During the summer 2009‐2010 break, I was fortunate to participate in a legal internship at the Cape York Land Council (CYLC). This internship, one of many around the country, was organised by the Aurora Project. The Aurora Project is an organisation that aims to introduce law, anthropology and social science students to native title and Indigenous social justice issues and encourage students, once graduated, to enter the field. However, its purpose is
twofold: while the experience clearly benefits the students who undertake internships, it also benefits the many land councils, native title service providers and other Indigenous organisations by providing much needed administrative and research support.
Unlike other interns, before arriving in tropical Cairns to begin my four week stint at the CYLC I had had prior exposure to the highs, lows, functions and dysfunctions of native title representative bodies. Previously, I had spent a year clerking at Yamatji Land and Sea Council in Perth and a year assisting anthropologists at Native Title Services Victoria in Melbourne. Oh yes, I considered myself a seasoned student of Indigenous affairs. However, from my first day at the CYLC, I realised that (unsurprisingly) work in this area is about as diverse and dynamic as the people for whom it seeks justice. The aspirations and approaches of Indigenous groups in the Cape York region are vastly different from those in Victoria and Western Australia, and undoubtedly different from the remaining states. Though daunting, and a steep learning curve, my time at CYLC only further galvanised my interest and passion for
working towards Indigenous land justice. And this is why:
As a student of anthropology as well as law, I was thankful that the experience allowed me to bear witness to one of the oldest cultures on the planet. In fact, it was with the Guugu Yimithirr people of the Cape York region that Captain Cook first crossed paths back in the 1700s. In some respects, the work of the CYLC is a contemporary continuance of the Indigenous/non‐Indigenous relations which began all those years earlier. However, whereas Cook’s ultimate aim was the acquisition of new ‘territory’, the CYLC works together with local Indigenous groups to return to them their traditional ‘country’. Interning at the CYLC was therefore not just about witnessing Indigenous culture, but rather, the culture of cooperation, resilience and reconciliation that was fostered between Indigenous and non‐Indigenous peoples on the Cape.
Pursuit of Justice
The work of the CYLC is largely focused on land justice, be it under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) or Aboriginal Lands Act 1991 (Qld), through negotiation or litigation. What I learnt during my time at CYLC is that ‘justice’ or the ‘best outcome’ is not a matter of one size fits all. Although perceptions exist in the wider public discourse that mining is negatively regarded by Indigenous people across Australia, this view is completely divorced from the very real socioeconomic need of many communities. In the context of mining operations, corporate investment, pastoral interests and spiritual significance, I came to understand that just as mining is neither good nor bad, so too is there no ‘one’ Indigenous opinion on the ‘best outcome’. The best course of action will be different for different groups.
Learning to balance these competing interests within a very technically challenging and constantly evolving legal framework is another reward of practicing law in this area. And for all you bleeding hearts out there, as one lawyer alluded to me, native title law is the best opportunity that lawyers have to work in the human rights field in Australia.
Many law students dream of pacing the corridors of The Hague, prosecuting war criminals at the various ICC tribunals or being flown to New York for top tier mergers and acquisitions. Indeed, the prospect of travelling in one’s job is often at the forefront of people’s minds. Well, look no further. A career in native title will see you clocking more flight time than nearly all other legal avenues. During my time at the CYLC I was incredibly fortunate to attend an on country meeting in the remote community of Kowanyama. If you want to know how the intricacies
and politics of the native title regime are navigated by both lawyers and claimants, there really is no substitute than going on country, attending meetings, listening and engaging. I saw community leaders angered by yet another setback and then come together again to decide a new course of action. I saw CYLC’s claim lawyer present the information in a respectful manner and take instructions. I saw all this, played out against a beautiful (albeit hot) landscape that holds so much spiritual and cultural importance for traditional owners.
The people I have come across during my time at the CYLC (and indeed Yamatji and NTSV) are some of the most intelligent and inspiring I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Certainly working with like‐minded and passionate people and fostering friendships is part and parcel of an Aurora internship experience!
By way of conclusion, I’d like to suggest that if government doesn’t captivate you, corporate doesn’t sway you and boutique doesn’t quite fit; if you seek a work environment with inspiring people, intercultural encounters and travel all in the pursuit of justice, then look no further than native title. And specifically, look at undertaking an Aurora Internship!