Matilda Kiefel-Johnson

Social Science
Summer 2019

To finish off my undergraduate degree, I decided to undertake an internship with the Aurora Internship Program over the summer holidays. After an incredibly eye-opening experience studying Indigenous cultures, knowledges and histories, I wanted to seek practical experience interning with an Indigenous-led organisation to deepen my understanding. I was fortunate enough to be placed with my first preference at North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA). NAILSMA is an Indigenous organisation that works on many different projects across the whole of northern Australia. With a key focus on assisting Indigenous people to manage their country sustainably, NAILSMA is well known for their ground-up approach and empowering communities to take control of their lands and sea.

The combination of my two majors in Human Geography and Indigenous Cultures and Histories aligned perfectly with the kind of work NAILSMA undertakes. Their programs are linked to issues that are highly complex and influenced by a whole range of historical, social, cultural, environmental, economic and political factors. This requires holistic, cross-disciplinary thinking – an approach that forms the basis of my studies in Human Geography.

During my first week I was fortunate to attend the Territory Natural Resource Management Conference that was held in Darwin from 13th-15th November. This was a fantastic way to immerse myself in the environmental management space in northern Australia with the hot topics being connected to Indigenous Ranger Groups, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and Ecosystem Services (ES) economy. The first day I took part in a sea-country workshop along with different Sea Ranger groups from all over northern Australia. Having previously completed a research case study on Djelk IPA, I was extremely excited to speak to some of their Sea Rangers, including their most recent member Jonah from the Learning on Country Program. Presentations, activities and discussions covered first-hand stories from Indigenous Rangers about their many successes, and the complex issues around management and legislation of IPAs. The entire conference was a wonderful opportunity to network and engage in discussion with people who are working at the cutting edge of environmental management in Australia.  

The primary project NAILSMA assigned me was to develop a Business on Country planning framework. For the first two weeks I felt pretty overwhelmed and intimated by the broad scope and unique nature of the framework. At the same time, it was exciting to be contributing to such an important project, which is unlike any other country-based planning model in Australia. I would often find the independence and self-guided work challenging because it required me to trust my own judgment and creativity. While I wasn’t able to complete the planning framework within the 6 weeks I was there, I did create a promotional flyer for the framework to go up on the NAILSMA website. After being so committed to this project, it was rewarding to have produced something tangible at the end that NAILSMA was happy with.

The internship was based in Darwin so I felt at the center of Indigenous politics in the Northern Territory. I got to know some of the complexities and constraints that come with an under-resourced Indigenous organisation, which related somewhat to my previous experiences volunteering with Titjimbat, an organisation working in the remote Indigenous community Jilkminggan. Attending the Territory Human Rights Awards at the Supreme Court really highlighted for me the incredible dedication and hard work of NGOs working in this space. It was both inspiring and hopeful to know of so many people who are fighting for similar causes in social and environmental justice.

While my studies at university enabled me to develop a theoretical understanding of Indigenous affairs in Australia, I found the realities of the Territory to be far more nuanced. Speaking to the staff at NAILSMA was incredibly useful due to their extensive on-the-ground experience working with Indigenous peoples remotely. David, current i-Tracker officer at NAILSMA, told me stories about working as a Djelk Ranger. This gave me some insight into the practical reality of being an Indigenous Ranger and the processes involved in creating a Healthy Country Plan.

Interning at NAILSMA has been an invaluable experience and something that I will treasure going forward with my studies and career. I am extremely grateful to have been welcomed into a workplace so supportive and willing to share their own knowledge and connect me with other leading experts in the field.