Sarah Bartrim

Native Title
Winter 2016

During the winter of 2016, I was fortunate enough to undertake two internships via the Aurora Internship Program. For my first, I was placed with Aboriginal Legal Services NSW/ACT (ALS) and for the second, with NTSCORP.

ALS provides legal support to Indigenous men, women and children across NSW and the ACT, with offices located in a number of regional centres. Head Office, in the charismatic inner-city suburb of Redfern, houses the CEO, CFO, HR manager, EA, PLO, Policy Officer and Media Advisor. I am grateful for being placed with Head Office as I am all about taxonomy and enjoyed being able to conceptualise not only the position of each office within the organisation as a whole but also the organisation’s position within the broader framework of the indigenous sector.

I was welcomed into ALS with open arms – and a ready supply of fruit from the HR manager (always a bonus!) – and began work straight away with another Aurora intern (now a lifelong friend) on preparing community profiles for each ALS office. As aforementioned, there are a few, and we were therefore given the unenviable task of scrolling through census data. BUT (yes there is a but!) I learnt a lot from scrolling through this data and preparing the profiles.  In the data we identified trends of persistent communal disadvantage, factors that suggested a higher need for legal assistance, and the worrying tendency to overlook Indigenous women (as the minority group of a minority group) altogether. We learnt that these issues overlap each other, undermine each other and are incredibly complex. I also learnt that despite this, the sector is absurdly under-funded and very rarely at the forefront of our societal consciousness.

With this in mind, I was blown away by the attitude of my colleagues. I was in the office at the time that the Don Dale story broke and it was insightful to see the reaction of the ALS staff. Instead of resignation and despair, there was a sense excitement and optimism for this opportunity to make the most of the media spotlight, which for once was shining directly on Indigenous affairs.

Apart from the data, I also worked on a couple of research tasks in relation to the Custody Notification Service (CNS), which provides a literal lifeline for Indigenous people in custody. I was also given the opportunity to shadow one of the solicitors from the Redfern office criminal defence team. My half-day at the Downing Centre was an experience I could write a reflection on in itself but this is all I will say: we are taught there are no simple answers in law or in life but one can never quite prepare oneself for the ethical conundrums that either will throw at you. In attempting to centre myself, I found myself thinking of the quote hanging in my supervisor’s office: if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. 

For my second internship, I entered the fascinating world of native title. The NTSCORP office is also located in the modern-day suburb of Redfern, which I soon learnt is situated on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Dharug Nation. NTSCORP is a Native Title Service Provider (NTSP) that assists Traditional Owners across NSW and the ACT to exercise, understand and engage with their rights under the Native Title Act 2003 (Cth) (NTA). This assistance is provided in the form of legal advice, anthropological research, community facilitation and continuing engagement with Aboriginal communities, the State, and various other stakeholders.

Native title is an area of law that necessarily synthesises a plethora of social, spiritual, legal, historical, anthropological and environmental issues. During my time with the organisation I undertook a variety of research tasks covering a broad spectrum of the above issues. I also became fluent in the romantic tongue of acronyms. Oh that PBC? Yes, according to ORIC, the corporation isn’t registered under CATSI so they couldn’t find an ICN. Have you spoken to the LALC about the ILUA? Not yet, but I’ll get onto it ASAP. (Nailed it.)

I was also very lucky to attend the 2016 NSW Native Title Forum at the Federal Court. This was a particularly insightful experience and I left feeling buoyed by the determination of my colleagues. The Hon. Justice Jagot made the strong declaration that the current state of affairs in NSW, with claims taking over 20 years to be determined and elders dying in the process, is 'unacceptable' but finished on a more optimistic note, stating that her contribution to the native title sector will undoubtedly be the biggest achievement of her career.

I should note that well apart from the intriguing subject matter of the work, it was a delight to be an honorary member of the NTSCORP staff. There was a preoccupation with food that I could completely relate to: a Masterchef challenge at the Operational Planning meeting, daily coffee runs, picnics at Anapum’s desk (prompting an ongoing debate: ripe v unripe mangoes; whose side are you on?!) and a farewell lunch at the BEST sandwich joint in Sydney (Scout’s Honour – look it up).

I am extremely grateful for my time at both NTSCORP and ALS and would recommend an Aurora placement to anyone keen to explore opportunities in the Indigenous sector or a fulfilling career focused on social justice more generally.