Nicholas Burchett

Social Science
Native Title
Summer 2011

Indigenous Australia is often talked about but rarely seen by most city folk. Much of the discourse surrounding it involves ‘closing the gap’, ‘intervention’, and ‘self-determination’ but that is undermined by the lack of personal experience that most urban settler Australians have with Indigenous Australians and their real lives. These are issues that I think about constantly, have studied and read about, and will most likely be challenged by on a daily basis in future employment. For this reason I felt it was imperative that I should see and better understand how the pivotal Mabo vs. Queensland legal case in 1992, and the subsequent native title legislation changed the lives and legal status of Indigenous Australians, for whom it was designed to empower. The Aurora Native Title Internship Program provided me with that opportunity through my placement as a social science intern at an Native Title Representative Body (NTRB), a corporation with an Aboriginal Board of Directors that manages the interests of claim groups within its allocated regions.

If Central Australia is the Dead Heart, then surely the Pilbara region of Western Australia is the Iron Lung of Australia. The top three iron ore mining companies in Australia; BHP, Rio Tinto, and Fortescue Metals Group all have substantial operations in the region. As a result, there is an enormous amount of pressure on Aboriginal claim groups to accept financial compensation at the expense of their cultural heritage, which can include sacred sites, storylines, and landscapes containing the resting places of mythical beings. Protection for this heritage was legislated by the Western Australia State Government in 1972. The process by which it is possible for mining companies to destroy heritage sites is a simple administrative matter, one that is unofficially endorsed by the State government for the economic gains the State receives.

It was with trepidation that I set off to work in the complex world of native title. My representative body was the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC), who support the interests of the peoples of the Pilbara and Gascoyne/Murchison regions of Western Australia, but whose main administrative office is based in Perth. It was intimidating going to work for a legal organisation when my studies have been environmental science focussed, with past experience leading me to the conclusion that there were quite often different dichotomies at work in these fields. However, I managed to slip well into the organisational structure working under the Projects Coordinator, whose job it was to facilitate better land management outcomes for native title claimants, rather than working on any of the legal issues.

While much of the heritage work within the organisation involves anthropologists and archaeologists conducting or coordinating mining surveys to document sacred sites, my responsibility was to assist the Projects Coordinator to protect some of the outstanding natural heritage values within the Pilbara region and to assist the relevant claim groups by providing opportunities and recommendations to them as to how to best manage their land within the system of “whitefella” law and policy. Some of the projects coordinated in the last few years, one of which I was able to participate in are:

  • The Wilgie Mia National Heritage Listing
  • to create an Indigenous Protected Area within the Nyangumarta native title determined area. This is similar to a National Park except proposed by and cared for by the Traditional Owners.
  • A National Heritage Listing and Land Management Plan for the Woodstock Abydos Protected Area, a traditional meeting place and site of thousands of unique rock engravings.

The most exciting aspect of my position was engaging with a project as it was being developed and executed. In this role I sourced difficult to find ethnographic and scientific journal articles, and collaborated with YMAC staff and independent consultants on the Land Management Plan which was extremely rewarding.

While the program was gainful in a work experience capacity, it was not without its personal challenges. Six weeks was a long time to be away from home and familiar routines. However it was exciting to be able to experience a new city, exploring on bike and foot, and making day trips to the beach. It was also a transformative process which forced me to re-evaluate some of my long-held conceptions about Indigenous Australia which were equal parts idealism and ignorance, such as universal community spirit and desire to protect the land from industrialism. The reality is that Indigenous people in remote areas have desires and aspirations for wealth and development just like urban dwellers, which are frequently at odds with their neighbours and peers.

If you’ve always been interested in Indigenous affairs, and have some skills in Anthropology, Law, Environmental Science, cultural heritage, archaeology and history, I would not hesitate to recommend the Aurora internship program as an opportunity for both students and graduates to learn more about this country and the ongoing negotiated relationships between Indigenous and settler Australians. It will give you an invaluable insight into the incredibly difficult and complex process of how native title works (or as is sometimes the case, does not work), how it conflicts and compromises existing state legislation and industrial demands, and the challenges and opportunities Traditional Owners are faced with as you work with them to create better outcomes for an enduring prosperity.