Nariman Sahukar

Native Title
Summer 2009

 Macquarie graduate Nariman Sahukar recently undertook an ‘Aurora Project’
internship with Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, a Native Title
Representative Body (NTRB*) in Western Australia.

Nari assisted with a variety of native title claims and negotiations over the 15 weeks
of his practical legal training placement, meeting many hard-working lawyers and
welcoming clients, from Perth to the Pilbara and back again.

We’d flown up in the wee hours of the morning to a windswept Karratha (pop.
12,500). Lugging laptops and portable printers, I climbed into our Pilbara-red hire car
with the legal officer and our in-house counsel. The airport was girt by sea and salt
lakes – crusty white accretions on the roadside, like snow on the Martian plains.
After six weeks in Perth, I had two preconceptions of the office up here. First, many
things that most law firms take for granted – computers, phones, and an office
brimming with staff – just aren’t par for the course in remote Australia. The second
impression came from an email to the Perth office a few weeks before. It began:

Some of you may be aware that there is a snake in the Karratha office and measures
have been taken to catch it. In the meantime … if you call and can’t get through, you
now know why.

Snakes or no snakes, we arrived and set to work preparing for an Aboriginal claim
group meeting in two days time. Much of the day was spent building up a picture of
genealogies with the staff anthropologist, to ensure all the right people were included
in the claim group.

I thought about how one real benefit of working as a native title lawyer is the chance
to develop a variety of skills (and work with others who have them) – whether it be
advocacy, history, anthropology, environmental and resources law, commercial nous,
communication or negotiation. Life as a native title lawyer also involves a fair bit of
travel, with all the accompanying advantages and strains. So in between afternoon
errands, I spent a few moments gazing at the rusty rocks and scrubby hills.
At sunset we drove out to a cove on the Burrup Peninsula, where ferrous boulders
meet the placid sea, and eons of shells crunch underfoot. Court decisions had quashed
the local Aboriginal peoples’ claim over the Burrup, although just before the Federal
Court found native title had not been proven, a settlement was successfully negotiated
with the state government. The process was not without compromise (it rarely is) – as
evidenced by the gleaming industrial silos that lay on the way to the secluded cove.

Heading to a nearby town the next morning, we met with several of our client
community members at their local headquarters. Our chief aim today was for the
elders to fill in the gaps of our genealogical detective work, and for us to answer any
questions they had about the process of their claim before tomorrow’s meeting.
* NTRBs are Commonwealth-funded legal centres recognised under the Native Title Act
1993. They advise Indigenous claimants on progressing their native title claims, and
negotiate with governments, pastoralists, mining companies and others on claimants’ behalf.
It was great for me to meet our clients in person – to see them poring over their family
trees and imparting what else they could. It was also interesting to hear the range of
concerns they expressed – confusion over why certain things had to happen the way
they were; frustration over simmering local politics; and the rallying of group support
to make sure tomorrow’s meeting went smoothly.
We listened and advised over fish and chips and cups of tea, and spent the evening
preparing background documents for the next day’s events.

Kiddies were laughing and galloping around the community hall when we arrived to
set up this morning – as part of a local community breakfast initiative. The organisers
promptly realised that we had a booking and we all worked to sweep up, arrange
tables, chairs, projectors, laptops and PA systems.

As a trickle of claim group members began to flow in, I took attendance and assisted
with travel allowance for those who’d journeyed from afar – some hundreds of
kilometres in dusty cars. There was a mix of old and younger members, sitting in
small groups, embracing and chatting with each other as more of their community

By mid-morning we were ready to open the meeting. Our in-house counsel’s
experience was evident as she explained today’s significance, gave some background
to how things had moved so far, and stepped the claim group through some thorny
and complex native title issues.

Members had a chance to air their questions and concerns amongst their kin, and talk
through options amongst themselves. Another lawyer who worked with the group
pitched in here and there while I diligently recorded the meeting minutes. Within a
couple of hours the claim group had decided on the next steps for their claim. Formal
resolutions were voted on and passed, and we set about finalising a range of
supporting documents.

Our weeks of preparation had seemed to pay off! In fact, the speed and harmony of
the meeting were a credit to the claim group and the lawyers involved.
To reward our (mainly our in-house counsel’s) hard work, we headed out for a spot of
sightseeing. Amongst the archaeological specimens and pictures of Afghan camel
trains at the local museum, there were some sobering reminders of the not too distant
past. One black-and-white photo showed captured Aboriginal men chained together in
irons and destined for slave labour – a profitable business then known as
“blackbirding”. As Europeans arrived in the Pilbara only from the 1860s, this was
shockingly recent history.

Just before the evening flight back to Perth, our legal officer and I headed out to the
Burrup again to view some of the local rock art; picking our path through a creek bed
dotted with wattle trees and white gums. Great slabs of rock and boulders glowed red
around us. Scanning the cliff faces, my sharp-eyed colleague found what we were
looking for – right where they were carved, perhaps hundreds of years ago. A lithe
human figure seemed to be dancing with ceremonial objects; elsewhere, the pockmarked
body of an animal or a mythical being; and further along the creek bed, a
whole crowd of other figures, both human and animal, watched us from the rocks.
I spent the dying minutes of sunlight clambering up red boulders, clanging like heavy
metal as they shifted. Kangaroos in rusty coats bounded out from nowhere, fleeing
across the craggy landscape.

It was at once a familiar and alien atmosphere – strange animal cries, obstacle-strewn
terrain, bleached bones and eerie silences that pressed at the ears. Even in the winter
sun, I was sweating by the time I stood atop one of the magnificent red hills. My
aerial view took in the yellows, greens and reds of the land, mixed with distant signs
of occupation – the road to the cove and the industrial domes of the factory plants. In
the distance, squinting into the sun, I could even make out the sparkling sea.
It was important and lucky for me to see all this, even if I wasn’t being guided by
local people on this occasion. Actually being there drove home how such strong
attachments to the land have developed over the course of generations, particularly for
the people who relied so much on what their land brought forth for them.
The sense of isolation here was welcome, but intense. It was a world away from the
corporate structures, computer screens, documents, airports and meetings that,
ironically enough, are needed to further our clients’ interests and keep the legal
processes of recognition moving.

Of course, taking in the view didn’t forge the path to indigenous empowerment and
heritage protection amidst the billion dollar industries that now dot, line and quarry
the Pilbara. It didn’t point the way to resolving internal divisions amongst claim
groups, whose fluid boundaries have never before needed total precision (and where a
few kilometres can mean foregoing new means to economic opportunity). Nor is it
simple to address the pervasive differences of power, experience and ideology
between the various parties to native title claims.

At the heart of it though, getting out ‘on country’ reinforced the whole reason NTRBs
exist: to support Aboriginal claimants in the recognition of their land, culture and
history. My experiences in Perth and the Pilbara instilled in me a greater
understanding and respect for that culture, and an admiration for those who work to
protect it. I also felt a renewed pride in the abundant beauty of this country – a fragile
wealth that we, all comers to the land, should justly share.