Even a handshake can lead to misunderstanding.

'Look at the Earth sitting on top of itself," the Aboriginal man said to me in an Outback mining town.

He was referring to the minerals dug out of the earth and turned into cities.

Az says he will never submit to a mortgage because the convention which says winners chain themselves to 40 years of debt is "a lie".

A fearless satirist, Az moves fluently between several spheres of Australian society but will never try to fit. Too much damage has been done.


When I meet his smalltown family, they are splintered and wall-eyed from a calamitous personal history.

Az grew up a ward of the state. It surprises me to learn that all the indigenous children, who are background performers in our film, are in foster care.

In preparation for my role as an Outback teacher, I read a good deal about Aboriginal truancy and institutional abuse. So I was bemused to find these kids as bright as buttons, well-cared for and, of all things, rather ironic. They seem to know it's all just pretend - not just the TV show, everything.

They all have cellphones and at school they are learning Japanese. The surnames are diverse, Swedish, Croatian, even Afghan, genes inherited from camel drivers who were first brought out to set up the desert trains.

Az says Aboriginal traits are recessive and he knows people who are going back to their point of origin to find mates from their own mob to "blacken" their bloodline. There is a renewed sense of pride among his generation. The next day I went with Az to meet the elders of the Bakanji community in Broken Hill. He taught me that the correct way to shake hands in Aboriginal culture is with a very soft hand and an averted gaze. For them a handshake, like the Maori hongi, is a sharing of spirit. So a brush of the fingers says, my spirit meets yours in a gesture of gentleness and welcome.

Furthermore, in a hunter-gatherer culture where they build no walls, privacy is something gifted to you by other people. So to stare into the eyes of someone you don't know well is an unpardonable intrusion.

Conversely, what is appropriate in English culture was, and is, a firm clasp of hands and forthright eye contact. So basically they have seemed mistrustful and untrustworthy to us and we have transmitted aggression and intimidation to them. Even with the best of intentions, white Australians haven't got the first idea about meeting its First Nation. Our film crew simply didn't know there was a protocol. I started to feel a bit smug about my own paltry understanding of Maori culture. By contrast it seemed vast. But I realised that white colonials in New Zealand were obliged to get along with the adaptable, organised, warlike Maori - or else.

Perhaps the Aboriginal population was too widely dispersed, with too many different languages to mount an effective defence against colonisation. They certainly weren't able to scare the Crown into a treaty.

My friend told me stories of the Weathermen being systematically killed to extinguish their power. They were the holders of eons of knowledge about the movement of celestial bodies and their effects on weather, water and food sources. Today their remaining knowledge is being tapped by scientists in far northern communities, though we'll never know what was lost.

Traditional lore also decreed, Az said, that one needs to be sure to marry a "right-skin" partner. The skin system, which is communicated using the hand as a map, was devised to avoid inbreeding in a vast territory where there was no birth register to keep it all straight. With people so thin on the ground, you could walk 100 miles to find a mate, and they may still be your cousin. The closer I got to Aboriginal culture, the more blown away I was by their understanding of ecology, biology and time. It's grander and subtler than the Western mind wants to consider. They figured out rules to avoid genetic weakness thousands of years before us. Without written language they developed ways to communicate the hunter-gatherer almanac reliably across thousands of years and miles.

Then in 1788 the English showed up and the rest is dismal in review.

The problems affecting indigenous Australians today are complex and fraught with recrimination on both sides. But if white Australia hasn't been educated to see even a handshake from their point of view, how on earth can they move beyond it?