Desert dreaming

By Heather Lynes (GARGANO) BA '03

Image of abandoned vineyard near Wiluna

Abandoned vineyard near Wiluna

If you had asked me in September what I would be doing for the last quarter of 2010, I would probably have replied, “lying on Sydney’s beaches.” After all, I had just returned from six years in Edinburgh during which I spent less than a week – total – on the beach. However, that was not to be. Instead, I went to Perth and took part in the Summer 2010/11 Aurora Native Title Internship Program.

The Program aims to place anthropology, law and other social science students into organisations that deal with some aspect of native title, policy, social justice and Indigenous affairs. Placements are arranged in order for these organisations to receive much needed support, while also building their future capacity by introducing potential employees to the field. I had just submitted my anthropological PhD thesis for final examination when I discovered the program and thought it would be an ideal way to get a proper introduction to the practicalities of native title.

For six weeks, I immersed myself in a mass of documents. They related to native title claims throughout the Western Desert and I was looking for useful information to be included in Central Desert Native Title Services’ (Central Desert), the newly up-and-running cultural geography database.

That might sound like a fancy way to describe data entry but, while some of the work was routine, it was a great opportunity to familiarise myself with the types of documents produced for claiming native title. It also gave me time to learn a multitude of names and places associated with individual claims. It didn’t take long to feel that I was actually beginning to understand how important cultural information might be collected and collated to form a legal case and thus, what the anthropologist’s role is in the native title system.

Being located in Central Desert’s office meant I was in the middle of the daily goings-on and I was able to take in the roles of others in the office and get involved in anything interesting that was happening. So I got to meet some of the traditional owners who visited from time to time and grasp the interaction between them and my colleagues. The highlight of the internship was a four-day field trip to Wiluna. The township is 966kms northeast of Perth, on the edge of the desert, at the gateway to the Canning Stock Route and Gunbarrel Highway. The purpose of the trip was to hold meetings – one for men, one for women and one for everybody – in which some very important decisions had to be made. As the intern, I helped out wherever possible, which mainly meant preparing meals and videotaping the meetings. It was also a brilliant opportunity to meet the claimants in their own communities and see a little of the incredible landscape I had been reading so much about back in Perth. And I met some of the consultant “expert” anthropologists who work with Central Desert and saw what anthropological work in the native title system can be like.

After the fieldtrip – with just one week of internship left – to my absolute delight, I was offered a full-time position with Central Desert. Although we hadn’t originally envisioned relocating to Perth (my family and I had only just resettled in Sydney) the experience of the internship convinced me it would be the right decision and one I’m sure will lead to many new and exciting adventures. One thing I know is that being part of Central Desert will help me fulfil my goals of using my research training to make a real and practical difference in the world.

Applications for the winter 2011 round of Aurora Native Title Internships open in March. To find out more or apply, visit: www.auroraproject.com.au