Erin Newell

Native Title
Summer 2015

Knowing that my academic record leaves something to be desired, I submitted my application for Aurora's Internship Program minutes before the deadline with no more optimism than that captured in the motto that "you've gotta be in it to win it". I’m proud to say I’m one of the 37 successful interns of the 102 anthropology applicants for  the summer 2014/15 round – despite my less-than-stellar GPA – and I’m now fast approaching the end of my five week internship at the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) in Broome.

This is a field where being book-smart and top of your class isn't enough (though it’s certainly no disadvantage; seven Rhodes scholars have emerged from the alumni’s ranks since the Program’s inception in 2004). It can at times be frustratingly slow and difficult, while the under-resourced nature of the NTRBs means that everything is on a tight deadline and the pay scale doesn’t reflect the demanding nature of the work. It takes a special blend of patience, commitment and humility.

Most of the work I’ve done at the KLC has been standard menial intern tasks of filing, data entry, printing and binding.  The silver lining to the lack of resources at NTRBs – aside from the sheer availability of opportunities for interns as enthusiastic, unpaid labour – is that your work is likely to be acknowledged and contribute to the bigger picture in a meaningful and tangible way. My first task here was data entry, but I was sorting and recording artefacts as part of a bigger project to return them to country, and the following week everyone involved got a nice email praising the team effort. I’ve printed and bound genealogies of local Aboriginal groups, and studied these to create reference charts of direct descendants. I’m now examining old fieldnotes to help determine how much anthropological work is still to be done on a particular native title claim.

It’s hot and isolated up here, but most challenging for me is the knowledge that as a young woman, no matter how well qualified, it will always be a struggle to be taken seriously outside the office. Aboriginal cultures are economies of knowledge, built on hierarchies and divisions of age and gender, so that the logic in communities is that a young woman will generally be far less authoritative than an older man. In my short time  on placement, I’ve seen a couple of young women undermined on those grounds. It comes with the territory and they take it on the chin. Inside the office it’s a different story; that same cultural gender division creates a need to employ both male and female anthropologists, and there’s a great sense of teamwork and egalitarian camaraderie among the staff.

Part of this might be attributable to Broome itself. People here joke about ‘the Broome bubble’ as a weather phenomenon. Although it’s wet season now, it’s only rained a couple of times since I’ve been here; most of the forecasted rain hits all around and misses us, as though we were under an umbrella. The Broome bubble is definitely more deep-seated than weather, though.  The ‘locals’ I’ve met have actually only been here a matter of months or maybe a couple of years at most and still call somewhere else home; many arrived in town on holiday and never left. It’s a transient place where the population is constantly in flux and there is a palpable carpe diem vibe, so that friendships are forged quickly and weekends are full of activities from fishing and camping to cliff jumping and tide riding (yeah, that’s a thing – and I don’t mean surfing). This makes for a great internship experience, with everyone quick to extend the same hospitality they received on arrival. People say that when they visit home, their lives in Broome seem so foreign and removed that they almost find themselves wondering whether their imagining of the town is just that.

Being here has been real for me. Studying anthropology at uni, it can sometimes feel like the discipline is desperately trying to overcome its sometimes shameful colonial and imperial legacy and legitimate its place in the world. My Aurora internship has demonstrated to me that there is a valid place for classical anthropological fieldwork and ethnography in an applied, ‘real-world’ setting, and there is no doubt in my mind that a career in native title anthropology would be a challenging and rewarding way to earn a living.