I started my Aurora Project internship on a Greyhound bus in Darwin, travelling the 1,500 kilometers to remote Fitzroy Crossing in the West Kimberley. As I stepped off the bus into 40-degree heat and surveyed the pindan landscape, I knew instinctively that the next six weeks would be a steep learning curve.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up over 60% of the population in the Fitzroy River Valley. As an anthropology student, I would soon learn that the town of Fitzroy Crossing, which sits upon the banks of the Fitzroy River, is a rich tapestry of Indigenous heritage, and Aboriginal communities. There are five language groups which call the Fitzroy River Valley home, being Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Nyikina, Walmajarri, and Wangkatjungka. For my internship, I was placed with the Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation, which is a Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) that manages Native Title on behalf of the Bunuba People. So whilst Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) assists in the determination process, the job of the PBC is to oversee the governance of Native Title on behalf of the Traditional Owners and corporation members. As an anthropology student, it was also interesting to learn that within language groups there are Dawangarri and Muwayi, which are extended family/clan groups and areas of Country that those clan groups occupy or have historically occupied. Each Dawangarri will also trace their heritage to an Apical Ancestor, which becomes an important aspect of Connection Reports and Native Title claim areas. In undertaking a placement with the Aurora Project, interns may benefit from identifying similar aspects of culture, in the communities they may find themselves working within. As well as being markers of culture, these aspects of individual and collective identity become interwoven in the application of Native Title.
Being placed at the Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation allowed me to interact and engage with Traditional Owners and Bunuba people, which was a humbling experience. Over the course of six weeks, I was fortunate to learn about aspects of Bunuba history and culture. What I admire most about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who call the Fitzroy River Valley home, is their resilience in the face of adversity, their perseverance and their determination to protect and nurture connection to country. I found that in the Kimberley there are many opportunities to engage with professionals such as anthropologists, environmental consultants, land councils, community development consultants, conservationist and staff from government departments. Whilst the remote location poses challenges, it also presents opportunities to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
The benefits of undertaking the Aurora Internship Program come to fruition as you start to gain an understanding of the practical implications of Native Title. As an intern, whether placed at a NTRB or PBC, you can assist in capacity building for the Host organisation. Under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (AIS) funding for the running of a PBC is on average $50,000 p.a. Consequently, Host organisations which are responsible for developing the Indigenous Estate, don't have the resources, or staff to achieve their goals, and interns can provide some much-needed human capital. In this regard, you may find yourself working on a mix of administrative and project tasks for the host organisation during your placement. During my internship, I provided administrative support for the BDAC Annual General Meeting and Native Title Holders meeting. I was also tasked with researching grant eligibility and requirements under AIS funding. I learned about the Aboriginal Lands Trust and assisted with a submission for the redevelopment of the Old School Reserve. A highlight of my internship was attending the Bunuba Healthy Country Plan launch, as well as PBC Governance training with the Kimberley Land Council.
The heritage-listed West Kimberley was a stunning backdrop to my six weeks in the field. Heading into the wet season the plains would come alive with electrical storms, and then there was the occasional bushfire which I could have done without. I lived in a donga located at the site of the old Darlngunaya Backpackers, on the banks of the Fitzroy River. Backpackers became a home away from home and my housemates became a great support network for which I am very thankful. Not having a vehicle was a challenge, and stopping occasionally at Jalangurru Mayi café for a coffee was akin to winning the lotto. I did manage a trip to Geikie Gorge and Broome, which were both a highlight, and only possible due to the generosity of others. There is much to be said for outback hospitality.
As a true outback town, Fitzroy Crossing will hold fond memories for me. That is not to say that living in such a remote location is easy, and at times I was confronted by social issues which were difficult to navigate. What better opportunity to put theory into practice and to listen and reflect upon the challenges faced by First Nations people. As interns, we are here to learn, and the Aurora Project provides a catalyst for knowledge sharing. As I sat on the bus back to Darwin I felt joy and sadness, but mainly I felt privileged to have met so many authentic people who were gracious enough to share their culture and lives with me.