Edit Caitlin Murphy

Native Title
Thursday Island
Summer 2015

I will never look at the sea in the same way again. Coming from a place where the sea often rages dark blue or grey at temperatures of 15 degrees, for me, turquoise glassy sea always looked calm rather than dangerous. But for those aware of the complex, strong currents and powerful tides that change quickly with the pull of the moon, the clear, flat sea can be life-threatening without the right knowledge. At the same time, the sea sustains life: beautiful and resilient ecosystems, the seasons, traditional food, ecological and cultural knowledge, reflections of the sky. I will never fully understand the contradictions, strength and beauty of the northern seas, but I was lucky to hear some beautiful stories that made me realise how rudimentary my understanding was. With the Federal government threatening the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, it is a really important time for those of us with a rudimentary understanding of the power of country to start to listen to its stories.

Listening need not involve leaving your home, but my learning did when I was privileged to be able to intern with Nyamba Buru Yawuru in Broome, and the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Gur A Baradharaw Kod on Thursday Island as part of the Aurora Internship Program.

Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY), meaning ‘this is the place of the Yawuru’, is the operational arm of the Native Title Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) that holds native title on behalf of the Yawuru people. A remarkable negotiation and claim process guided by inspiring leadership has lead to the creation of NBY. The organisation’s broad-reaching work is grounded in a strong sense of culture, country, community and self-governance. In a time where there is great debate over resources and development, their work in native title and land and sea management uses both traditional ecological knowledge and cutting-edge scientific technology. Their work in community development encompasses Yawuru stories and knowledge systems, cultural heritage and language revitalisation. I have never worked in an office with such wonderful history on the walls: stories of the connections, pain and joy of Broome’s history.

I was very lucky with my work. I got caught up in the exciting whirlwind of an upcoming exhibition, Lustre, co-curated by NBY and the Western Australian Museum, about traditional pearl shell stories and the history of the pearling industry in the Nor’West. It was such a privilege to listen to interviews that conveyed so much of the depth of knowledge from the Dampier Peninsula, navigating by the stars, the cultural importance of pearl shell and stories of working in the industry. I learnt a lot about Broome’s unique history, stories of a vibrant multi-cultural town where Aboriginal, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and many other communities formed strong interlocking relationships despite the racism and control imposed on people’s lives. I learnt a lot about the slavery and violence in the industry, but also about its active construction by Aboriginal and Asian communities. I learnt a lot about the complex marine environment and how the amazing nacreous creatures grow.  The voices, emotions and point of view of the story changed how I think about heritage.

In the Kimberley I had the sense that anything could happen, that somehow it was possible to be driving along a corrugated road marveling at the contrast between the deep red of the pindan on the road and the intense green that the wet season had brought, to listen to an interview sitting on the same sand where Aboriginal communities set up camp after being kicked off the stations and taken to Derby, to be avoiding shovel-sharks whilst night fishing in the shadowy shallows, to eat the fruit of the gubinge tree, listen in on an oral history workshop in Fitzroy Crossing, or hear world experts talk about their FAS-D research at work.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) is a statutory authority that aims to strengthen communities in the Torres Strait and promote Islander culture and decision-making. Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK) was formed by Traditional Owners in the Torres Strait region to promote the interests of native title holders of the Torres Strait region, and to act as a peak body for the region at a Local, State, National and International level. Its Directors comprise the Chairs of the 21 Representative Native Title Bodies Corporate in the region. GBK aims to become the region’s Native Title Representative Body in the near future, and I was lucky to have such interesting work supporting this transitional process. I was lucky to learn from an organisation with such strong leadership about self-governance, intercultural governance, organisational function and strategic and policy considerations. It was an amazing opportunity. Cases such as Mabo No. 2 and Akiba v Cth (The Sea Claim Case) are well known, as is the drive for Islander ownership of industries in the region, but so much change has been lead by the Torres Strait and it was inspiring to see this strong activism.

The region is a unique place. The amazing fusion of the powerful culture, worldview and ecology of each distinct island group, strongly spoken languages and intricate artwork is like nowhere else. Not to mention the colours of the ever-changing sea, the lush green and bright moon and stars; being able to sing the sun down with the ukulele group by the beach, and feeing that the Australian mainland was just a blue shadow in the distance that could only be seen on a clear day. Seeing the region from the air whilst flying to a meeting allowed me to see the extent of the region that is water, and understand a little how the sea and the sky could be just as important as the land.

Many of us have criticised the famous ‘lifestyle choices’ comment, but can we clear our eyes and listen with open ears and hearts to what it would mean to let the government force thousands of people off their traditional lands in our name.​