I knew a bit about Indigenous land rights before completing an Aurora internship as part of the Aurora Indigenous Program in July 2016. However, doing the internship allowed me to appreciate a completely new side of land rights, as I gained some insight into what Indigenous communities go through to claim, protect and use these valuable rights.
My main learning about Indigenous land rights had happened at Melbourne Law School, where I learned about the history of native title and how it currently functions. In general, this study emphasised the significance of native title for Anglo-Australian law and mainstream Australian politics. There was little scope to look into what land rights mean for Indigenous communities, or what happens to communities after land rights have been conferred. One of the reasons I was keen to do an Aurora internship was to find out more about how this system works in practice, and the process and effect of native title determinations for Indigenous polities.
Something I realised soon after I started my internship was how vast and complicated the practical side of claiming and protecting land rights is for Indigenous communities. I was placed at the Northern Land Council (NLC) in Darwin for four weeks in June–July 2016. During my placement, I learnt about Indigenous culture, the process of fighting for land rights, and how these rights are used.
One thing I learned was to see Indigenous land rights in a more complex way. At uni, we had focused on disputes between Indigenous communities and the government. However, at the NLC, the disputes I saw were frequently between different family groups and communities, rather than between Traditional Owners and the State. I was able to sit in on meetings in which families decided what would be done with their land for the long term, as the NLC facilitated meetings with the traditional owners and prospective pastoral lessees of their land; and attended meetings where traditional ownership boundaries were contested by different owners, an ongoing problem the result of land being divided up several decades ago. The experiences gave me a strong impression of the complex political systems that existed before white settlement and which survived colonisation.
During my internship, I was also forced to challenge my assumption that the conferral of land rights would be automatically empowering for Traditional Owners. The Northern Territory is an excellent place to do an internship as the land rights system under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 has been in place for forty years, so that many Traditional Owners have had some control over their land for generations. While at the NLC, I saw how Traditional Owners are able to use land to empower their communities, entering leases which give revenue, and building services and infrastructure. I had no idea before heading to the Top End of the amazing use of land, including crocodile egg farming, buffalo safaris, luxury hotels and tours, and helicopter rides. However, I also saw how difficult it is to make the most of land rights. With little support from the government, and at times its active resistance to conceding to the demands of Traditional Owners, I saw how political disputes could hold back the will of entire traditional owner communities.
Before my internship, I had some idea of how complex the determination and protection of Indigenous land rights in Australia is. However, by meeting and working with the people who help to claim and protect these rights, I gained invaluable insight into the non-theoretical side of Indigenous land rights in Australia.
Gaining this practical insight was only possible because I was given the opportunity to get stuck into what happens at the NLC day to day. During my internship, I was given the opportunity to try many different kinds of legal work, including research memos, note-taking, and assisting in meetings. The NLC made sure I had the chance to work on interesting projects and to learn about how the organisation itself worked, including how maps are made, the role of anthropologists, and the ongoing work in communities by the organisation. Everyone was extremely welcoming and keen to share their knowledge about working in the top end and in land rights.
I would highly recommend an Aurora Internship, and particularly the NLC, for anyone interested in learning more about Indigenous Australian land rights.