Categories: World

‘We were fuelled by colonial convictions’: Museums return remains of 18 Indigenous Australians

For more than 150 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and secret sacred artifacts were transferred to museums, universities and private collections in Australia and abroad.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, human remains were collected by medical officers, anatomists, ethnologists, anthropologists, and pastoralists, in some cases for scientific research related to explaining human biological differences.

A traditional smoking ceremony is part of the official handover of the remains of 18 Indigenous Australians to the University of Oxford.

Indigenous communities and the Australian government have been campaigning for the repatriation of ancestors from abroad for more than 30 years. Since 1990, more than 1,650 ancestors have returned from collectors and private owners from nine countries, including 1,280 from the United Kingdom.

The number of Indigenous Australian remains held abroad is unknown, but there has been a positive shift in collection ethics, with many institutions and private holders becoming more proactive in discussions of repatriation.

An emotional Robyn Campbell, a descendant of the Bunganditj, Meintangk and Tanganekald peoples of southeastern South Australia, flew to Britain to receive her community member’s remains. Her mother, Noelene Casey, was a prominent figure in one of the first attempts to take home the remains of three native Edinburgh ancestors in the 1990s.

Campbell, the director of the Burrandies Aboriginal Corporation, said the opportunity to repatriate her community’s ancestors remained a positive step toward healing past injustices.

Wendy Dalitz, the assistant director of Indigenous Repatriation for the Australian government, carries the remains of the First Nations ancestors during the ceremony.

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“First Nations peoples have continued to suffer from the atrocities and impact of colonization. The theft of our ancestors from Country is a singular injustice. As First Nations people, we have never relinquished our sovereignty, nor have we authorized the removal of the remains of our ancient people,” she told the ceremony.

“We have been made sick and concerned about what has happened to our old people, always knowing that our relationship and connection to Country is the foundation of our culture and way of life.

“Our manners dictate how important it is to always stay connected to Country, so the fact that our ancestors moved to an alien museum environment has been a source of great distress and shame. The return of our old people is to fulfill our cultural obligations, and we hope this will contribute to our recovery as First Nations peoples.”


It is the second repatriation for both institutions. Pitt Rivers returned the remains of six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 1990, while the Oxford University Museum of Natural History returned three ancestors to their traditional keepers in 2009. A new round will take place next year.

Australia’s acting High Commission for the UK, Lynette Wood, said the act was a reminder of the importance of community, family ties and connection to the country.

“I hope it helps to promote healing of justice and reconciliation, and that it enables the ancestors to rest in peace and dignity in their homeland,” she said.


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