The repatriation of Aboriginal ancestral remains to Australia

by Rowena Dickins Morrison

Last year, for the first time, Aboriginal human remains were returned to Australia from a German institution (as reported here). Nine sets of remains, including some full skeletons, were returned to South Australia by Charité University Hospital in Berlin. This was followed by the return of remains to Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. Repatriations continued this year, with 14 ancestral remains returned by the Hospital to the Goemulgal of Lag Mabuyag in the Torres Strait and the Wajarri Yamatji peoples of Western Australia.

In May 2013 in Adelaide, a cleansing smoking ceremony was performed by Ngarrindjeri elder, Major Sumner, upon the return of the remains to South Australia. The provenance of one set of remains has been identified, allowing for its return to country and community, in Tarcoola. The South Australian Museum is acting as custodian for the unidentified remains. Tauto Sansbury, a Narungga-Kaurna man who was one of the three indigenous people to travel to Berlin to retrieve the remains and accompany them back to South Australia, stated that further tests would be conducted so as to identify the remains and allow their return to their community for burial.

Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) affirms the right of indigenous peoples to the repatriation of their human remains, as well as the concomitant obligation on States to

seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

In 2011, the Australian Federal Government established a policy designed to facilitate the repatriation of indigenous remains held domestically and internationally to their communities of origin in Australia. Indigenous involvement in the repatriation process is central to this policy, which provides funding for each stage of the process. In 2012, the Government also established an all-indigenous Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation (ACIR), ‘to advise on policy and program issues related to Indigenous repatriation from Australian and overseas collections.’

Following his experience of the repatriation of ancestral remains to South Australia from Germany, Tauto Sansbury has called for the creation of a South Australian Aboriginal repatriation committee in discussion with the Federal Government, so that future repatriation processes to the State can be dealt with effectively and by the appropriate local indigenous individuals.

As illustrated by this latest repatriation from Germany, progress is now slowly being made towards the repatriation of the remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestors held by domestic and international institutions.

Two significant repatriations from international institutions in recent years are also worth noting in this connection.

  • In 2009 and 2010, following a decade of lobbying by Aboriginal communities and, subsequently, the Australian Government, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC repatriated ancestral remains stolen during the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. In his prize-winning essay, ‘“Because it’s your country”: Bringing back the bones to west Arnhem Land’, historian Martin Thomas, who was involved in this repatriation process alongside community elders and traditional owners, provides a rich account of its history. Thomas also gives some insight into the perspective of those responsible for receiving the repatriated remains of their ancestors and returning spirits to their country. An interview relating to this essay can be accessed here.
  • In March 2011, after 18 months of dialogue with the Torres Strait Islander community and the Australian Government, the Natural History Museum in London announced that it would return 138 human remains to the Torres Strait. The Natural History Museum’s website affirmed: ‘This is the largest single return of remains to Australia and is a landmark decision for the Museum, bringing a new collaborative approach to repatriation.’ Three ancestral remains were repatriated in May 2011, and a further 19 were returned in November 2011. However, representatives of the Torres Strait Islander community have requested that the Natural History Museum retain guardianship of the remaining 116 remains, to be held on trust for the community, given that the provenance of these ancestors cannot yet been determined. The collaborative partnership between the Torres Strait Islander community and the Museum is to be further strengthened by the creation of a fellowship for a community member to work with the Museum in London (see here and here).

No comprehensive inventory exists of the estimated tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains still held by domestic and international institutions.

 

Rowena Dickins Morrison is a SOGIP/LAIOS Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ecole des Haute Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for European Studies (Canberra). Her research in the SOGIP team (Scales of governance – the UN, States and Indigenous Peoples: self-determination in the age of globalization; ERC 249236) considers the rights of Indigenous Peoples, with a particular focus on New Caledonia, Australia and the Pacific region. The original version of this post was first published on the SOGIP blog.

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