Heather Lynes

Native Title
Summer 2011

An Introduction to Native Title That Surpassed All Expectations

If you had asked me in early September what I would be doing for the last quarter of 2010, I would probably have replied, “frequenting Sydney’s beaches.” After all, I had just returned from a six-year trip to Edinburgh during which I spent less than a week - total - lying on the beach. However, that was not to be. Instead, I went to Perth and took part in the Summer 2010/11 Aurora Native Title Internship Program.

The Aurora Native Title Internship Program aims to place anthropology, law and other social science students into organisations that deal with some aspect of native title, policy, social justice and Indigenous affairs. Placements are arranged in order for these organisations to receive much needed support, while also building the future capacity of said organisations by introducing potential employees to the field. I had recently submitted my anthropological PhD thesis for final examination when I discovered the program and thought it would provide an ideal way to get a proper introduction to the practicalities of native title. I was not to be disappointed!
For six weeks, I immersed myself in an array of documents relating to various native title claims throughout the Western Desert in an effort to pull out useful bits of information to be included in Central Desert Native Title Services’ (Central Desert) newly up-and-running cultural geography database. To some, that might sound like a fancy way of describing data entry; however, in truth, while some portion of the work was certainly mundane, it provided me with a great opportunity to familiarise myself with the types of documents that are produced for the purposes of claiming native title, while also allowing me the time to learn a multitude of names and places associated with each individual claim. It did not take long for me to feel like I was actually beginning to understand how important cultural information might be collected and collated to form a legal case for native title and thus, what the role of anthropologists tend to be in the native title system.

I also had the luxury of being placed in a fairly central location in Central Desert’s office, which meant I was essentially privy to a great deal of what occurred in the office on a daily basis. Being an anthropologist, I used this positioning to gather even more information on the roles of other folks in the office, as well as to get myself involved in anything interesting that might have been taking place. Thus, I got to meet some of the Traditional Owners who visited the office from time to time to discuss some aspect of their claim and observe how these Traditional Owners interacted with the staff at Central Desert. To my delight, the interaction – while remaining professional – had an ease and friendliness to it which suggested that the relationships being built were good and lasting ones.

The highlight of my internship was the four-day fieldtrip to Wiluna which I was generously invited to join. The purpose of the trip was to hold a few meetings – one for men, one for women and one for everybody –in which some very important decisions needed to be made. As the intern, I helped out wherever possible, which mainly meant preparing meals and video-taping the meetings. However, the fieldtrip provided a brilliant opportunity to meet the claimants in their own communities and see a little bit of the incredible landscape I had been reading so much about during the process of data entry back at the office in Perth. Moreover, due to the nature of the meetings and who was required to attend, I was able to meet some of the consultant ‘expert’ anthropologists who work with Central Desert and thus gain an even more in-depth understanding of what anthropological work in the native title system can look like.
Upon returning from the fieldtrip - with one week of my internship left - to my absolute excitement, I was offered a full-time position with Central Desert. Although I had not originally envisioned relocating myself and my family to Perth (we had only just resettled in Sydney after I completed the PhD in Edinburgh), the experiences I had while undertaking the internship convinced me that it would be the right decision to take the job. As I write this, I am preparing to move and take up the position, which I am sure will lead to many new and exciting experiences. One thing I know for sure, however, is that being part of Central Desert – and the native title field, more generally – will help me to fulfil my own personal goals of using my research training to make a very real and practical difference in the world.