When the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka people were formally recognised as the traditional owners of a 40,000-square-kilometre area of far northeastern South Australia in 2015, it was a special moment for Amanda Wingett.
A descendant of the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka people, Amanda’s grandmother was born on traditional lands in the Cooper Basin.
“My community was incredibly lucky to get our native title determination after almost two decades of fighting for recognition, so I have a strong interest in how that fits in with the law,” says Amanda, who proudly wears a shirt commemorating the historic day that is adorned with her nations’ totems: the pelican (Yawarrawarrka) and the wedge-tailed eagle (Yandruwandha).
For Amanda, it’s a dream that began nearly 20 years ago.
“I’ve always wanted to study law. I fell in love with it in high school,” she says.
“I did three-unit Legal Studies and in that we looked at international law. I just found it fascinating – the connection to how Australia engages with international law and our responsibilities.
“There were a lot of things (back then) and it just wasn’t the right time.”
While studying law presents a new challenge, Amanda is no stranger to academia or The Australian National University (ANU) where she is an associate lecturer teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Medical School.
Her decision to pursue postgraduate law studies was supported by her manager Dr Stewart Sutherland, ANU Medical School Deputy Dean Professor Zsuzsoka Kecskes and Professor Asmi Wood, a renowned researcher of Indigenous people and the law and 2020 ANU Indigenous Alumnus of the Year.
“Asmi was a phenomenal support. He talked me through the options and why the Juris Doctor was the best fit for me,” recalls Amanda.
“It was such an honour to be awarded the scholarship, and I am truly grateful to the Freilich Foundation for their generous contribution to advancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law students. Particularly in this climate, it’s a genuine blessing to have the financial support.
“I have primarily used the scholarship for textbooks at the moment, but I’m hoping to put most of it aside to support me to undertake extracurricular activities to support my understanding, application and skills in law,” she adds.
The law and medical schools share “a lot of parallels” when it comes to the importance of educating students on factors that influence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ access, experience and outcomes in both sectors, according to Amanda.
As the national university, ANU has a particularly important responsibility in this area.
“A framework that guides students in their learning from the beginning helps the process. Much like medical students, I don’t think law students grasp the impact of concepts like terra nullius and the underlying racism that occurs in Australia that started 200 years ago and has continued to be perpetuated by structures like our legal system,” she says.
“In teaching students, you then help to change the legal system because they (students) see it differently. When they become lawyers, politicians and judges, they help to frame the ways people are represented. It’s decades of work, but as native title shows us we are moving that way – just very slowly.”
Looking to the future, Amanda hopes to leverage her skills and knowledge to make a positive difference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives.
“With my public health background, I can see the health-legal side as being quite attractive,” she says.