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Northern Territory: two Ministers, Michael Wooldridge and John Herron, attend Aboriginal initiation ceremony in Arnhem Land.

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MARIUS BENSON:  In Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, two Federal Ministers have witnessed a rarely-seen Aboriginal initiation ceremony.  The Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, and the Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, were guests of the Yolngu  people and one of their leaders, ATSIC chairman, Gatjil Djerrkura.  As the Ministers viewed the sacred ceremony, Mr Djerrkura called on the Coalition Government to show greater respect for Aboriginal culture than to abandon amendments to the Native Title Act.  North Australia correspondent, Mark Bowling reports.


MARK BOWLING:  Only rarely do the Yolngu Aboriginal people from the remote Yirrkala community, invite outsiders to view such a sacred initiation ceremony, a ceremony which has been running for days.  Accompanying traditional musicians and singers, dancers covered in white clay paint perform with spears outside makeshift shelters, which offer the only protection from occasional tropical downpours.  Inside, 10 boys lie very still preparing for their passage to manhood.  Their chests are covered in elaborate designs painted in ochre.  One of the boys is eight-year-old Nathan Djerrkura;  his father is ATSIC chairman, Gatjil Djerrkura, and today the Aboriginal leader is away from his desk in Canberra, amongst his people.  Senator Herron and Dr Wooldridge are friends of the Djerrkura family and, with foreheads covered in white paint, they blend in with the crowd at the ceremony.  Michael Wooldridge:


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE:  For me, it’s an incredible privilege that one of my friends has asked me to come along and share a special ceremony where his son is being initiated, and I’m delighted and honoured to be able to be part of it.


MARK BOWLING:  In keeping with traditional practices, the final act of initiation begins.  The boys are carried to an enclosure and, in the presence of men only, they are circumcised using a scalpel.  The boys have taken their first step towards manhood, but they have also taken on responsibilities as traditional custodians of their land.  It’s the traditional ownership of land which Gatjil Djerrkura wants to stress in the native title debate.


GATJIL DJERRKURA:  This is my culture, this is my tradition, and this is the basis on which my strong emphasis on native title is for real.  It is for real, it is not something that we take without sharing, and native title is all to do with compromise, native title is all to do with sharing, it’s all to do with caring with the rest of Australian community.


MARK BOWLING:   Are you hoping, by inviting the two Ministers here, two senior Ministers, that it may turn the tide in the native title debate?


GATJIL DJERRKURA:  Well, if my psychology works that way, I hope it will bring about that sort of change of heart.


MARK BOWLING:  As the ceremony draws to a close, Gatjil Djerrkura, on his own turf, has a warning to the Prime Minister, that any coming election fought over the native title issue would spark further racism in Australia and community division.


MARIUS BENSON:   Mark Bowling, our North Australia correspondent.