In my final year of university, I began to take a serious interest in Indigenous issues, particularly native title in Australia. After graduating with an Anthropology degree, I hoped to pursue this interest further, and was awarded with a 6 week internship position at Native Title Services Victoria (NTSV) through the Aurora Native Title Internship Program. After doing a short stint interning in the Western Desert, working in the native title field in Victoria was quite a different experience, one that was incredibly rewarding, challenging and certainly one that broadened my knowledge and understanding of the native title system today.
I was given a desk in the NTSV office in North Melbourne, and set to work going about tasks the research team had given me. These tasks varied enormously, and I found myself undertaking little bits of everyone’s work – something I think gave me a real appreciation for the variety and diverse nature of the work researchers undertake in this field. I filed, photocopied and entered data as an intern might expect. But NTSV allowed me to go above and beyond these jobs and gave me challenging and important tasks too.
My biggest task was researching and writing a discussion paper on returning materials to Traditional Owner groups that NTRBs have collected. After some research into what other NTRB’s do, I found that none have such a policy in place. Perhaps because native title is so recent, they haven’t had to think about this yet, but with determinations becoming more and more common, it seems time to consider these issues. I was therefore given the task of thinking about everything that an NTRB might need to consider; ethical and moral issues, legal obligations, practicalities, collection audits and storage – everything. I enjoyed being allowed to brainstorm, coming up with creative ways to go about problems, considering all options and challenges. My paper has been used in meetings and discussion within NTSV on the matter and it feels great knowing I was able to contribute to such an important matter.
Amongst this task I was also able to partake in field work, including putting together genealogies and taking notes and even asking questions when we undertook an interview. Travelling to Mildura and Swan Hill was great fun. But sitting down in someone’s home listening to them explain their culture and connection to land was a humbling experience. In this short hour I learnt more about native title than in 6 months studying it. Our interviewee opened my eyes to a lot of issues I had thought or heard about, but made them real and important, and placed them in the context of the native title legal system.
Native title seems ‘harder’ to prove in Victoria, as, due in some great part to Victoria’s historical policies and laws, language is lost and rituals and ceremony aren’t practiced, among other things. This means to prove continuity of traditional laws and customs, one must explore broader and complex issues of family, society, community and governance. I found I was using many theoretical concepts and frameworks that I had learnt at university and while finding them quite interesting, never once thought I would put these into practical use in the ‘real world’. Then here I was, using Sutton’s notion of ‘families of polity’ to argue why traditional laws and customs for the people of North West Victoria have in fact been continuous since sovereignty, just in a way that might not appear so obvious.
On a more human level though, I learnt that the system that I found myself working in asks for impossible things sometimes, or asks for people to continue to adapt their culture even further to prove their right to their land. I learnt not to take something as simple as native title land rights for granted, and to question it as those who must adhere to its obligations question it consistently. That’s not to say that there aren’t those who truly believe in native title and the rights that it can acknowledge. I think though that questioning all underlying assumptions of these processes is more important than ever.
My internship with NTSV allowed me to I understand the depth and complexity of native title; how it’s difficult, frustrating and questionable at times, yet how it can still be important, inspiring and an amazing undertaking. I hope to continue my career in this direction, thanks to the wonderful staff and their high expectations of me at NTSV.