Marco Cuevas-Hewitt

Native Title
Summer 2016

I imagine my future self will look back on my time with The Aurora Project as a pivotal moment in my life’s journey. Already, it is proving to be an invaluable bridge between my doctoral studies at The University of Western Australia and the kind of meaningful and socially-engaged research career I’ve long aspired to.

Nearing the end of my PhD in Anthropology and Sociology in late-2015, I began to look into employment opportunities both inside and outside academia. Owing to my passion for social justice, I became particularly interested in research roles in the not-for-profit sector, in which I would be able to draw upon all of my skills in research and writing that I’ve been developing over the course of my studies at UWA, and put them directly at the service of positive social change. This was when I discovered the Aurora Internship Program, which facilitates placements for students and recent graduates of Law, Anthropology, and general Social Science in a range of organisations working in Indigenous affairs. I was fortunate enough to complete not one but two research internships through Aurora, each lasting 4-5 weeks. These, combined with my UWA credentials, enabled me to land my dream job – but more on that later.

The first of my internships was with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council (BGLC) in rural Victoria, which represents the Traditional Owners of the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk peoples, who have been officially-recognised as Native Title-holders since 2005. I was, in fact, fortunate enough to join them for their 10-year anniversary celebrations. My initial brief was to assist with an ongoing community language project; specifically, to help consolidate scattered records about the Wergaia language from early settlers and anthropologists, variously held by the BGLC, the local library, and the local historical society. Wergaia is not used as a daily spoken language anymore, but there is a movement to reclaim it, which is where I came in. I built two comprehensive wordlists (English-Wergaia and Wergaia-English) in Excel and by the end of my sojourn had entered in a couple of thousand words, drawn from dozens of historical sources. Aside from the words themselves, I also made notes of the year and area that they were recorded in, the cultural stories around them, and so on. The more entries I made, the more that regional or dialectical patterns were able to be discerned.

I was given a number of side projects at Barengi Gadjin too. One was helping out with a literature review for a project that the Glenelg-Hopkins Catchment Management Authority is undertaking in partnership with the BGLC, which, in short, is seeking to factor Aboriginal cultural values into how the Glenelg River catchment is managed. At the request of the Glenelg-Hopkins folks, I also compiled a list of bird names in the Jadawadjali language (historically spoken just south of Wergaia-speaking country) for another project they’re doing. Towards the end of my stay, I even got to play archaeologist for a few days, assisting the BGLC with its cultural heritage management functions. It was 38 degrees on the day of my first-ever archaeological excavation, but a very memorable experience nonetheless, ‘working the sieve’ alongside Traditional Owners and having a good yarn. The next day, I again joined archaeologists and Traditional Owners, but this time walking long transects, a few kilometres at a time, along the routes of a proposed water pipeline network, scanning the land for anything of possible cultural heritage value. It was fascinating to learn that signs of the pre-colonial occupation of the land are everywhere once you know how to look! 

After an incredible experience in rural Victoria in November-December 2015, I flew to Perth in January of this year to participate in an Aurora-run course on Native Title Anthropology, as well as to commence my second Aurora internship with the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT). Only my initial training took place at the NNTT’s Perth headquarters, with the bulk of my internship being completed at the Tribunal’s office in Sydney, which is where I now reside. Another Aurora intern started in Perth at the same time as me, and on our first day we were given a thorough crash course into the NNTT’s new research portal which we progressively helped build over the course of our internships. It’s slated to go live by the end of the year, and will feature a map interface where users will be able to search for information about native title and Indigenous history in any given part of Australia. We drew from the NNTT’s twenty-plus years of research and entered it into the database bit-by-bit, while also digitising relevant materials and ‘geocoding’ each entry so that it will be locatable on the aforementioned map.

As a big believer in the democratisation of knowledge, I was very glad to be working on the research portal. In addition, having just come from a land council, it was great to learn about how things work from the government side, not to mention gain a more national understanding of Indigenous affairs. For my own education, I especially liked entering in the NNTT’s Native Title Determination booklets, which provide information on the latest areas of country to have become part of the Indigenous estate. Coming across government documents on Aboriginal groups I worked with in rural Victoria was particularly interesting for me as well.
Aside from my so-called ‘data capturing’ tasks, I also assisted Tribunal staff with an audit and various other duties as required, and read an in-depth research paper for an in-house reading and discussion group. Written by a well-known native title anthropologist, it examined the various types of connections and rights that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold in relation to land, rounding out my very intensive learning process with Aurora.

I feel humbled by the opportunities afforded to me by The Aurora Project, as well as honoured to have contributed something meaningful to the invaluable work of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council and the National Native Title Tribunal. With respect to the former, I will be forever grateful to the Traditional Owners of the Wimmera-Mallee Region of Victoria for welcoming me into their beautiful country and showing me such warm hospitality. Not least, I’m also grateful to my PhD supervisor at UWA, Dr. Debra McDougall, for guiding me to the finish line, and to my now-retired mentor, Prof. Victoria Burbank, formerly with UWA, for supporting me in my Aurora application in the first place.

Just one last thing remains to be mentioned: With the help of all of the aforementioned people and institutions, and many others besides, I have just landed a dream role as a Policy and Research Officer with the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council in Sydney. Being half-Filipino, I took my PhD as an opportunity to conduct research on movements for social change in the Philippines, including amongst Filipino indigenous peoples, but now the time has come to bring my focus back to Australia. There is still so much work to be done in terms of rectifying historical injustices in this country, whether through the return of Aboriginal lands or otherwise, and I can’t wait to get started.