Aimee Kepa

Native Title
Summer 2008

As a student of both Anthropology and Law, the Native Title system had always
interested me in its apparent application and interaction of these seemingly distinct
disciplines. Unfortunately, my actual knowledge of Native Title extended to nothing
more than a vague appreciation of this quality, stemming from abstract notions of
‘connection’, ‘justice’ and ‘entitlement’, terms I no doubt appropriated with my own
slightly glorified meaning. From this very limited foundation, I was placed with the
Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation in Cairns, a Native Title
Representative Body for the western region of Queensland extending from the southern
parts of the Gulf of Carpentaria right through to the South Australian border.

Over a period just short of seven weeks, I was thrust into an environment living,
breathing and at every moment experiencing the many faces of Native Title. I discovered
quickly that my idealised notions of this system had completely underestimated the
complexity of the law, of the anthropology, and of the difficulties in both representing
and being represented. I also learnt that around this ‘Native Title’ was an intricate system
of intertwining legislation, negotiation and compromise that attempted to command the
many interests over the land in the hope that they be appropriately managed and

This diversity was reflected in the wide-ranging nature of the tasks that I, as an intern,
was asked to undertake. These included drafting articles in plain English on subsidiary
issues for Native Title claimants, such as the implications of tax on individuals receiving
payment under future act agreements, and the requirements for registering as a cultural
heritage representative body. Other tasks involved sorting through and compiling
anthropological research, transcribing interviews, sourcing maps, researching judicial
decisions, case histories and genealogies to photocopying and binding. All of these
activities exposed me to the sheer volume of materials that are drawn on from the input of
various actors including lawyers, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, geographers
and research assistants to name a few. No doubt this wealth of material is one indicator
of the high evidentiary burdens that are placed on applicants of Native Title.
Furthermore, the span of dates on the reports pays homage to the all too often lengthy
time frames involved in receiving a determination.

Whilst the tasks I completed in the office no doubt provided the foundations of my
theoretical understanding of Native Title, it was my experience in the field on two
different occasions that consolidated this knowledge by revealing the reality of Native
Title for those claimants on the end of it. On both occasions I was allowed the privilege
of meeting with traditional owners whilst they generously shared their stories and
knowledge with me. I listened to their musings of the past, and concerns for the future,
and with that a jolt of reality felt a slight shame at the purely academic way to which I
had approached the research materials. Admittedly, I had found it difficult to digest the
foreign names and places referred to in the preparatory reading undertaken prior to the
trip. Humbled by the intimate, deep knowledge that these traditional owners had of both
their land and family it was hard not to sympathise with their obvious frustrations over a
system that, in such remote places felt so removed, both ideologically and theoretically.

Throughout these interactions I observed how both lawyers and anthropologist worked
collaboratively by moulding anthropological findings into a presentable legal framework.
I also watched how both lawyers and anthropologist communicated clearly and openly
with the native title groups, dramatically helped by their intimate knowledge and
familiarity with the claim group as individuals, as a collective, and through a close survey
of the research materials. I witnessed how they reasoned with frustrated claimants,
sceptical of the system, unsure of what role we, as representatives of the land council,
would play. Sadly I also witnessed disruptions and conflict both within and between
claim groups that would often manifest into a reluctance to share knowledge of country
out of fear of stories being stolen.

Perhaps most importantly, these trips to country allowed me to conceive the legal
machinery of Native Title as more than simply a series of processes with varying
requirements, evidentiary burdens and consequences along the way. Rather these trips
allowed me to appreciate the detailed ways in which the deep knowledge connecting
traditional owners and their communities to country needs to be presented to be amenable
to the courts whilst doing justice to the traditional owners. In this capacity, although
perhaps on a very basic level, I was truly able to witness the relationship between
anthropology and law. They both work interactively at translating and appropriating
judicial systems of law with traditional systems of laws and vice versa.

However my internship was in no way limited to scrutinizing the Native Title system.
Throughout the program I was able to explore the townships, visit sites, Art galleries and
cultural centres in rural Western Queensland and soak in the gorgeous tropical
atmosphere of Cairns. I became friends with the wonderful people working at
Carpentaria who shared their experiences as professionals in this often-challenging field.
I was provided the chance to develop practical skills, in the field of anthropology and
law. I was granted the vary rare opportunity to learn, from traditional owners, sacred and
profound knowledge of country, be openly accepted into their homes and be shown parts
of their lives. The experience was constantly challenging, often enlightening and no
doubt educational. And I loved every minute of it.