Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Travelling Bones: The Repatriation of Indigenous Ancestral Remains

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Travelling Bones: The Repatriation of Indigenous Ancestral Remains

Article excerpt

IN THE ALBUM JOURNEY, ARCHIE ROACH - THE AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS singer-songwriter hailing from Mooroopna in Victoria - has a melancholy song called "Travellin' Bones."1 It is about the repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains to their rightful home. This essay considers the legal, ethical, and cultural conflicts over Australian Indigenous remains being held in museums, in Australia, the UK, the European Union, and the USA.2 James Nason comments:

The explosion of legal and extra legal attention on issues of cultural property and heritage was born of the frustration and anger of indigenous peoples whose rights and perspectives about cultural property and heritage issues had been largely absent and essentially unwanted by the museum of community.3

Part I focuses on disputes in Australia involving the repatriation of Indigenous Australian remains. In Bropho v. HREOC, there was controversy over a cartoon mocking the repatriation of the remains of Yagan, an Indigenous warrior, to Western Australia.4 There was a discussion about the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), and the exemptions available from the operation of the regime. Part II considers the efforts by Te Papa Tongarewa - the Museum of New Zealand - to repatriate Maori and Morion ancestral remains to New Zealand, and to hvi communities of origin. The conclusion considers the relevance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007, and issues raised by ventures such as the Genographic Project.

I Australia

There have been a number of instances in which museums have yielded up the remains of Indigenous Australians to their original communities. The National Museum of Australia, based in the national capital, Canberra, has played a key role in the repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains:

The National Museum of Australia's repatriation team works to return ancestral human remains and secret and sacred objects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Museum has been returning remains and objects since its inception in 1980 and is recognised nationally and internationally for its repatriation work. More than 1000 individuals and over 360 secret and sacred objects have been unconditionally returned to Indigenous communities. Museum staff continue to work closely with Indigenous communities to return remains and artefacts to their ancestral custodians.5

The National Museum of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection included human remains and sacred objects, largely derived from the collections originally held by the former Australian Institute of Anatomy. It has documented its efforts in repatriation of such ancestral remains and sacred objects. The National Museum of Australia has become the temporary repository and repatriation point for a range of collections to be returned overseas.

There have also been efforts to reclaim Indigenous human remains in overseas institutions - particularly in the UK in May 2007. Aboriginal remains held in the Natural History Museum in London were repatriated to their original community in Tasmania, after much disputation and the threat of legal conflict.6 The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre had sought their return for more than twenty years. On the return of the Tasmanian remains, Carolyn Smallwood commented:

This is both a joyful and deeply distressing occasion for Aborigines. These remains, together with those of 13 more of our people, were removed without any Aboriginal consent from Tasmania during the 1880S and we have been fighting since the 1980s for their return. Greg and I are both proud and honoured to be able to take them home to lay their tormented spirits to rest. [. . . ] However, we are grieving also, because the only reason the Museum has allowed these four remains to be returned at this point is because scientists have finished their tests on them. We have been telling the Museum for over thirty years that physical interference of any kind with our dead is an absolute violation of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and we are completely opposed to any form of it. …

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