Aboriginal ceremony held in Australia's Parliament

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Associated Press Writer

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 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 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 Parliament House so people who could not fit into the legislature could watch the proceedings.

A big screen was also going up in Sydney so people could watch the national live broadcast of Rudd's speech. Smaller, more private events were planned across the country.

From 1910 until 1970, some 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws that argued the race was doomed and the children were better off being integrated.

A government-funded inquiry 10 years ago found the policies caused extreme trauma to those affected, and many suffered long-term psychological effects stemming from their loss of family and culture. It recommended a formal apology to those taken, along with compensation.

Aborigines lived mostly hunter-gatherer lifestyles for thousands of years before English colonial settlers landed in Sydney in 1788.

Today, Aborigines number about 450,000 among Australia's population of 21 million and are the country's poorest ethnic group and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians.