Native Title Anthropologist, Adele Millard

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Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a 55yo mother of 3, born and raised in rural WA, but I’ve lived around Australia, New Zealand and the UK. I love dancing, music, community gardening, movies, pizza, chocolate, and walking/hiking – especially in Wales and Tasmania. I don’t enjoy yoga, but an hour of that torturous pursuit leaves a person feeling fabulous! Since my kids have grown up, I have rediscovered my love of sleeping in on weekends!

What do you currently do in terms of work, in a nutshell?  
Coordinate and conduct native title research for the Central Land Council. I also engage consultants to undertake a lot of that research.

How do you apply the knowledge and skills of anthropology in your work?
Desktop and field-based research into people and their social, cultural and linguistic groups inform everything that we do here. A lot of my job is logistics – getting the appropriate people (Traditional Owners and other senior knowledge-holders) to meetings or field sites in often remote areas. It is important to ensure the right people are consulted, and that the right consultants are engaged. I rely a lot on regional anthropologists (professionals who specialise in any one of the nine regions that make up our rep body area) to identify the correct Traditional Owners, and where to find them – because many people move around between two, three or more communities all the time. Also, understanding the complex ways in which life experiences can inform people’s thinking and behaviours is an important skill. It is essential to appreciate that all staff and consultants have potential strengths and weaknesses; and so it’s important to get the right people for any one job and to give them roles in which they can flourish, rather than flounder.

Tell us about an interesting or important project you’ve contributed to.
To be honest, there are many things that are interesting but which I can’t discuss because they relate to claims that have not yet been lodged. The most interesting part, though, is probably the foundational claim mapping. In the Northern Territory, claim boundaries tend to be based on pastoral lease boundaries – a precedent set during pursuit of Aboriginal Land Rights in this territory. However, in Western Australia (and other states), claim boundaries tend to be based on social, cultural and/or linguistic boundaries. There is a sense of imminent momentum when mapping the boundaries for a new native title claim – a knowledge that this is the beginning of an important social justice journey for the TOs. Boundary mapping in Australian states is not uncontentious. Changes in claim boundaries through the research process are commonplace, as neighbouring groups negotiate (or contest) their ‘lines in the sand’; and some claims can stall for years over issues of overlap. But mapping is the first part of the documentary process when TOs definitively identify the country to which they lay claim. From here, anthropologists consolidate information from TOs and archival sources about people, culture, society, religious life, language, traditions, history, and cultural life etc. that give meaning to those maps as more than one-dimensional images.

What are some common challenges in your work?
I recently coordinated a research trip involving 47 people (TOs, consultants and staff) travelling in 17 vehicles through the Simpson Desert. They travelled from New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory to participate. Recent flooding in Eyre Creek (between Poeppel Corner and Birdsville) meant that our staff had to cart in all the food, water and diesel, as well as aviation fuel for the helicopter that took them to water sites within the claim area. It was a massive undertaking, and we managed to pull it off without particularly major incidents. I was really disappointed that I could not participate. (I had to stay at head office, coordinating all travelling parties using satellite communications and locational technology to ensure everyone’s safety.) However, everyone who participated worked very hard – two weeks without showers, and the flies were particularly abundant and friendly this year. It was a really tough job for our staff to stay in good humour themselves, let alone to keep the TOs and consultants happy while working in circumstances like that for two long weeks.

What do you love about your work?
It is such a privilege to record the stories of the most senior TOs and knowledge-holders, and to contribute to the huge body of literature that native title has helped to generate. These materials will one day be in the hands of younger generations, many of whom are clawing back against the ravages of Stolen Generations – i.e. knowledge loss.

This work is also a privilege because it enables anthropologists to see landscapes or seascapes in multiple ways. After undertaking fieldwork with TOs, we no longer see country as ‘just’ rocky outcrops, coastlines, dry river beds, oceans, or vast flat plains. We also see the Dreamings, the sacred sites, and the Estate group areas. We see Dreaming beings in rock formations or dramatic climatic events. We recall the people who have shared their knowledge with us in these places. We learn how to find food and water in places that previously appeared barren. The landscape/seascape becomes alive and ‘peopled’ to us, and they no longer seem so remote.

I also love camping out under the stars. I recently had the experience of camping in a public camp ground (for the first time in about 30 years); and realised just how lucky I am not to have to camp in such a noisy, smelly environment all the time!

How did you get to where you are today?
I came to anthropology as a mature age student in 1993 after working for 10 years in the media and travelling around Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. I had also undertaken a huge variety of casual work – from semi-professional (secretarial, radio production and project coordination), to hospitality (waitressing and bar work), to labouring (cleaning, working in shearing and mulesing teams, and factories). I  studied mostly part-time from 1993 to 2015, knocking off a BA (Hons), an MBA, and a PhD, while consulting/working in native title, Aboriginal heritage, strategic development, health administration, and university teaching along the way.

I was six months pregnant with my first child when I started studying anthropology in 1993; and I had two more children over the next nine years. Juggling parenting, study, and work meant that I had to be motivated and well-organised – including flexibility in contingency planning was critical. I always work ahead of schedule, so that if there’s any kind of delay (e.g. due to illness) there is plenty of time to catch up without missing deadlines. I think having worked to deadlines in the media industry (sometimes four per day in radio) provided a good grounding for preparation. Also, I think having kids probably motivated me more than anything – knowing that I had to keep working to provide them with a decent life. However, now that they’re big and living interstate, I have rediscovered the ancient art of ‘The Sleep-In’. These days, one a week is an absolute must to maintain energy levels; and I’ve no idea how I survived for 25 years without one!

What advice would you give to a student of anthropology who wants to work in your field?
Apply for an Aurora internship. We’ve had a few Aurora interns pass through the CLC doors and they seem to have really valued their experiences here and elsewhere. Also, participate in Centre for Native Title Anthropology (CNTA) workshops, conferences, forums etc. to network, to keep abreast of job opportunities, and to maximise professional development. Entering this field would be very different now to what it was like in 1998. The native title sector is much better organised now in terms of identifying best practice policies and procedures, and providing professional support. The structures and guidelines of native title anthropology are constantly revisited and discussed through professional forums facilitated by the CNTA (in particular) and the Australian Anthropological Society. The CNTA really helps our profession to maintain high standards. And don’t be afraid to seek out work. Don’t wait for it to appear in a ad.