Bianca Fernandes

Native Title
Thursday Island
Winter 2011

The Aurora Native Title Internship Program places students and graduates from anthropology, some social science, and law disciplines at Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) and other Indigenous organisations, government bodies and corporations all around Australia, working in land rights, social justice, human rights and indigenous affairs. During winter break 2011, I was fortunate to secure a place at the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) on Thursday Island. This internship was made possible by Gilbert + Tobin, a partner of the Aurora Project, who funded the placement.

Whilst I had a background in land use and Indigenous cultural heritage, the only exposure I had to native title was what I had learnt in the pages of textbooks. I had very little idea of where I was going, let alone the work that I would be doing. Over 6 weeks I would learn valuable lessons and share experiences that will shape not only my legal career looking forward but my personal journey as well.
The Torres Strait is a land of contradictions. It is a collection of islands off the coast of Cape York, yet Papua New Guinea is only a short boat ride away. It is surrounded by beautiful clear blue water, yet one is cautioned not to swim because of the hidden dangers of crocodiles and stingers. The weather can be sun-drenched and calm one moment, with a storm brewing just over the horizon. The people live in a remote community yet they want for nothing - their culture, sense of community and faith is so strong and they find contentment in the small but important things in life.

Working at the TSRA is unique to any NTRB in Australia. The Native Title Office (NTO) is part of a Commonwealth Authority which aims to strengthen the economic, social and cultural development of the Torres Strait by improving the lifestyle and wellbeing of Torres Strait Islanders. It has been challenging to work within the layers of Commonwealth, State and Local Government whilst advising Registered Native Title Prescribed Body Corporate’s (RNTPBCs) who wear many hats – Councillors, Chairpersons, TSRA Board Members and Traditional Owners.

Although 6 weeks is a short period of time, what I have learnt about the Torres Strait Islander culture, the politics of Island life and how land tenure and Indigenous rights play out in the native title arena has been exponential. I have been invited to the signing of land use agreements, helped to write submissions on changes in the law, briefed barristers and consultants, and was (albeit a small) part of a progressive and instrumental negotiations template which hopes to bring certainty and equity to the Islands. The key to working in a small organisation is to be willing to throw your hand up for any task, whether it is as simple as mailing letters and taking notes to more complex legal questions – some of which have never be considered before. Each task is a learning curve which has been supported by the great staff at the NTO whom are more than willing to share their time, experience and knowledge with you as a young person from the city.

I never imagined I would be attending a black tie function one week and a Queensland music festival symphony the next, have the opportunity to travel to Cape York and the outer Islands of the Torres Strait, visit a pearl farm, go camping, fishing or be invited into the homes of so many different people to share a cup of coffee or a meal. I would recommend the Aurora Internship Program to anyone who is interested in Indigenous affairs and social justice. The experience is educational. However, it is also rewarding. You will finish your 6 weeks feeling you made a contribution, although small, to the work many are doing to advocate for Indigenous rights in Australia. There is an old saying on the Islands, that if you eat the fruit of the Wongai tree you will return to the Torres Strait. I hope to return to visit the people who have altered my perspective so profoundly - perhaps to work once again alongside the Torres Strait Islanders and to help with their continued struggle for Indigenous rights.