Repatriating remains is an obligation not a gift



The South Australian Museum is rectifying slivers of colonial damage with the announcement that it will repatriate the remains of over 4000 Aboriginal people to their communities. This will be welcome news for Aboriginal communities, but also a reminder of the need to lobby against policies that deprive them of the right to a dignified connection with their ancestors.

Narungga man Peter Buckskin formally receives his ancestor's remains that had been held at London's Natural History Museum.A few days later, London's Natural History Museum announced the repatriation of 37 sets of Aboriginal remains, which will be held at the South Australian Museum before being handed over to their respective communities. One Aboriginal ancestor repatriated from London was discovered during excavation works by a mining company on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula 100 years ago and donated to the British institution by a local doctor.

Australian government policy on Indigenous repatriation recognises the colonial theft of Aboriginal remains for scientific experiments, historical exhibitions and private collections and calls for 'voluntary repatriation'. The policy's cultural protocols establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community's 'responsibility to their ancestors to bring them back to country according to the Traditional Owner's customs and laws'.

However, while it allows communities to lobby and discuss with entities in possession of ancestral remains, the decision to repatriate rests with the individuals or institutions. The absence of enforcement results in delays in bringing the remains back to Aboriginal communities. In addition, the adherence to earlier colonial narratives about Indigenous populations, under which some remains were acquired, often necessitates a change in museum ethics.

This is an issue John Carty, Head of Humanities at the South Australian Museum, referred to when discussing his own museum's delays. He acknowledges the museum's policy was 'inadequate' and that the museum 'was one of the last cultural institutions in Australia to return ownership and management of ancestral remains to Aboriginal people'. The ethical shift required, he says, is in how such remains are viewed, from seeing them as 'scientific specimens to seeing them as humans'.

Something similar was noted in 2007 by Anders Bjorklund, director of Sweden's Ethnographical Museum, following the repatriation of Aboriginal remains which had formed part of the museum for almost a century. The earlier decision to illegally transport the remains to Sweden, said Bjorklund, reflected an 'idea at the time that Aboriginal Australians were like human fossils, of a kind that had survived longer in Australia than elsewhere'.

Of course this is not merely an Australian issue, but extends to other countries and populations that have experienced colonial violence. In 2018 for example, Germany repatriated collections of human remains to Namibia — the legacy of German genocide in the African country. Germany has acknowledged 'moral responsibility' for the atrocities but has declined to define them as genocide.


"The international community must endorse and act upon returning Aboriginal remains to their communities as an obligation, rather than a concession."


It is unsurprising that the reticence to repatriate indigenous remains is mostly prevalent in Europe. According to the International Council of Museums, scientific value and 'public benefit to the world community' can override indigenous requests. When viewed through the lens of ongoing colonial violence, these conditions form part of a system that thrives upon systematic elimination and exploitation.

Additionally, the ethnological perspective, which plays a major part in Western justifications of colonial theft and displays, is in direct confrontation with indigenous culture and narratives. It assumes racial superiority and normalises historical injustices via research, science and academia. As a result, it detracts from a country's historical and political responsibility and creates additional hurdles for indigenous communities' already marginalised struggle for rights.

Spiritually and politically, the repatriation of remains represents a healing of a missing link enforced upon Aboriginal communities through violence. According to Aboriginal belief, spirits of ancestors away from their homeland will not find rest. The link between people and land was summed up in a smoking ceremony in 2016 marking the repatriation of the remains of 13 Aboriginal people from London to Australia. Aboriginal Elder Major Sumner explained, 'Our ancestors travel with us all the time, they'll travel with us when we go back home ... till we get back to our land and put them back where they came from.'

Yet, the burial itself requires other colonial injustices to be brought to light. Land theft has deprived Aboriginal communities of links to country, thus opening up yet another discussion as to where the remains can be buried without risking further damage. Development has disturbed many Aboriginal burial sites, which are sacred spaces and in need of protection. The settler-colonial framework is still at large in such instances — the refusal to acknowledge, despite historical evidence and current activism, that Aboriginal people belong to the land.

The international community must endorse and act upon returning Aboriginal remains to their communities as an obligation, rather than a concession. For this to happen, it is imperative that the indigenous narrative takes precedence over the violations for which states and governments refuse to hold themselves accountable.



Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Main image: Narungga man Peter Buckskin formally receives his ancestor's remains that had been held at London's Natural History Museum.

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, repatriation, colonisation, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

Thank you Ramona Wadi for an informative and clearly written article on a subject most of us hardly ever think about but need to. All Australians should be concerned about such serious infringements of natural rights that are especially distressing for so many Aboriginal Australians. We might wonder how British people would feel if a group of Aboriginal academics and collectors raided the tombs in Westminster Abbey, then brought the remains back here for museum display and comparative scientific research . . ?

Dr Marty Rice | 01 April 2019  

Nice work Ramona. Measured, clear.

Bev Henwood | 02 April 2019  

Interesting. Brings to mind the raiding of the cemeteries of ancient Egypt and the dispersal of so many treasures around the world's museums. Such raiding and studying of ancient cemeteries probably tells us more of life in those ancient communities than it does of death. I suppose there is more to be celebrated in life than in death. The celebrations of the latter are enjoyed by those souls in the rewarding part of the afterlife and perhaps better off there than in the here and now. Except for the Irish who couldn't survive without a good wake!

john frawley | 04 April 2019  

Colonial violence through the last decades in the 19th century was a quite frequent phenomenon. Just sent some historical materials to writing service for writers research and structuring all historical facts and hope to share it with you in the nearest future.

Vitalii | 04 April 2019  

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