The light fantastic

A discotheque for Aborigines is the perfect place to make new friends

Five hundred and thirty kilometres west of Alice Springs, Australia, in the middle of a desert so flat and blue that you can see a cloud approaching half a day away, I flick on a light switch and watch as a dozen Aboriginal children run screaming in all directions. I'm helping to run a disco at the Kintore community centre, and I am learning about the local Pintupi people's concept of shame.

When the lights go off, the children run into the middle of the bare, concrete dance floor and grind up against each other like extras in a hip-hop video. When the lights are turned on, they sprint to the edge of the hall, squealing with delight, invigorated by their moment of transgression. In the Pintupi tribe, following a cultural thread that has run through most Aboriginal communities in Australia, the idea of exhibitionism, of drawing attention to your personal achievements, is frowned upon. Only in the dark are the children allowed to indulge their attraction to pop music and celebrity culture; this is the pact they have brokered with their parents, who sit around the edge of the simple sheet-metal hall, laughing and chatting.

Founded in the early 1980s after the Pintupi people became disillusioned with the community in nearby Papunya (a town three hours' drive eastward on a dirt road), Kintore is one of the most remote communities of its kind in Australia. The town elders, who on their nightly community patrols regularly chase out the drinkers and petrol sniffers who try to camp in the town, have banned alcohol. There are two main sources of income: welfare payments and money from local art, with globally renowned painters such as Makinti Napanangka and George Tjungurrayi living in the town. Papunya Tula Artists Ltd, the community-owned company that represents most of the artists, helped fund a A$1.2m (£600,000) swimming pool that opened in Kintore this year. Its chlorinated water combats the eye and ear infections common among the town's children.

Visiting a town like Kintore, where some of the elders can still recall the day they first met a European, you get a different perspective on what effects the federal government's long-overdue apology to the Aborigines might have. Revelations such as those that happen at the town disco are a daily occurrence for us. The community is very secretive about its customs, values, wants and needs. Part of this is to do with hierarchies of privileged religious knowledge, imparted at private induction ceremonies and corroborees. But there is another factor as well: white people are not trusted, because white people like to lie. The apology made in February by the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, to the native Australians for their "profound grief, suffering and loss" is a public admission of this.

Observation is a keen skill in this community: within a few hours of us arriving to work at the community centre, the town has determined that our party consists of a brother and sister, the sister's boyfriend and a single woman, without us having introduced ourselves to anyone in those terms. On our first day at the centre, an eight-year-old girl comes over and asks me why I shared a pillow with one of my workmates during naptime. Are we married, or related? By that afternoon the information she has gleaned has been spread and assimilated, and the town's understanding of us updated.

Next we are given "skin names" - Aboriginal nicknames that are public (many names are secret) and link you immediately within the kinship system, a series of obligations defined by property sharing and marital arrangements. One young girl runs up and tells me she wants to give me a skin name. She holds my hand and whispers my name in the Pintupi-Luritja dialect. Then she looks up at me, grinning: "You're my skin buddy. Now give me an Icy Pole [ice lolly]."

Other children offer me skin names, laughing. Those linked by the kinship system are obliged to share their food, and I have the key to the centre's storeroom.

A couple of days later, some of the teenage boys don't show up to the centre. Eventually we discover they have been called off for initiation ceremonies. They disappear for a day or two into the desert, and return proud but slightly dazed. Clinton, a 15-year-old with a gentle, friendly manner, arrives at the centre one day with what looks like a small spear wound on his calf. Almost in tears, he begs me to dress it, and when I ask him why he doesn't go to the nurse he says it's because he doesn't trust the hospital. After I dress his wound he begins peacocking around the hall, showing the other children his big white bandage, then unwinds it and leaves it in the dust outside.

In these baffling situations, of which there are about half a dozen each day, it is usually impossible to get either the children or their parents to explain what is going on. Much like what white Australia has done to Aborigines for generations - offering them narratives of assimilation, opportunity and civilisation while fleecing them of their land, language and children - my cultural exchange with Kintore's locals finds me at the receiving end of many half-truths. I speak to long-term social workers in the area who say the best advice they have is to be patient and listen very carefully. The scarcest commodity in the region, apart from water, is trust.

After ten days, Jason, one of the boys at the community centre, unexpectedly opens up. As we are talking idly, a boy walks past and Jason mutters: "He has a big dog in him. If he's sick, he does this." He traces a series of lines over his body, finishing the movement by indicating a release of energy at stigmata points on his hands.

Jason then tells me about his Dreamtime story. Everyone in the tribe has a power, a totem and a role to fill. There are no priests as such; religious importance is equally distributed. Jason's power is the ability to see a water python: in the clouds and the land. The python lives in a nearby lake, and as Clinton passes us, Jason grabs him and suggests that we borrow his dad's truck to drive there the next day. Clinton and Jason discuss in dialect, and then Clinton wanders off.

"What did he say?" I ask.

Jason makes the universal symbol of sex, jabbing his right index finger into the cylinder of his left hand.

"You know Noretta?" he says. "He did it with Noretta."

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class