Sam Hartley

Native Title
Winter 2015

Over the 2015 winter break I was fortunate enough to be given the incredible opportunity of participating in the Aurora Internship Program by undertaking a legal placement at the Geraldton office of the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC). With only two Property Law seminars on native title as preparation, I flew out to Western Australia with a very limited understanding of the legal principles shaping the work carried out by Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) around Australia. In just four weeks spent at YMAC, I was thrown into a variety of tasks which provided me with a privileged insight into not only the possibilities that native title offers to Aboriginal claimants, but also the immense challenges of working within the native title system.

With offices in Perth and Port Hedland, as well as Geraldton, YMAC is the NTRB responsible for representing claimants in the Murchison, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. The Geraldton office alone has the task of assisting almost a dozen claim groups, covering an area from just north of Perth in the south, to the edge of the Pilbara in the north. In addition to the claim lawyers, each of whom are responsible for a portfolio of groups, a team of anthropologists provide valuable insight into the traditional cultural and social practices which are (in many cases) maintained by claim group members. What struck me most during my time at YMAC was the incredible warmth and helpfulness of everyone who works at the office. Whether it was sharing a joke with the friendly legal support staff or one of four other student interns placed there, working through a complex agreement with our supervisor, or discussing research interview techniques with one of the anthropologists, everyone was willing to take the time to share their stories which helped to create a generally welcoming atmosphere. But it was also abundantly clear that everyone at YMAC, regardless of their field or particular role, was there because they had a very high level of expertise in native title or Indigenous affairs generally, and a genuine passion for the work involved.

Before flying out I had been warned that, due to the unpredictability of events that might arise, some of the work available might be administrative and mundane- nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. From start to finish, the interns were furnished with a wide variety of tasks of varying complexity, all of which provided useful insight into native title specifically, or legal work more generally. A day’s work might involve conducting legal research on the interaction between Aboriginal lands trust land and native title, providing tenure analysis on government reserves, attending meetings with claimants held to resolve claim boundaries, analysing allocation of responsibility under an indigenous land use agreement, working through a list of instructions provided to YMAC by a particular claim group, or transcribing interviews conducted for anthropological research. Some tasks were ongoing throughout the internship; others would arise urgently, with only a few hours available to complete a document before briefing the supervising lawyer. Whilst some points were undoubtedly more hectic than others, each day would bring its own set of challenges and the rewarding feeling that our efforts were making a meaningful contribution to YMAC workload and responsibilities. The upshot of all of this- by the end of the internship, I had developed an in-depth understanding not only of the legal principles underpinning native title, but also a keen appreciation of the challenges and complexities inherent in working within the area.

Interning at YMAC was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable and interesting experiences I have had whilst at university. It has been through the incredible support of the Aurora Internship Program, which organises internships in law, some social sciences, anthropology and some business, that opportunities like this are made available to students and graduates across Australia. Upon successful completion of a written application and interview, potential interns will be placed at one of a number of locations (either as selected as a preference by the applicant or wherever the need arises) around Australia. In addition to minimal funding available in certain circumstances, Aurora provides a comprehensive support system for interns including pre-internship preparation packages, regular contact during the course of the placement, and notification of further opportunities after completion of the 4-6 week stint.