Silkom Powell

Social Science
Winter 2017

Gone Fishing: My time with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

In an unsuspecting office space, behind a glassy door on the third floor, looking out onto Black Mountain and the surrounding range… is AIATSIS. Walking in, one is greeted with life-size posters: ‘Our land is our birth right’ and ‘Aboriginal fishing rights.’ You know you’re in the right place. As you inch in further, the whole office comes alive. There’s the CORE team, working away tirelessly on the roll-out of an online education system aimed at improving cultural understanding and competency in the work-place; if you turn a corner, you find the hard-working team at Aboriginal Studies Press – churning out title after title of articles and books that are written by some of the best authors in the country. From Eve Vincent’s ‘Against Native Title,’ to the Little Red Yellow Black book, ASP are continually asking readers to think critically about the structures that Indigenous people in Australia live in, and the ways that they are breaking free of them.

Around the next bend, you find the Intercultural Heritage team transcribing interviews, making short films, or translating the Prime Minister’s speech into Ngunnawal for an acknowledgement of country. This team is full to the brim of people who care about Aboriginal stories being told, and being told in a way that the people who own the stories want them to be told. Anthropologists, Linguists, Ethnomusicologists, this team has got it going on.

Across from the ICH hub, is the place I called home for the last six weeks – the Native Title Land and Water Research Unit! Equally as diverse as the ICH unit, NTRU is spotted with lawyers, anthropologists, linguists, community development experts, governance gurus, and geographers. We worked on a few really exciting projects while I was there as part of the Aurora Internship Program, and I’m sure that when I walk out those glass doors for the last time this year, they’ll continue to work on important and progressive projects that benefit Indigenous communities around so-called Australia. This time ‘round, we were working on the development of a new website for Prescribed Bodies Corporate (PBCs), in order to (hopefully) improve members’ access to information around funding & training, and establishing a ‘hub’ of what different PBCs around the country are doing.  I also played a small part in the beginnings of the Youth Engagement project – which is aimed at finding out which young people are involved in native title, what attracts them to it, and how the sector can become more accessible. The final project I was involved with during my time at AIATSIS was on the Livelihood values of Indigenous customary fishing – something the NTRU has been working on with communities on the South East Coast, Far West Coast of SA and the Crocodile Islands in NT. It tapped in to the controversy around Fisheries regulations competing with Native Title fishing rights, and issues around licensing are still unfolding around these different parts of the country.

Apart from the projects I helped contribute to during my time at AIATSIS, undertaking this work as an intern through the Aurora program also offered myriad opportunities. It allowed me to gain an understanding into the ebbs and flows of working in the Native Title Sector, of funding, communication strategies, focus groups, and meetings in community.  It introduced me to people who have worked in the sector for years, and who’ve witnessed change beyond what I could possibly imagine, who have stories and connections that I am yet to form, and who are passionate about the field they work in.  They are equipped and committed to making real, sustained, social change. Interning with AIATSIS gave me an opportunity to learn the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the Native Title sector, thereby making it more accessible for me to understand, and boosting my confidence in working with and understanding land tenure, native title claims, Aboriginal ownership of land and waters, and the impacts these structures have in Australia.

Aside from this steep learning curve, it was also important to have an initial foray into the 9-5 lifestyle: its challenges, its advantages, and learning how to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day – something I never really felt like I could do as an undergraduate student working around the clock. Being an intern introduces you to new concepts, new hours, new people, and to fresh inspiration from passionate minds.