Emma Wical

Native Title
Winter 2011

Land councils and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs organisations are employers of anthropologists. With graduation from an anthropology degree in sight, I welcomed the services of the good folk at The Aurora Project, who set up my six week internship at the Northern Land Council (NLC) in Darwin. The Aurora Native Title Internship Program facilitates the placement of students and graduates of anthropology, law and some social sciences in Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) and other Indigenous organisations and agencies working in policy development, land rights, social justice and human rights around Australia. While the core business of NTRBs is native title and heritage work, those within the Northern Territory are special cases because of additional territory-based land rights legislation – the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (ALRA). As a land council and an NTRB, the NLC has a role in representing Aboriginal people claiming and exercising rights to land under the Territory’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the federal Native Title Act. The fundamental function of the NLC is to consult with Aboriginal people who have interests in land in the Northern Territory’s Top End.

I arrived in Darwin in the last days of June during the middle of the dry season. Many anthropology staff members were in the field taking advantage of the renewed accessibility of many townships and outstations previously cut off by water during the wet. This made for a somewhat deserted office but that situation was tempered by an inbox containing swathes of anthropological reports for native title claims requiring proof-reading and editing. To this task, I devoted much of my first weeks at the land council. These documents - which I had heard much about at university but had never seen - gave me an insight into the ways in which legal process dictates the presentation and form of anthropological research in native title claims, and demonstrated what is required of anthropologists in the native title claim process.

While the initial desktop work I undertook in the Darwin office was native title work, I was able to attend a field trip to north east Arnhem Land which is Aboriginal land under ALRA. Before my internship at the NLC, I think I falsely conflated native title rights and land rights under ALRA as one homogenous group of land rights. The native title claims process I experienced from my desk was a useful precursor to going on the field trip – these two aspects of my internship allowed me to ascertain differences in the way the traditional land tenure and rights are recognised in the two types of European law. The rights of Aboriginal people to land and its management under these two different European laws are quite divergent, as is the criteria for ‘recognition’ of tenure and inclusion or exclusion of family groups and individuals as part of the traditional land-owning or native title rights-holding group. This also allowed me to better understand the role of the anthropologists in land councils. Being cognizant of how the effects of colonisation can be exacerbated by anthropology is extremely important, but I have at times experienced it as a confounding, counter-productive mindset in which anthropology is demonised. Land council anthropologists document Aboriginal knowledge and tenure of, and connection and rights to land in a way that is intelligible to legal, mining and other parties involved in claim processes and negotiations concerning the use of Aboriginal land. At the NLC, I worked with anthropologists who approached the tricky, political task of overcoming this gap (between Aboriginal understandings of land tenure and whitefella governance) with experienced respect, cultural sensitivity and acute awareness of the power relationships operating.

The field trip to north east Arnhem Land involved preparing for and attending a mining royalty distribution meeting. At this meeting, different clans and family groups, all of whom are traditional owners (TOs) of north east Arnhem Land, negotiated the distribution of royalties from mining occurring on their country. My tasks as an intern were to assist the anthropologist when getting instructions before the meeting from traditional owners who could not attend, taking notes during the meeting, and recording an attendance list of the TOs present at the meeting. Instructions given by traditional owners regarding royalty distributions under ALRA (as well as other negotiations concerning uses of Aboriginal land that were not the purpose of this meeting or field trip) are informed by authority to speak for country where a mining lease is imposed, which in turn is derived from tenure of land on the basis of descent. Hence, knowledge of the general tenets of kinship systems operating in Aboriginal Australia gained over the course of an anthropology degree was indispensable during this field trip. There was much walking, talking, sitting, map-shuffling, gesturing and story-telling during the meeting and its preparation. All occurred in a cross-cultural environment that involved confronting and negotiating language barriers. The importance of NLC translators, key informants, and regional office staff was clear to see.

A second field trip took me to the township of Ngukurr and the nearby outstation Minyeri. Getting to Ngukurr via road – up to 7 hours in the dry weather we travelled in – further exposed me to some of the practicalities of field trips: long drives, creek crossings, and 'roos. I accompanied a consultant anthropologist for eight days of community consultations, meetings, site surveys, mapping and genealogy updating. This field work occurred in the context of potential future developments in the St Vidgeon native title claim area and the Mara Land Trust. Again, an understanding of the difference between native title land and Aboriginal land was crucial, as was knowledge of Aboriginal land tenure and kinship systems (as the basis for decision-making). I joined meetings where the anthropologist was informed of the extent of clan boundaries and location of sites and Dreaming tracks by the senior people of Ngukurr and Minyeri. These meetings led to discussions between the anthropologist and smaller groups of, or individual, senior men during which they worked together to map the extent of each clan’s country. I assisted the anthropologist by taking notes during meetings and mapping sessions, driving people to and from meetings, and updating information on clan lists and genealogies following discussions with senior women of the Ngukurr community.
The NLC is a busy land council. There is so much work to do and many pressures on time and resources. I was, however, really well looked after at the NLC. The anthropologists I worked with in the office and went on field trips with are all excellent teachers and mentors. They taught me a lot and provided me with otherwise untenable opportunities for learning and experiencing land council anthropology. I realise that to travel to country where I experienced field work is not an option for everyone, not even all Aurora interns. Weeks later, I think about the red dirt and the pandanus and the barked trees and the feisty, kind old ladies and the arts centres, and am strangely sad for somewhere I spent so little time. Although a mere intern, perhaps I am yet another Balanda anthropologist who has fallen under the spell of the Top End!

My experience as an anthropology intern at NLC was one of constant learning about what land councils are and do, and the role of anthropology in them. A desire to understand the above will place any future interns in good stead for a land council internship.