Olivia Lim

Native Title
Winter 2011

Since the historic Mabo decision in 1992 paved the way for the making of land claims by Indigenous people in Australia, native title law has been an important and dynamic part of Australian law. However, there is little public knowledge about the procedure and complexities involved in the making of native title claims and the operations of Native Title Representative Bodies. The Aurora Project aims to increase awareness about the work of Indigenous organisations and facilitate opportunities for Australians to work in these organisations. One of the ways in which it does this is through its Internship Program, which gives students and graduates in Law, Anthropology and some Social Sciences the chance to undertake 5 to 6 week placements at a number of Indigenous organisations across Australia working native title, social justice, human rights and Indigenous affairs.

I applied for an internship with a very shallow knowledge of native title, hoping to learn more about the process and to see it in practice. I had always been interested in social justice issues and wanted to find out if native title could provide a way for me to blend my undergraduate studies in Law and Arts (Anthropology) in future employment. I was fortunate enough to be placed in the Perth office of the Goldfields Land and Sea Council (GLSC), and began my first day with a warm welcome from the staff.

My first task was to sort though various archival records dating as far back as the 19th Century to help establish connections of potential claimants to an area for a proposed new native title claim. I learnt that Anthropologists are not only involved in ‘participant observation’ style research in their line of work, but must also spend a great deal of time looking at the work of others. It made me realise that the work of an Anthropologist requires a great amount of dedication and organisation. A part of this task was to write up narratives of the potential claimants as I found references to them in the records. It was fascinating to see names ‘come alive’ as I engaged in this process.

I was able to attend one day of a conference for native title practitioners during my second week at GLSC, which was an eye-opening experience. I sat in on a round-table discussion on the future of native title Anthropology, and was able to hear about the challenges, concerns and developments in native title practice that had recently occurred. A broad range of issues associated with native title were discussed, from the differences between Indigenous and Anglo-Australia conceptions of ‘society’ to difficulties experienced by NTRBs in the employment and retention of native title practitioners. It was great to be in an environment where everyone was so passionate about their work.

Another task I was assigned was to continue the work of past interns for the GLSC by entering the genealogical data collected by earlier ethnographic researchers such as Norman Tindale and Daisy Bates into a database for easy access by the GLSC’s researchers. I found this task to be particularly challenging, because one individual could have a number of different names in the historic records, and even if he only had one name it could be spelt differently on different pages of the data. It was often difficult to figure out exactly who the data was referring to, let alone who they were connected or related to! The sheer volume of the data was such that I would spend whole days of work entering information into the database, and I would seem to be getting nowhere! However, I knew that this work I was doing would make a positive contribution to the researching of claims in the Goldfields area, which encouraged me to keep going. Fortunately, I was able to complete this task during my internship, and the feeling of fulfilment I had presenting the finished task to my supervisor was one I’ll never forget.

During my internship I was given the opportunity to fly to Kalgoorlie to help prepare for and sit in on a claim group meeting. This was the highlight of my internship for me, as I was able to meet the subjects of my research and explore a whole new place. Through my observation of the claim meeting, I realised how long and drawn out a process it can be even to get to the stage of registering a claim. Every stage of a native title claim is fraught with cultural and political sensitivities, and Anthropologists working in native title with Aboriginal communities must not only possess knowledge of that area and the people, but must also be skilled in interpersonal communication, dispute resolution, and the legal requirements of lodging a claim to be effective. It was great to be able to chat with some members of the Aboriginal community as well. They provided me with a different perspective on native title, and as they told me of the many obstacles they had faced in their fight for native title. I developed a deeper empathy for them, and got a sense of the many areas of native title law that still need to be developed.

My last week of GLSC was spent back at the Perth office, where I was involved in collating and summarising all the minutes of past claim group meetings for a particular area. The aim of this task was to create a document that outlines all the outcomes of past meetings to be sent out to all those who had attended those meetings and could potentially be the claimant group for the area. I sat in on a staff meeting between the in-house anthropologist for the GLSC and the legal department, which taught me a great deal about the need for interdisciplinary cooperation in native title claims. The last task I was assigned was to refine the completed genealogical database I had previously completed. This involved adding personal information to the individuals listed in the database, and inferring connections between people where possible. Although I was unable to finish this task during my internship, it will be continued by successive interns for the GLSC.

By conversing with the staff and watching them at work, I was incredibly struck by their determination, passion and sensitivity. From my first day at the GLSC they have taken me under their wing, letting me get involved in their work and answering all my questions, no matter how silly they might have been. I feel so grateful for their kindness and support. In particular, I would like to thank Janet Osborne and Craig Muller for being my supervisors and giving me such a great insight into native title in Australia.