During the winter holiday period in 2012, I was fortunate enough to participate in a legal internship organised by the Aurora Native Title Internship Program, which is designed to introduce legal, anthropology and some social science (archaeology, cultural heritage, environmental management, human geography, history and sociology) students and graduates to native title, policy development, social justice and human rights issues in Australia, with a view to encouraging students to enter the field of Indigenous affairs once they graduate. I was placed at the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC), the Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) for claimants in the Pilbara, Murchison and Gascoyne regions of Western Australia. Having undertaken just 3 hours of native title legal studies at university before I began my placement, it was fair to say that I was thrown in at the deep end when I arrived at YMAC. In the 5 weeks that followed, my knowledge, understanding and interest in Indigenous people and native title law (and the interaction between the two) expanded substantially. Starting with YMAC, it became apparent that the native title system is a complex and difficult section of the law. However over the course of the 5 weeks it became clear to me that it was not only the complexity of the legal issues that hampered native title claims, but also the impact that the system has had on Indigenous people.
I was based in the Perth office at YMAC which, conveniently enough for me, was just a 20 minute trip from home. Unlike some other Aurora interns, I was based in my hometown, this probably resulted in a slightly different experience, however one that was just as rewarding.
During my time in the Perth office, the primary tasks that we were assigned involved research around interesting (and sometimes obscure) points in native title law. Quite often, there was no clear precedent on the matters, and the task required coming up with an opinion of our own and supporting it as best we could. This provided the opportunity not only to further my research skills through learning shortcuts and tips from lawyers, but also to provide some tangible assistance to the time-poor lawyers who work at YMAC. These tasks also exposed me to much more than native title law – many of the tasks involved knowledge and research around property law, administrative law and constitutional law. Such experience was beneficial both because it added diversity and also helped me to recognise just how much I have learnt at university.
I also travelled to Hedland and Tom Price in the Pilbara region of WA, where I attended community meetings for 3 different claimant groups. It was at these meetings that I had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the native title system and its effect on Indigenous people. During these meetings I realised that in a number of groups, native title claims had actually driven family groups apart. In some cases, it seemed like it was purely the mediating influence of the claim lawyer that provided the possibility of the two sides sitting in the same room. However this has more to do with the native title system than the people. In many cases the roots of the problems are founded in frustration over the slow progress of the claims (many have been running for over 10 years) and also over the requirement under the Native Title Act that the claims be described by definite boundaries – something contrary to traditional Indigenous law.
While I was at YMAC I met a diverse range of people. This included Indigenous people, fellow interns from around the country, recent graduates and lawyers with over 20 years experience. Whether it was sharing university experiences with the other interns or absorbing knowledge from the lawyers, it is the relationships that I formed while I was at YMAC that I will remember for the longest time. It was these that made the work all the more enjoyable, and no doubt the whole experience more rewarding as a whole.
The Aurora Project
I would strongly recommend the Aurora Native Title Internship Program to other students and graduates who have an interest in Indigenous and land rights issues. Applications for the summer 2012/13 program are now open through to 31st August online via their website. Students and graduates with a law, anthropology and/or some social science background are eligible to apply. For details on the application process and other useful information, visit http://www.auroraproject.com.au.