestral lands by overriding the doctrine that deemed the continent uninhabited until the English arrived in 1788.

The ruling once prompted fear among farmers and miners who worried that their land would be taken away from them, according to Diane Smith, an expert on native title at Australian National University. But 10 years on, she says, it has helped force negotiations over land and, she argues, increased understanding.

"It's not all sweetness and light," Ms. Smith says. "But people have been forced to the negotiating table.... Prior to the native title legislation it was almost impossible for Aboriginal people to get a seat at the table."

Indigenous leaders still complain that not enough has been done to return land, and critics point to the fact that just 41 of the more than 600 claims lodged with the tribunal established after the High Court ruling have been officially resolved.

They also argue that rulings are inconsistent. In some cases, Aborigines seeking native title are granted full rights to the land, while in others they are allowed only what amounts to ceremonial visitation rights.

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