Tommaso Piva

Native Title
Winter 2014

After graduating with my Bachelor Thesis Degree, having focused on the Mardu, a Western Desert people, I became keen on pursuing and deepening my understanding of Aboriginal culture.  I applied for the Aurora Native Title Internship Program, aiming to improve my understanding of the social and political relations which, since the last century, increasingly involve Aboriginal culture with the dominant culture and its values. I was placed as an Aurora intern that the Native Title Representative Body (NTRB), the Northern Land Council (NLC) in Darwin.


At first, reading materials from the Land Interest Reference (LIR) archive, I endeavored to achieve a thorough grounding about history, framework, developments and current ongoing issues pertaining to land rights and native title. The analysis of anthropological reports was a very useful and concrete way to familiarise myself with the tasks and activities of the NLC anthropology branch, and to grasp the functioning of native title and land rights processes of decision-making. Essential for both these fields is the notion of traditional owner and its implications with ownership of land. Quoting the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (N. T.) 1976, traditional owners are ‘a local descent group of Aboriginals who – (a) have common spiritual affiliations to a site on the land, being affiliations that place the group under a primary spiritual responsibility for that site and for the land; and (b) are entitled by Aboriginal tradition to forage as of right over that land’.

The Act provides for land to become Aboriginal, for its subsequent administration and for the distribution of rights among Aborigines themselves according to their relationship to it. To affirm that land is Aboriginal means that an Aboriginal land trust has title to it and such trusts are established through corporative bodies with an exclusively Aboriginal membership. Thus, the Act creates a corporate system for owning and administering Aboriginal land and it imposes a duty of consultation on the land council. A land council is a corporate body having responsibilities aimed at dealing and mediating with outsiders who have interests in the land. Land councils thus have administration and control of Aboriginal land, subject to a requirement to consult affected groups and to obtain the consent of traditional owners. Basically, land councils act on behalf of traditional Aboriginal land owners, through the medium of land trusts (see Maddock 1982).  In its dealing with land, the land councils must consult and seek the informed consent of the relevant traditional owners. Hence, land council management of land requires expert knowledge and advice.  

Additionally, it is relevant to note that native title (Native Title Act 1993) signifies  recognition by Australian law that Aboriginal people had a system of law and ownership of their lands before European settlement - thus denying the former and anachronistic vision of Australia as terra nullis - and therefore  have rights in their lands and waters through their traditional customs. Native title attempts to balance Indigenous and non-Indigenous rights to land. Native title rights vary, from the recognition of such as to protect sacred sites, to access, hunt, hold ceremonies and have to say in management of the in land, native title to exclusive possession, though the latter is somewhat rare. Acting according to law Australian governments can extinguish  native title for a variety of purposes, in which case, holders must be financially compensated for the loss of their rights because some activities are taking place on their land. 

Tasks undertaken during my placement  

After gaining the necessary background, I was fortunate in being able to assist NLC regional anthropologist in a weekly journey attending the Fish River Cultural Bush Camp, which was meant for joint traditional owners and their families from Fish River area, particularly the Wagiman group, in passing traditional knowledge from the elders to the younger generations and in resuming subsistence activities of a hunter-gatherer society through time spent with them on their ancestral land.  

This was an enjoyable opportunity to become engaged in a cross-cultural context and to develop field-work research skills learning how to deal with anthropological tasks in a proficient manner and experiencing the spiritual association of Wagiman people to specific sites connected with major Dreaming beings of their land .  

In the following two weeks I focused on writing my personal impressions of the cultural bush camp through data, information and reflections gathered among Wagiman people. This work was integrated to a review of reports, studies and Land Claim (Upper Daly River) data regarding the area, in an effort to identify elements of continuity of Wagiman people with their past and the strength of their association to the traditional culture. Owing to the massive changes which have occurred on their land, some prominent features of this traditional society will increasingly be accommodated within the social framework imposed by the dominant society. Through my report I endeavoured to provide a perspective on the Wagiman community by analyzing their traditional cultural values in the light of current necessities and social developments which affect their lives. I also  envisaged a range of cultural purposes which would afford Wagiman people the enjoyment of a much stronger and durable attachment to their ancestral land while at the same time protecting long held cultural values which are paramount to their  maintenance of Aboriginal identity.  

 Another task I undertook was to assist anthropologists in the provision of advice as to the relevant traditional owners needing to be consulted. This entailed research on genealogies and related information, which was a very challenging task. I also attended a meeting between traditional owners and NLC anthropologist and lawyer, which focused on a pastoral land use agreement on township of Kybrook and Native Title plan management in  Pine Creek. 

In the last week of my placement I went in Timber Creek, in the Victoria River District, to assist the work of the NLC cartographer manager and the regional anthropologist in a ‘Beds and Banks’ Land Claim. Learning from expert researchers how to deal with field-work methodology provided me with  unexpected insights into the cultural traditional values of Aboriginal groups of the area and their spiritual attachment to country.  

Listening to Dreaming stories sung by senior acknowledged ritual leaders, mapping Dreaming tracks in which either public and highly restricted mythological events are encoded, grasping the functioning of kinship system, skin system and their relation to estates and forms of local organization, and consequently perceiving the landscape in spite of its totemic expressions provided me with a unique opportunity to wholly experience a kind of Aboriginal sensibility and world of view which can only be revealed under suitable conditions of secrecy. Dealing with traditional costumes of this culture was probably the biggest anthropological experience.  I also spent time with Aboriginal people, following and sharing with them their communitarian lifestyle. This has been a further anthropological lesson which has clarified for me the belief that an appropriate and intimate understanding of a culture can be achieved through prolonged time spent in the field. This is even more true if we consider that in Aboriginal culture knowledge is acquired over  a lifetime via the process of socialization and in connection to ritual. Therefore, to deal effectively and to make agreements with Aboriginal people it is critical to adopt a cultural approach that can only succeed if there is 'real and mutual trust' between anthropologists and those with whom they do research. Anthropologist keen to deal with Aboriginal culture have to consider that the lack of understanding of the ways in which Aboriginal groups endeavour to preserve their most long-held cultural values could lead to misunderstandings in the process of decision-making between land owners and representative bodies and, as a result, inconvenient outcomes for all the parties involved. 

A proper understanding of cross-cultural dynamics and their political relations is paramount for the future of Australian culture and society and for the continuance of Aboriginal cultural values within the dominant society with which  they must constantly cope. 


I welcomed this internship as a chance to place my studies into a real and pragmatic context and to balance my university-derived theoretical grounding with anthropological fieldwork practice. My expectations were exceeded and during my placement I increasingly developed valuable research skills while enriching my understanding of Aboriginal culture and the complex set of social and economic pressures emanating from the Australian state. In this regard, my internship made clear to me that these pressures are often led by governmental and institutional interests which, considering the attachment of Indigenous people to the land from a Western point of view, are aimed at adjusting the cultural necessities of Aboriginal people to the sociocultural framework imposed by the dominant society.  From an Aboriginal point of view, this means that the land may remain subject to imposed laws governing use and occupation. Also, in a constant effort to cope with a dominant values system,  Aboriginal groups make use of adaptive strategies aimed at ameliorating this set of influences and in order to protect and accommodate their core traditional values. These ongoing issues are playing a substantial role in defining certain cultural traits of Australian society.  

To conclude, it was a privilege to spend my internship working with professional and friendly people, and I would recommend that students or graduates undertake this highly challenging, astonishing anthropological experience.