Aborigines in white body paint danced and sang traditional songs yesterday in Australia's national Parliament, a day before the prime minister offers a formal apology to the country's indigenous people for past wrongs.
The ceremony yesterday 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.
Today, Australian 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 Australia.
Rudd has refused indigenous demands to pay compensation to members of the so-called "stolen generations." But his government's agenda, outlined in a speech by Governor-General Michael Jeffery to Parliament yesterday, included bold targets to lift living standards of Aborigines.
The government plans to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Aborigines and other Australians within a generation and halve the difference in infant mortality within a decade, the speech that was drafted by Rudd's office said.
Aboriginal children are three-times more likely to die under the age of five than other Australian children.
The government also plans to halve the differences between reading, writing and numeracy skills within a decade.
With faces and bodies white and traditional didgeridoos 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 Ngunnawal elder Matilda House.
"A welcome to 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 apologize 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.
"Today we begin with one small step to set right the wrongs of the past and in this ceremonial way it is a significant and symbolic step," Rudd said at the ceremony.
Aborigines and their supporters protested outside Parliament House yesterday, though many welcomed the gesture inside as a start to correcting a long litany of wrongs that Aborigines have suffered since British settlers arrived in 1788.
"I think it's fantastic that they've for the first time acknowledged the Ngunnawal traditional owners," local Aborigine Dave Johnston said. "It's a new government, a new era and a spirit of good will."
"With this welcome comes a great symbolism," House said. "The hope of a united nation [that] through reconciliation we can join together the people of the longest living culture in the world and with others who have come from all over the globe."
Rudd has invited more than 100 Aboriginal leaders to attend today's apology speech and other dignitaries, from business leaders to former prime ministers.