Kaurna Elders want to form repatriation committee for return of ancestral remains
Moves are afoot in South Australia to create a formal repatriation committee to oversee future returns to the State after the South Australian Museum became the custodian of a collection of Aboriginal remains after they spent a century in Europe.
Narungga-Kaurna man, Mr Tauto Sansbury said he wanted to see a formal system established to streamline the process of having ancestral remains returned to Country.
“Myself, on travelling and the two other delegates have decided to look at establishing a South Australian Aboriginal Repatriation Committee and then negotiate with the Federal Government to have the return of all Aboriginal remains directed through that committee so we can then appoint the right people from South Australia to go anywhere in the world to bring back our ancestors,” Mr Sansbury said.
The South Australian Museum has now become the custodian of this particular collection with museum archaeologist, Keryn Walshe saying the repatriation was part of a global effort to return Indigenous remains to their countries of origin.
“There are a number of international institutions who are very keen and very committed to repatriation of human remains and particularly for Indigenous people,” Ms Walshe said.
“Some years ago it was more difficult but now it’s certainly a commitment all of the major institutions are taking on.”
The call for South Australia to create a formal repatriation committee to oversee future returns comes after the ceremony was held in Adelaide last week to welcome home the first ever ancestral remains to be sent home from Germany, some nine items, including full skeletons from the Charite University Hospital in Berlin.
It is estimated tens of thousands of Aboriginal remains are still held in museums and research institutes around the world and many Aboriginal people acknowledge it will be a long and difficult process to return them home.
Ngarrindjeri Elder, Major Sumner performed a cleansing smoking ceremony with song and dance over a trolley of boxes containing the remains of nine ancestors using a feather to direct smoke over the Aboriginal flag draped boxes and also over the senior Aboriginal people who journeyed with the remains from Berlin’s Charite University hospital.
Mr Sansbury was part of the team that escorted the remains home, where they were welcomed by Kaurna Elder, Uncle Lewis O’Brien.
“On behalf of our community and accepting those ancestral remains of ours is one of our illustrious leaders, Uncle Lewis O’Brien. Uncle Lewis, I now hand these back to you,” Ms Sansbury said. “Thank you Tauto, thank you,” Uncle Lewis said which was followed by a Kaurna language dedication.
Other remains were also collected from the Charite University hospital for repatriation to Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia.
A century ago, it was common practice for Australia to donate Aboriginal body parts to overseas researchers in the name of science.
“They done the research because they believed the Aboriginal race was going to be extinct and they needed to be researched,” Mr Sansbury said.
As Mr Sansbury sees it, successive Australian governments were complicit in crimes for which they’ve not apologised. “And it seems to have been just something that was accepted, to go and take Aboriginal remains out of graves, kill Aboriginal people and remove them out of Australia. So for us many things have happened to us and we’ve never really received the apology that really should be.”
Mr Sansbury said the ancestors just returned to South Australia have endured a long journey through various museums, hospitals and even the hands of the Nazi German scientists.
“Everybody knows what the Nazis had done to the Jews, you know and if they done that bad to the Jews just imagine what they done to our Aboriginal ancestors while they were over there. So yeah, it’s a terrible thing to think about, but, you know, I mean I would rather think about what we’re going to do with what we’ve brought back,” Mr Sansbury said.
It’s a journey that’s not quite complete. The places these remains were originally collected from are not known, so they can’t be reunited with a particular community.
Only one of the remains has been identified and will be returned to ancestors at Tarcoola, in South Australia’s far north.
Instead, the South Australian Museum will be their custodian until perhaps new technologies can unlock the secrets of their past when, Mr Sansbury says, their spirits can finally be laid to rest.
“There’s got to be a lot more work done on it and there’s got to be some DNA testing done on them so we can actually find out who they are and where they come from. Once that’s done we’ll return them to the right Aboriginal communities for burial,” Mr Sansbury said.
The lack of provenance of all remains presents significant challenges about who are the appropriate people to oversee their repatriation.