Marina White

Native Title
Winter 2015

As my plane floated down through the sunset over the place where the velvet Indian Ocean meets the pindan-flecked sands of Cable Beach, I had a feeling I was entering a very special part of this world. Just one month ago, I was finishing up my first Aurora placement in the big city lights of Sydney. As I stepped out onto the scorched tarmac of Broome airport I knew that this time around was going to be a little different. I was excited but also a little bit terrified – on top of all the stresses that go with starting a new job and moving to unfamiliar surroundings, 2 rather large saltwater crocodiles had been spotted in Broome the weekend before I arrived.

I was here to intern at the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), which is the peak Indigenous body in the Kimberley working with Aboriginal people towards native title recognition, conservation, land management and cultural business enterprises. It works with about 25 native title groups in the region, with the aim of “getting back country, looking after country and getting control of the future”.

While I was preparing myself to be the awkward new kid on the block, my fears were dispelled as soon as I entered the building. Everyone was so willing to go out of their way to show me around or help with any tasks I was struggling with. The huge number of staff (about 130 in total) meant I always had someone to chat to over lunch – from lawyers, anthropologists, native title officers and people working in land and sea management, to rangers, secondees and Traditional Owners visiting for the day.

The KLC (and Broome as a whole) is a very sociable place and I found myself being invited out to BBQs and board games, after-work drinks and dancing at The Roey, soccer games, swimming pools and balmy evenings at the outdoor cinema. I even got to attend a “carpark party” at the end of my first week to eat pizza and listen to some (actually pretty impressive) karaoke. Every day of my placement felt a bit like a summer holiday – perhaps it was the infamous ‘Broome time’ or the fact that I got to wear sandals and shorts to work.

The tasks I completed were challenging and diverse. Preparing Indigenous Land Use Agreements and affidavits had me feeling like a real native title lawyer immediately. The fun continued as I was given the opportunity to file documents with the Federal Court, prepare case analyses, write legal research memos, and sift through anthropologist reports, site surveys, newspaper clippings and letters to formulate arguments for a court hearing. Having only studied about 3-weeks of native title at uni, I had a bit to catch up on – It’s such a huge and complex area of law of which I was only just beginning to scratch the surface. I found myself being challenged to consider issues beyond native title as my old meticulously-formatted and colour-coordinated exam notes on corporations, procedure, statutory interpretation, evidence and contract came out of the cobwebs.  

During my first week I was invited to attend the Bindunbur native title trial to hear witnesses giving evidence in front of Justice North. It was inspiring to hear their stories first-hand, and pretty special to experience the Federal Court set up in a makeshift warehouse. If it wasn’t for the black tablecloth emblazoned with the words “Federal Court of Australia” and Qantas luggage labels sticking out of suitcases strewn open by the feet of sandal-clad lawyers and anthropologists, I would never have guessed where I was. It was eye-opening to see how much preparation goes into a native title trial – hours spent drafting affidavits of more than 30 witnesses, compilation of expert reports from anthropologists and historians, catering, venue set-up and actually bringing together everyone involved. I was also overcome by how long it takes for a native title claim to reach determination – this one started in the 90s and won’t be settled until 2017.  

The most memorable experience of my placement was the week I road-tripped out to Fitzroy Crossing with a team of KLC staff. As we drove down, the mercury soared 10 degrees and the land changed from red to yellow. The skinniest cows I’ve ever seen peered at us lazily from the side of the road and a dingo crossed our path. The first thing I noticed when we arrived in Fitzroy is that it is hot. Really hot. A dusty dryness sat heavy over the land, and the salty Broome breeze was left 396 kilometres away. We were here for authorisation meetings, which basically involved ensuring the native title claim groups were happy with a pastoralist agreement over their land. By day 3 the tin shed we were sitting in transformed into an oven so we decided to move the meeting outside under the shade of the trees. It was a moment I’ll never forget and one that I think not too many lawyers would get to experience.

Each evening I was invited to tag along with KLC staff to see the other work that happens during on-country meetings. We went to a remote community to drop home meeting attendees, cruised through spectacular sandstone valleys and learnt about the reefs where the ocean used to rise up to millions of years ago. People pointed out their communities, shared stories of the land and showed me the fresh tracks of a King Brown. One afternoon we stopped by the most exquisite freshwater spring. I couldn’t believe places like this exist out in the middle of the desert and I felt very special to be shown things that most tourists would never see.      

During my time at the KLC I learnt so much more than just native title law. Some of my favourite moments were those spent sitting and listening to Aboriginal people talking about their lives, their families and their country. This gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of Indigenous knowledge systems – how country has feelings and needs to be looked after, who has the right to speak for country, how knowledge is passed on and how Indigenous and western law do not always see eye-to-eye. 

The Kimberley is very special country and I encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to travel there to go with open eyes and open ears. Absorb as much as you can from the people around you and watch some of the most incredible sunsets in this world. I know that I’ll certainly be back one day. I will never get sick of seeing that layer of dusty pindan finely sprayed across my feet, fat green mangoes just beginning to blush in the soupy humidity, and those indescribably warm turquoise waters that flow in and out across the mangroves and mudflats.