Every day, the aborigines troop into this central Australian town from their camps and settlements on its outskirts. Unemployed, some wander the streets looking for something to do. Others loiter around aboriginal aid offices. Many drift down to the sandy bed of the Todd River, sit around in small groups and get drunk on sweet sherry or cheap wine.
Concerned about rising violent crime and anxious to develop the town as tourist center, the white community of Alice Springs generally wants the aborigines to stay away. New territorial legislation has been proposed to crack down on public drunkeness and allow courts to banish offenders to their "home communities."
Says aboriginal leader John Liddle, "The legislation is totally aimed at getting all these horrible blacks off the streets."
The dispute is but one aspect of the friction that puts this rambunctious, pioneer town on the front lines of a racial and cultural conflict between Australia's original inhabitants and its European settlers.
As a result of that conflict, aboriginal leaders say, Australia's aborigines today suffer from some of the world's worst social, economic and health problems. Consider these findings:
In addition to rampant alcohol abuse and partly because of it, aborigines have the highest imprisonment rate of any minority in the world, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.
Government figures show an aboriginal unemployment rate of 37 percent, six times higher than that of the general work force. Young aborigines are worst affected, with 47 percent of aborigines under age 25 unemployed.
Only about 2 percent of aboriginal children currently go beyond secondary school, compared with 24 percent of white children. According to 1971 census figures, 25 percent of the aboriginal population had never attended school and 43 percent never went beyond primary education. There are now only six aboriginal lawyers in Australia, and no doctors or dentists.
Health statistics show that aborigines suffer from two of the world's highest rates of leprosy and trachoma. Tuberculosis, ear disease, bronchitis, pneumonia and syphilis also are rampant. Infant mortality has been put at three times the rate of nonaborigines. In the state of New South Wales life expectancy for adult aborigines is about 52 years, 20 years less than for nonaborigines.
"Nothing shows more clearly the total neglect of aboriginal people and the racial discrimination against them by white Australian society than the alarming health conditions of aboriginal people," said a World Council of Churches report published in August.
According to aboriginal activist Gary Foley, "The health of aboriginal people makes them one of the worst-off people on the face of the earth."
In Canberra, a government spokesman said the aborigines' plight resulted from "one civilization overwhelming a culture." He added, "There's a tremendous feeling of guilt about it in the country."
In an interview in Melbourne, the minister for aboriginal affairs, Sen. Peter Baune, acknowledged a "series of underlying disadvantages in aboriginal life," but insisted that marked improvements have been made in many areas. He said he believed the World Council of Churches' report "overstated the blemishes."
Baume, who is white, also said he did not think racism was a "critical problem" in Australia, a view that aboriginal groups and their supporters vigorously dispute.
They point to sentiments such as those expressed in a television interview last month by mining magnate Lang Hancock, one of Australia's richest men. He said that full-blooded aborigines should be moved to an area in Western Australia and "half-castes" should be sterilized.
Hancock's remarks unleashed a torrent of condemnation, but one letter published afterward suggested that "the great silent majority of this country has a sneaking sympathy for his views . . . . "
In Alice Springs, a young cab driver explained the problem this way: "A lot of people here are against the aborigines because they only see the ones who come to the city, the ones rejected by their tribes. They just come for handouts and get drunk."
At the Yarrenyty-Arltere aboriginal camp on the edge of town, Wenten Rubuntja agreed that this sort of thing was a problem.
"Everybody drinks," said Rubuntja, the local leader of the Aranda tribe. "They work today and you see nothing tomorrow. This drink problem cuts them off from work."
In fact, according to a white adviser, of about 1,000 aborigines living in camps such as this one around Alice Springs, about 40 work full-time and 40 part-time, most of them for aboriginal aid groups. Only four or five are employed by white businesses or government departments, he said. He added that aboriginal employment in Alice Springs has declined over the years because of a growing white labor pool.
Clifford Inkimala, who lives in a tin shed in the camp with his wife and three children, said his last job was more than five years ago. Now he collects unemployment benefits, which the aborigines call "siddown money," amounting to U.S. $112 every two weeks. As he spoke, one of his children played nearby with a dead mouse.
Despite the efforts of the government and activist groups, the basic conflict between aboriginal and white society seems to defy solution. On the one hand, primitive tribal people have suffered greatly from a massive, often brutal assault on their culture 200 years ago. On the other, that culture stresses a life style and values incompatible with the progress that has made Australia one of the world's richest countries.
For many aborigines, it is not only a question of whether they can adapt to a modern industrialized society, but also whether they should. Those who live in "fringe camps" like Yarrenyty-Arltere are caught between the two worlds.
Although apparently divided on that question by the very facts of where and how they live, aborigines today seem to make common cause on one overriding concern: land rights.
One of the latest issues has been ownership of the area's prime tourist attraction, the Ayer's Rock National Park. Site of the world's largest free-standing rock -- called here "one of the natural wonders of the world" for the way it changes color from dawn to dusk -- the park, 286 miles southwest of Alice Springs, is run by the federal government.
Earlier this month, two local aboriginal land councils said the park should be returned to its "traditional owners," who would then lease it to "an appropriate authority" for use as a park but retain a major role in its management.
"Blacks want rock," said the front-page headline on the story in the Alice Springs Centralian Advocate.
The dispute has not been the only source of friction lately. A policeman is currently on trial here for killing an aborigine during a brawl, and authorities are investigating an incident in March in which two aborigines died after drinking from a bottle of sherry that someone had laced with strychnine.
Numerous other deaths have given Alice Springs the reputation of Australia's murder capital. According to residents, the town of 17,000 people has the highest murder rate per capita of any major town in the country, with most of the killings stemming from disputes between aborigines and many related to alcohol.
Excessive drinking is not confined to the aboriginal community here. "There's a whole ideology of drinking here which dominates white society. Virtually every social activity revolves around drinking," said one aboriginal aid official.
"The problem is along the same lines as that of the American Indians," said John Liddle. Liddle is deputy director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, which runs a rehabilitation farm for alcoholics outside Alice Springs. "The Indians also had their lands and culture destroyed by the influence of colonialists. Both the aborigines and the Indians get life from the land."
He added, "If aborigines are driven away from the land, there's nothing to live for." The main goal now, Liddle said, was to "try to get aboriginal land back as much as we can."
Aborigines in the Northern Territory have been more successful than most, thanks largely to the federal government's 1977 Aboriginal Land Rights Act for the territory. While aborigines make up a quarter of the territory's population of about 130,000, they now have been granted 27 percent of its land -- an area 1 1/2 times the size of Britain. In addition, another 18 percent is under claim.
For the country as a whole, the federal government points out, aborigines constitute 1.2 percent of the population but have freehold title to 6 percent of the land, with another 3.5 percent set aside for them as leasehold, reserve and mission land.
Still, aboriginal groups argue that Australia's original inhabitants have lived here for 40,000 years -- compared to 200 for the white settlers -- and formerly had the run of the whole country.
The most contentious land disputes have spun around exploration and mining on land claimed by aborigines or deemed "sacred" by them. In some cases, the disputes have been solved by royalty payments, to the resentment and derision of some white Australians.