A career in native title: “the best thing is being able to get out of the office and onto country”

A career in native title:  “the best thing is being able to get out of the office and onto country”

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Damien started his career in native title in 2003 as a Field Officer at the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and progressed to Project Officer working with the Yawuru team negotiating with the WA Government on their post-native title settlement. Following that he worked as the Coordinator of Cultural and Environmental Studies on the LNG Gas Project.

This is when he got his first taste of native title law:

“Over the years I worked closely with anthropologists, legal officers, barristers and QCs from around the country … knowledge of the dynamics of working with Kimberley Aboriginal people and being able to understand much of the legal concepts helped me explain complex native title issues to other traditional owners.”

Still, Damien didn’t seriously think about going to uni himself.

“They suggested I should study a few times and I thought about it but didn’t take it too seriously … until the KLC Board approached me and offered to support me. It wasn’t something I’d planned on doing, but it was agreed that I needed to expand my skills and knowledge so that I could provide a better service for our clients. I spoke to staff at UWA’s School of Indigenous Studies and my application was accepted for their Aboriginal pre-law programme.”

As a father of young children, Damien opted to treat uni like a full-time job – so he could have evenings and weekends at home with his family.  He attended 8am to 5pm Monday-Friday most of the time, doing extra study only around exam time. 

He made use of the support at the uni’s School of Indigenous Studies“they provided access to quiet learning spaces, computers, printers and staff which worked really well for me.”

Now he has finished his degree, Damien is back at the KLC.  While he has elected not to practice law just yet, he definitely feels the degree has put him ahead of the game:

“One of the biggest tools I gained at uni was the way I thought about things. My critical analysis of anything that comes before me has developed so much - I never just take things for what they are anymore. It makes me very thorough in what I do.”

Damien also sees things differently after the five years he spent studying:

“What I started to think about more was commercial opportunities for traditional owners – I didn’t think sitting around for a mining company to knock on your door was the way to go. I started to think about how to start bringing projects to the community…

"I’ve also thought a lot about the post-native title implications for Traditional Owners – how PBCs [Prescribed Bodies Corporate] can have functioning governance structures whilst also being legally and culturally appropriate.”

So what is it he likes most about working in native title?

“As an Indigenous person, I think the best thing is being able to get out on country and meet different people. I work with many different groups – mainly in the West Kimberley where I’m from and I’m connected to most of the groups here - I’ve met so many inspirational Elders and heard about their personal stories and I’ve also learnt so much about my own culture in the process. Getting out of the office on country is a great feeling, being couped up in an office every day is just not for me.”

Want to find out what alternative career pathways programs are available around Australia to study law or other native title careers? Check out our Alternative Pathways program table or contact someone from the Indigenous scholarships website team.

The Aurora Project offers support in native title via its Native Title Professional Development and Internship programs. These are available to staff from native title representative bodies and prescribed bodies corporate. Professional development opportunities include tailored short courses and webinars on a range of subject areas relevant to the native title sector. Students and graduates in law, anthropology and other social sciences interested to work in native title are encouraged to apply for an Aurora Internship for placement at a native title organisation. Aurora native title programs are funded by the Australian Government, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.