Gemma Irving

Native Title
Summer 2009

When I was accepted to undertake an Aurora internship in Anthropology at the Goldfields Land and Sea Council in Kalgoorlie, WA, I was told to have low expectations. Land councils are hectic places, funding is tight and staff are overworked. Interns like me are placed to take the stress off a little and to help out with the filing. Hopefully, on the side, we will gain some idea about what anthropologists do in the real world, make some good contacts and enjoy ourselves enough to seriously consider working in native title in the future. So when in early January this year I found myself four-wheel driving with a heritage anthropologist and some traditional owners, along one of Australia’s most spectacular beaches near the tourist town of Esperance, I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t come to the Western Desert for the ocean views, but I wasn’t complaining!

The Aurora Project provides the opportunity for anthropology, social science and law students to get out into the field to find out first hand how native title, heritage and other Aboriginal issues operate in the real world. Aurora places interns at Native Title Representative Bodies and at various other Indigenous organisations around the country. I was placed at the Goldfields Land and Sea Council (GLSC), a representative body which primarily deals with Native Title, but which is also involved in other areas such as economic development, land acquisition, and heritage. I was lucky enough to start my internship during early January, a rare quiet time for the Land Council. This meant I had the perfect opportunity to meet staff members in a relaxed environment before things got hectic. Everyone at the GLSC was very welcoming, keen to share their knowledge and almost always up for a chat. In particular, the project officers, all of who are traditional owners, were a great source of information about what was going on out on country and what local Aboriginal people expect from anthropologists and the land council.

During my six weeks at the GLSC I watched the pace of things heat up. In my second week I was lucky enough to tag along on a heritage survey in a spectacular, coastal national park just out of Esperance. I felt privileged to talk with local traditional owners on their country, to learn about the eco-tourism business that some of them run and to have had the chance to work on my goanna tracking skills! By late January, the seemingly endless round of meetings generated by the native title process and the land council’s other activities were in full swing. I made it up to Leonora to attend a meeting with a mining company representative, the GLSC’s economic development officer and some very inspiring local Aboriginal women. Work for Aboriginal people can be hard to come by in some of the smaller towns in the Goldfields, so many are keen to take advantage of opportunities offered by some of the more socially concious mining companies. By the time Februray came around the Kalgoorlie office became heavily populated by GLSC staff who were usually based in Perth. Lawyers, in particular, suddenly appeared from everywhere, signalling that it was time to get down to business on the Native Title side of things. I was lucky enough to be able to attend meetings for a claim in its primary stages, as well as one about to enter into a second round of mediation with the Western Australian Government.

During my time at the land council I quickly learnt that nothing in native title or heritage is straightforward. The GLSC represents an area which stretches from the coastline to the desert and as a consequence works with Aboriginal people whose cultures and opinions are as diverse as the area’s geographical landscape. Unfortunately, fifteen years of native title has failed to deliver legal recognition of Aboriginal ownership over any of the land in the Goldfields. The area is an important source of gold and nickel, and more recently uranium exploration has been heating up. Amongst many miners, the fear that recognition of native title in the area will slow up development is still quite strong. However, whilst some developers try to shirk the rules, others go above and beyond what is required and do their best to navigate the complex local politics of Aboriginal people. In the Goldfields, Aboriginal claims to country are highly contested and native title issues have evolved as a result. Many local traditional owners are upset that native title has delivered only marginal benefits and often accuse the land council of holding things up and favouring other Aboriginal families over their own. In amongst all this anthropologists and lawyers work (and don’t work) together and are constantly negotiating reasonable ways to get around the fact that the disciplines of law and anthropology have approaches and ethical systems which are often irreconcilable. On the worst days working at a land council can be incredibly frustrating, but on the upside it is never boring and is very rewarding.

 I am very fortunate to have had the mentorship of the three very passionate anthropologists who work at the land council. Thanks to them, I learnt the importance of listening, of yarning and of building strong relationships. I learnt to be respectful of traditional owners and the knowledge they hold, but also that in order to gain their respect in return, I must stick up for myself and not be walked over. Most importantly I gained the confidence to work with and write about Aboriginal people. When I first came to Kalgoorlie I felt painfully aware that I was yet another idealistic, white kid with little more to my name than an arts degree. Three years of studying anthropology had instilled in me a deep concern about the colonising effects of my chosen discipline, and I very much felt that it was best that Aboriginal people represented and dealt with their own issues. My time at the GLSC taught me that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians must be involved if Indigenous rights are to be recognised in a meaningful way. The Aurora Project provided me with a tantalising taste of what it is like to work in native title and I thoroughly recommend it to other aspiring anthropologists, lawyers and social scientists.