Carla Chan Unger

Native Title
Summer 2008

The Native Title Internship Program provides law and anthropology latter-year students and recent graduates with insight into the workings of an Aboriginal land council. Coordinated by the Aurora Project, the internship program introduces students to career opportunities in native title and Indigenous affairs, and primarily provides assistance to Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs). NTRBs are non-government organisations that support Indigenous people with all aspects of their native title claims. Staff at the land councils are typically under-resourced and overworked and are, therefore, grateful for the assistance an intern can offer to ease their workloads. 

I spent a fascinating five weeks as an intern at the Goldfields Land and Sea Council (GLSC) in the dusty, outback town of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia – 700km inland from Perth. During my time at GLSC I was introduced not only to native title, but to land rights, protection of cultural heritage, Aboriginal traditional laws and customs and to the unique challenges GLSC faces as an NTRB in serving this area of Western Australia. Aside from the difficulties presented by the Australian justice system, various levels of government and funding shortfalls, GLSC also faces immense frustrations in negotiating with the mining industries, and in helping claimants to establish clear connection to land in a region that has been heavily influenced by missionary practices since sovereignty. For all these reasons and more, GLSC has suffered considerable disappointment in successfully determining native title. 

As an intern, I became acquainted with the roles anthropologists play within the system, as I was placed under the supervision of the research department. I found the in-house anthropologist to be an invaluable source of information as she willingly and patiently answered my plethora of questions, and made an effort to expose me to the native title processes as much as possible. My understanding of native title matters was also richly enhanced through conversations with lawyers, archaeologists, Aboriginal policy officers and administrative staff, who often shared with me their contrasting viewpoints. 

The major task I was assigned during my time at GLSC involved working with genealogical data (i.e. family trees) collected by Tindale, a well-known anthropologist from the 1930s-1970s. Through exposure to genealogies I became familiar with complex Aboriginal skin names and kinship systems. I came to understand how essential genealogies are as an evidentiary tool in the native title process and came to appreciate their ability to document the continuity of connections amongst claimants and their relation to particular country. During the final week of my placement, I also helped to compose a policy for future access to anthropological research materials. 

One of the more rewarding aspects of my internship experience was the field trips in which we went ‘out bush’ in order to conduct heritage surveys, always accompanied by a Traditional Owner. On these occasions I was given a rare opportunity to visit a number of Aboriginal sites that had recently been disturbed. One had been damaged due to land clearance in the aftermath of a bushfire, and the other due to the trampling of a farmer’s cattle herd. During these trips I was able to observe how heritage assessments are typically performed, and assisted by recording GPS coordinates and in taking photos of the damages. 

As a city girl, I found the field trips especially exciting as we would travel for hours in a four-wheel drive, following only the faintest of tyre tracks in the red sand. We covered hundreds of kilometres of beautiful and rugged, sunburnt country. On the way home one afternoon, we stopped for a cup of billy-tea under the shade of a big eucalyptus tree and learned the traditional techniques of witchetty-grub (marku) hunting, sampled sandalwood nut and native silky pear (karlkurla). During times such as these, I saw people’s deep-rooted love for their county first-hand and came to have a much better appreciation of the strong Aboriginal attachment to, and identity with, land and particular places of significance and familiarity. 

Other highlights of my trip included independently exploring the surrounding country within the region. One weekend, my fellow intern and I travelled south to the coastal town of Esperance. The beaches were magnificent with powder-fine, ebony-white sand and brilliant aqua waters. Since we accidentally left the tent poles and pegs behind, we slept both nights in our cosy swags beneath the stars – something I have never done before but would happily do again (even if next time I remember to bring my tent poles). Another weekend, we camped on the edge of Lake Ballard, an enormous salt lake surrounded by cast-iron human figurines. A magnificent lightning, thunder and wind storm had us cowering inside our car in pitch darkness waiting for it to pass. 

The remaining weekends I stayed put in Kalgoorlie and tried to make the most of the time in my new hometown. From the moment I arrived, Kalgoorlie struck me as a place absolutely teeming with character. As a mining settlement during the Gold Rush, the streets were built unusually wide in order to accommodate the turning of camel carts. There are an astounding 36 pubs, most of which advertise skimpily clad bartenders who serve beer in their lingerie. Additionally, the whole town teeters on the edge of ‘the Super Pit’ – a gaping hole of a mine that is so large it is apparently only one of two manmade structures visible from space. And on top of all this, I was consistently overwhelmed by the warm and welcoming nature of the local people who would eagerly and proudly show me around the town. 

I can safely declare that this internship was a cultural and educational experience unlike any other. After studying ‘textbook’ anthropology in the classroom for years, it was refreshing and inspiring to observe the discipline in its more practical and applied form. I believe any anthropology student or graduate with an interest in native title and Aboriginal rights should strongly consider applying for the internship program.