Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Callista. I have Australian heritage, but I grew up in the US. I came to uni in Australia somewhat bringing an outsider’s perspective to learning about the social landscape of this place, but also with a family history implicated in Australia’s colonial past, that has led to contemporary inequalities. I wanted to apply what I was learning at uni to be working towards supporting justice for the most disadvantaged people in Australia.
What do you do currently do in terms of work?
I work as a full-time staff anthropologist at the Kimberley Land Council. Our work is mostly in resolving native title claims in the region. I do the ethnographic research required to support the legal claims, which involves some field work on country with Traditional Owners, and a lot of interviewing. I help manage the research material and enable people to access their cultural and genealogical information that was gathered for native title research. I advise lawyers and other staff about matters of group membership and provide my anthropological opinion to inform processes like decision-making and mediations. I also support people to exercise their native title rights in negotiations with stakeholders like development interests on their country.
How do you apply the knowledge and skills of anthropology in your work?
Ethnographic methodology, that I learned at uni, has been very helpful in my work to know how to conduct participant observation, in-depth interviews, take detailed field notes and interpret the data collected to write about it for a specific purpose. The background in socio-cultural understanding that anthropology has given me has enabled me to navigate and interpret the inter-cultural space in which I work, an organisation trying to support Aboriginal aspirations for land rights and greater self-determination within the Western legal system.
Tell us about an interesting or important project you’ve contributed to.
Right now I’m working on a native title trial for Purnululu National Park, the Bungle Bungles. It’s a historic moment that will finally recognise the rights of Aboriginal people over this iconic area of country. I’ve had the privilege of camping in the park with a family group who have a living area there, getting to spend time with them in an absolutely beautiful place that they know through generations of living there, showing us places and sharing stories not many people have access to. Although the trial is about an inter-indigenous conflict, which shows the downside of the adversarial nature of native title, the resolution of this case will enable people to have more say and be more involved in the running of the park in their country.
What are some common challenges in your work?
Conflict between family groups and people feeling dissatisfied with the promised returns of native title are the most challenging things about my work. Twenty-five years plus since Mabo, Aboriginal people in remote Australia, even with native title rights recognised, are still extremely economically and socially disadvantaged. This has produced a lot of frustration with native title, which is often a very difficult and even traumatising process for claimants, having to “prove” themselves by going through very personal and often painful family histories.
What do you love about your work?
I love getting to work in one of the most beautiful places in the world and getting to see a lot of the country. I get to go camping in the desert with the best possible guides, the Traditional Owners who have grown up on their country and share their stories with me. I’m often amazed I get paid for that!
How did you get to where you are today?
I did Honours in Anthropology and French at Sydney Uni in 2015. My thesis was about the French Pacific. I hadn’t expected to end up working in remote northern Australia, but after graduating I wanted to continue to engage in anthropology but didn’t feel ready to do a PhD. I got a bit of experience as a research assistant for some native title work in NSW, which is what made me realise I could get a job in it. I applied for this job in Broome without even knowing if it was in Western Australia or the Northern Territory!
What advice would you give to a student of anthropology who wants to work in your field?
Do an internship through Aurora or contact land councils to see if you can get some experience with them. Get in touch with anthropologists who work in applied anthropology, they are nearly always very happy to support and mentor students and people just starting out in their careers. The Centre for Native Title Anthropology at ANU is a good network to start to make contacts in Australian applied anthropology. Get on their mailing list and get informed more about current issues in applied anthropology in Australia than you’ll get in your undergrad classes.