Bethany King

Native Title
Summer 2009

Cultural anthropology appealed to me because of its earnest aims and problematic past, its attempts to address the humbling question of how it is that we, as humans (a species like any other) came to develop the elaborate and diverse cultural artefacts which are the cause of such pride and friction. This made sense to me, because it seemed that we needed to better understand the common assumptions which often lie behind our cultural differences.

While at uni I undertook cultural anthropological subjects on topics including economics, family structures, the human mind, the body, religion, politics and Aboriginal Australia. These taught me that I should attempt to deconstruct the processes by which our cultures have developed, to look for the purpose or meaning behind certain cultural practices and traditions, to utilise local understandings. I was warned of the potential pitfalls which result from considering cultures as static entities and failing to recognize the subjectivity of the ethnographer’s perspective.

I did not have any experience of native title prior to my internship, but had enjoyed an eye-opening introduction to Indigenous Australian cultures while undertaking the subject ‘Garma Fieldwork’ several years before, based around the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. I attended forums staffed with Indigenous leaders and key thinkers on topical issues such as education and health; I sat weaving with the older women and learned that observing, copying and accepting the seemingly offhand advice thrown your way will teach you much more than asking endless questions. I learnt about sideways communication, about the equal but distinct cultural practices performed by men and women, about the linking of country and person, of person and family, of art, history and politics.

With my Arts degree moving to a close I was struck by the worrying realisation that although I found anthropology incredibly interesting at university, I didn’t actually know what anthropologists did in the real world of pay-packets and 9-5. I was told about The Aurora Project internship by a friend studying law. Remembering my Garma experience, I reasoned that working in an area where I could further explore the fascinating complexities of the different Indigenous cultures would be a great way to utilise what I had learned about the anthropological approach while working in pursuit of something tangible and important; native title.

Native title

Following Koiki Mabo’s historic victory in 1992 native title became a reality. More than a land grant, the decision in support of native title declared that the land in question had always belonged to the Indigenous claimants. This momentous shift in legal thinking dismissed the assumption of ‘terra nullius’ upon which Australia was founded, and heralded a new era in the fight for Indigenous land rights.

The victory, however, was short-lived. The Native Title Act 1993 and Native Title Amendment Acts of 1998 and 2007, as well as the common law repercussions of previous native title decisions have made proving native title more and more complex. In placing the onus of proof of connection squarely on the claimants’ shoulders these Acts made positive native title decisions very difficult to achieve, and created an immense workload for the claimants and organisations assisting them.

Due to the complexity of the process, it is important that Indigenous communities receive assistance in pursuing native title. There are a number of different organisations funded to do this, with the majority being Native Title Service Providers (NTSPs) and Representative Bodies (NTRBs); government statute bodies established as a result of the Native Title Act 1993.

The Aurora Project Internships are primarily a method of reducing the workload of staff in these organisations, while allowing students like me the opportunity to get an insight into their world. In an industry that is chronically under-resourced and where there are severe difficulties in attracting experienced research and legal staff, the internships also aim to attract motivated students toward a career in native title.

The internship

My host organisation, Native Title Services Victoria (NTSV) is the sole Native Title Service Provider for Victoria. It occupies an unassuming yellow building in North Melbourne and provides assistance with native title claims for all Victorian indigenous groups. Its multi-disciplinary team is composed of lawyers, community liaison officers, administration personnel and research staff, including anthropologists and historians.

I undertook a range of tasks during my internship with NTSV, including database entry and auditing, research tasks, and a research project. I also attended the research team’s staff meetings and reading groups.

My first task involved entering NTSV’s fieldwork catalogue database with transcripts from the most recent bout of fieldwork. Prior to my arrival, NTSV anthropologists had interviewed knowledgeable members of relevant Indigenous communities – often elders and group leaders – about links to claimed country. Reading through the interviews was interesting, opening my eyes to a different history of the claim areas than the Europeanised versions learnt in school. Being Victorian, most of the places mentioned were familiar to me and I loved the different perspective that the stories provided, often on sites of previous family holidays and the like.

I also worked on an audit of this database, which gave me an appreciation for the comprehensive nature of NTSV’s research materials collection. It includes work by all prominent authors on Australian Aboriginal history and culture, as well as an extensive range of archival materials.

I was asked to complete a number of short research tasks during my internship. These involved summarising work by prominent reconstructive historians on the boundaries of two Victorian Indigenous groups at time of European settlement, and critically evaluating their conclusions with reference to all primary ethnographic materials cited. This work was used by my supervisor and the in-house historian as supporting material for a large report being compiled on the boundaries of a particular claim group and all of its neighbours.

These tasks were a great opportunity for me to clarify in my mind the various complicated definitions of ‘group’ (ie. ‘clan’, ‘tribe’, etc) in Australian Aboriginal culture, and the various rights over land that membership of these different groups entails. It also made me painfully aware of the difficulties involved in analysing the piece-meal and mostly ambiguous archival evidence which exists on Victorian tribes from time of settlement.

The task of the research staff at NTSV is complicated and entails assisting the lawyers to establish:
(1) who constitutes the claimant group,
(2) the identification and location of claim areas, and
(3) a connection between the claimant group and the claim area under traditional law and customs.

Proving connection depends greatly on the specifics of the group involved, but essentially relies on establishing ‘continuity’ of traditional laws and customs (in other words, a threshold level of similarities between those laws and customs present at time of settlement and those active today) and continuity of residence on a certain area of land. This is a difficult feat given the widespread movement of Aboriginal communities as the result of European settlement and disparagement of Aboriginal cultural practices. A string of insensitive and detrimental government policies forced communities to leave their land, abandon their way of living, and reside on mission stations or on the fringes of many towns.

NTSV works mainly with native title claimants in the preparation of connection report material. Three of the major tasks undertaken by in-house anthropologists and historians involve:
(1) deciphering the archival ethnographic materials concerning Victorian Aboriginal groups at time of settlement,
(2) utilising historical reconstructions of Indigenous societies based on these materials, and
(3) compiling contemporary information on claimant groups during fieldwork interviews with knowledgeable indigenous community members.
It then falls to an external consultant anthropologist (often an academic) to consolidate all of this material into a coherent document, which becomes the ‘connection report’.

During my internship I completed a research project identifying critiques of the old ethnographic materials (produced by early settlers and amateur ethnographers) and of the historical reconstructions (produced by contemporary academics) that attempt to map the boundaries of Aboriginal groups at the time of settlement. I produced a chapter which would potentially be included in future boundary reports.

The old ethnographic material is plagued by numerous limitations, among them the ethnographers’ lack of formal training, their insufficient data collection techniques, the Eurocentric bias of early ethnography, and the theoretical and political conflicts between certain early ethnographers. These works, despite their many inaccuracies, are unfortunately the primary source of historical material regarding indigenous law and culture. Historical reconstructive works, while necessary, are also limited in their interpretations by the Eurocentric nature of history as a discipline (its devaluation of oral histories being a telling example of this), and a lack of appropriate analysis of the primary sources or comparison with other reconstructive sources.

The purpose of the chapter was to caution researchers against the uncritical acceptance of these materials, and critique their use as a ‘golden standard’ against which the sometimes conflicting results of contemporary fieldwork are judged.

One of the most rewarding experiences of my internship was the opportunity to talk with the anthropologists working at NTSV about their experiences working with Indigenous communities in Victoria, and to attend the weekly research meetings and reading groups. It was at these times that I developed an insight into how NTSV works as an organisation and what it is like on the ground as an anthropologist.

During the research staff meetings each researcher would outline the progress on reports for the claim they were working on, and details of any liaison with the community. Opportunities to submit papers for the upcoming Native Title Conference and participate in potential training opportunities were also flagged. The reading group sessions resembled university tutorials, and gave the staff and us interns a chance to flesh out certain theoretical issues relevant to native title. One reading group saw us discussing the various environmental and cultural influences that shape the constitution and distribution of Australian Aboriginal social groups.

Despite many obstacles and the long time that it takes for native title applications to reach an outcome, there have been some causes for celebration. In Victoria so far there have been two successful native title decisions, for the Wimmera and Gundjitmara groups. In addition, during my time at NTSV I witnessed the completion of a connection report that had been years in the making.

Looking at the map of areas currently being claimed under native title in Victoria it is clear that there is a long way to go and the process is a slow one, but I am happy knowing that there are motivated and dedicated staff working with communities to help their dreams of land rights become a reality.