People

Aboriginal remains repatriation

Aboriginal remains have been removed from until the late 1940s, sometimes declared as kangaroo bones, and illegally exported worldwide.

It takes a lot of work to repatriate them, and the journey is strenuous and long.

Selected statistic data

1,000
Estimated number of Aboriginal remains still held in museums around the world [28], most of which are in the UK, Germany, France and the USA [35]. Aboriginal experts estimate there could easily be 10 times that amount [36].
1,150
Number of Indigenous remains brought back to Australia since 1990 [28].
7,280
Number of Aboriginal remains held in Australian museums that participate in a returns program [35].
10,000
Total number of Aboriginal remains estimated to be held in Australian museums [44].

Imagine you cannot visit the grave of and pay your respect to members of your family because their remains are not in a cemetery but tucked away in the laboratory of an overseas university, thousands of miles away.

Aboriginal remains have been removed from graves and burial sites, but also from hospitals, asylums and prisons throughout the 19th century until the late 1940s [12,44]. Sometimes declared as ‘kangaroo bones’, they were illegally exported to France, Holland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, England, Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy and the USA [13,32].

It is actually on record in the history of Mackay, Queensland, that one overseas collector made a request to the trooper that he shoot a native boy to furnish a complete exhibit of an Australian aboriginal skeleton, skin and skull.—The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 1955, page 2

Bob Weatherall, Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy, Brisbane. Bob Weatherall, Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy in Brisbane, exerts himself in the repatriation of Aboriginal remains since many years.

Where most Aboriginal remains are held
Country Number of remains
Britain 643
Germany 65
United States 58
France 53
Austria 19
Czech Republic 15
Switzerland 13
Russia 8
Netherlands 8
Sweden 7

Source: [14]. Figures correct for 2009.

The largest collection is believed to be held by Professor Matt Kaufman at the Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University [14]. Prof Kaufman keeps an ‘absolute secrecy’ about his collection so that estimates of the extent vary from a conservative ‘five or ten complete skeletons’ to several hundred.

The largest confirmed collection of Aboriginal remains is with the Natural History Museum in Britain, which has one dried head, 124 skulls and about 20 skeletons from Australia and Tasmania, five of which have names and addresses [14].

In early 2009 the British government revealed that in 2005 it held 382 sets of Aboriginal remains in 18 institutions [17].

However, it is impossible to guess the extent to which Aboriginal remains are held in private collections or stored in attics or in the plethora of regional and small private museums.

Given the rather small official figures, it can only be guessed that several thousand and probably more than 10,000 Aboriginal corpses and parts of corpses were brought to England alone [14].

Numbers can vary greatly because some institutions count every bone as a ‘remain’, and sometimes remains thought to belong to one individual turn out to belong to many [36].

The huge amount makes Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy in Brisbane Bob Weatherall propose that the missing remains constitute the original and first Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people [15].

“What is also abundantly clear,” concludes The Guardian an extensive article, “is that there would be no debate at all if the remains were the immediate ancestors of living white Australians,” [14] a view Bob Weatherall agrees to: “We don’t hear the same thing when foreign affairs or the military are repatriating Australian Vietnam veterans who have been left over in Vietnam.” [15]

Aboriginal people believe the spirits of those whose remains are not at home cannot rest. “Our belief is that when our people’s remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering,” says Aboriginal elder Major Sumner. “Unless they are going back home the spirit never rests.” [46]

The damage to the Aboriginal community of having remains [overseas] is astronomical. The spirits of our dead are disturbed by being separated from their bodies. The remains are as important to us as land rights. It's a much more volatile issue, closer to the heart than even getting our land back.—Michael Mansell, Aboriginal lawyer [14]

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 12

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.

2. States shall 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.

Theft of remains: “A skull could be worth a year’s wage”

In the 1800s Aboriginal body parts were highly sought-after ‘antiquities’ that were traded by all sorts of people, from opportunists to amateur archaeologists.

An Aboriginal skull could be worth a year’s wage [31], so people were digging up Aboriginal grave sites. Skulls of Tasmanian Aboriginal people were worth much more as they were considered “the most primitive people on the planet” [31].

Those who did not want to wait until Aboriginal people died simply shot them for their bones. “We know that some of our people were murdered just so the prized skulls of what settlers hypocritically called savages could be donated to scientists,” says Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Sara Maynard [39]. “There was a massive trade in Tasmanian Aboriginal remains in the mid-1880s.”

William Ramsay Smith was a physician at Adelaide Hospital in the late 1890s. He used his position to supply the University of Edinburgh with “a steady and illicit supply of Ngarrindjeri [Aboriginal clan] and other remains—bones, skin, hair samples—for medical and scientific purposes” [35].

Aboriginal elders responded by insisting that caskets be open at funerals to ensure they contained the body of a loved one and not sandbags [35].

From the diary of Dr Erik Mjöberg (cited in the documentary Dark Science):

“We arrived at the mist-coverd port of Fremantle. It was forbidden by Australian law to take Aboriginal skeletons out of the country.

Two officers from the customs office made a brief inspection.

‘Have you got any skeletons with you?’ he said.

I quickly replied: ‘Well I think I must have brought at least a dozen kangaroo skeletons with me.’

The officer’s face brightened and he said: ‘I think you might be a bit of a joker, doctor.’

‘Oh yes, definitely,’ I replied.

And thus began the skeleton’s long journey to Sweden.”

Most ‘scientific research’ never led to a publication of any sorts. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC refused to return remains for a decade, yet failed to publish a single scientific paper about them. “I think there was a real sense of trophy hunting,” says Dr Martin Thomas, a historian of the Australian National University, in an attempt to reveal the real reasons for the theft of remains [42].

Burying remains on country is important because “living Aboriginal people find their navigational points on their country by knowing the dead are in certain places,” as Dr Thomas explains [42]. “They talk to them, at times… the spirits stay on country and are associated with the physical remains. And the spirits are connected with the living.” Aboriginal people traditionally believe the dead can’t rest unless they are properly buried or interred [35].

Every single one of our burial grounds was robbed.—Tom Trevorrow, former chairman, Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee [35]

When Aboriginal man Tom Trevorrow was a young man he saw white men driving around with Aboriginal bones and skulls on their cars’ dashboards [35]. One farmer “had a swimming pool and he’d have bones laying around the edge of it,” Trevorrow remembers.

But even today some people lack respect for Aboriginal remains. People who find remains later ask for them to be returned.

Remains continue to be exposed by natural erosion and increasing development, a trend that is likely to continue [31]. Human remains thought to belong to an Aboriginal burial site have been discovered in sand dunes in Sydney’s south in October 2007 [33]. In Tasmania there are people still going out to look for Aboriginal remains.

Sunset over the Murray River "There were bones everywhere along the Murray." When excavation machines called ‘rippers’ gouged irrigation channels through the earth to draw water from the Murray into the fields they regularly opened up burial sites, exposing Aboriginal remains [20]. Pictured: The Murray River at Swan Hill.

In the 1980s, I was sent to an Australian medical school to collect a doctor for a seminar. Imagine my horror when I saw hundreds of bodies of Aboriginal men, women, children and babies in giant formalin bottles.—Experience of an Aboriginal nurse [40]

Inside a museum’s storeroom—an Aboriginal perspective

Jason, a character in John Danalis’ book Riding The Black Cockatoo, reveals his feelings when he was working as an intern in the Melbourne Museum.

“‘One day I tripped over this box, literally tripped over it. I opened it up, and inside were the remains of my people. Can you imagine that? They tried to keep it a secret from the dumb young blackfella. The more I looked the more I found. Well, I started making noise, asking questions: ‘Why do you need all these old ones, what use are they, why can’t they go back to country?’

‘What did they say?’

‘Research, they said, we need them for research.’ He spat the words out like pieces of rotten food.

‘Well, show me,’ I said, ‘show me the research.’ And you know what, they couldn’t show me one bit, not one paper. And after all these years – decades, man! – that my people have been jammed in boxes with little metal tags attached to them as if they weren’t even human beings.’” [22]

There was supposed to be a whole Aborigine in pickle in one of the Royal Colleges.—Dr Jack Aitken, retired anatomy professor, Britain [14]

“He had seen things… he couldn’t explain”

Ngarrindjeri Elder Major Sumner from the lower Murray River area in South Australia has been involved in Aboriginal remains repatriation for several years. He tells how he’s been in contact with the spirits of the deceased [26].

“When you’re over there [in America or Europe] doing ceremonies, you get a feeling that these [deceased Aboriginal] people are relatives from your own community who have been laying around in boxes since the 1800s, down in basements. When you are there, thinking about them, it feels that they are speaking with you. You’re in contact with them and you feel that there’s happiness because they’re going home. A lot of these feelings are coming from their spirits.”

“When I was at the Manchester Museum, the director, Tristan Besterman, asked me if I’d smoke him and I asked why. He told me that over the years of being director, he had seen things, images, that he couldn’t explain. After I smoked him, he gave up that job and is now helping us identify other remains, and talking with institutions.”

For some elders missing remains explain why the land is suffering. When elders in Brisbane, Queensland, learned that remains had been taken away from their country they said “No wonder that country’s sick. We can’t get bush tucker there. We can’t go good hunting there. That country’s been no good all the time.” [37]

Neil Carter, who was involved in many repatriation activities of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, says that “the spiritual side of [repatriation] is very, very real and very strong and this is the thing that our elders talk about, that we need to bring those remains back and put them back into country. Otherwise, the spirits of those people that were taken away don’t rest.” [37]

When the spirit is in another country, they can't rest. The are very sad.—Tommy May, oldest member of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre [37]

Read more about Aboriginal spirituality.

Aboriginal remains slowly return home

Museums and universities across the world hold Aboriginal remains which have been brought back from trips to the ‘untamed land’ and its ‘savage natives’.

In the early 1980s Aboriginal man Tom Trevorrow, his brother George and Ngarrindjeri countryman Major Sumner started lobbying museums to return Aboriginal remains and cultural objects with almost no government support [35].

Back then when community organisations learned of remains in particular institutions they pooled money and booked flights to negotiate their return.

Increasingly institutions are realising that holding Aboriginal remains disrespects not only Aboriginal culture but also the deceased’s descendants. More than 1,000 Indigenous remains have been returned to Australia between 1998 and 2008 [4], but ‘tens of thousands’ of remains are still held in overseas institutions. An accurate register of what remains are where does not exist.

Excuses

In the absence of any legal obligation, institutions and museums have different reasons to refuse or delay returning Aboriginal remains.

  • Fear of more requests. Some institutions hand back remains almost with secrecy because they fear that if they did it publicly more Aboriginal communities would come asking for their remains [36].
  • Last minute panic. The Natural History Museum in London attempted to carry out last-minute destructive tests claiming that remains were “a unique and irreplaceable resource to advance knowledge for current and future generations” [44].
  • Loss of reputation. Institutions don’t want to see their collections shrink to a size that is no longer impressive, despite the fact that they most probably never have the resources or time to fully research the remains.
  • Skulls are objects. When museums declare skulls as ‘objects’ they might not be covered by its policy on human remains [44].
  • Too valuable. Another excuse for not returning remains is that they are “very valuable” and the museum just wants to keep them [44].
  • No request received. In an interesting twist of events the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, denied having received a request after a delegation of Aboriginal people had travelled to the UK [44].
  • Fear of losing a job. The most vocal opponents to repatriation are often the anthropologists in the museums who, without their collections, won’t have a job [44].

There is “endless obfuscation, bureaucratic dead-ends and cultural indifference” [44]. Other institutions flatly refuse to co-operate.

A notable exception is the University of Edinburgh which has repatriated all of its Aboriginal remains [44].

We had to fight and crawl to get back our dead.—Michael Mansell, legal director, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre [36]

Even if Aboriginal remains make their way to Australia the return to the rightful communities is sometimes delayed because responsibility for repatriation is split between four separate government departments [32].

To avoid disturbance of reburied Aboriginal remains some newspapers don’t publish their exact locations but mention “a location near” the town closest to the burial site.

Some museums continue to keep remains which were already given back to Aboriginal people. In these cases Aboriginal people have asked museums to keep them for them in their high-security repositories [36].

The world view is changing, I think, in terms of traditional owner groups regaining their ancestral remains. I think there's a strong moral and ethical argument that the scientific community has to take into account.—Graham Atkinson, spokesperson British Museum [19]

What are ‘unprovenanced’ remains?

Many Aboriginal remains were collected without noting down where exactly they came from, let alone to which clan the deceased person belonged.

When no-one knows where they come from, remains are called unprovenanced.

Protocol of a repatriation

What happens when Aboriginal people travel overseas to collect and rebury the remains of their ancestors? Here is the protocol of a repatriation [38].

  1. Metting at the hotel to discuss the strategy for the day.
  2. Meet staff and the Head of Anthropology of the museum that had volunteered to return remains from its collection. Discussion of the logistical details of the handover ceremony (e.g. flags, ceremony participants, speakers, smoking ceremony, explanations to attendees). Check if quarantine and inspection documents to allow the remains to pass through customs in Australia are ready.
  3. Do a ceremony walk-through to make sure everything has been thought of.
  4. Meet the Ambassador at the Australian Embassy.
  5. Meet museum staff to see and inspect the remains. Aboriginal people might want to introduce themselves to their ancestors’ spirits. Prepare the boxes with the flags.
  6. On handover day up to 100 people can attend the ceremony. Speeches are held from the Ambassador, representatives from the museum and the Aboriginal delegation.
  7. A short film is shown of the country and people the remains come from.
  8. The smoking ceremony is performed.
  9. On the final day the delegates rest, check out the museum or city where they stay before they catch a flight back to Australia.

Government programs

Australia has no laws directly governing repatriation, and museums cannot be forced to return either human remains or objects.

But there are two government programmes dedicated to the return of Aboriginal remains.

The International Repatriation Program (IRP) is administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Office for the Arts. The programme aims to facilitate the unconditional return of remains, but not objects, held in overseas collections.

Between 2000 and 2009 the IRP helped return more than 1,000 remains [35].

The Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) runs the domestic Return of Indigenous Cultural Property (RICP) program, which supports the return of both human remains and secret sacred objects from institutions within Australia.

Between 2001 and 2009 the RICP helped return 1,383 ancestral remains and 1,358 secret sacred objects [35].

It is time that the whole anthropological community outside Australia recognises that the scientific value of these collections is zero.—Steve Webb, anthropologist [35]

Reburial challenges

In the absence of adequate records kept at the time remains were removed it can be hard to determine the most appropriate country and site to return them to.

Even if an individual whose remains have been returned can be identified, it can be tricky to determine what ceremony is appropriate for reburial, as opposed to burial [36].

In some cases Aboriginal people must come up with a ceremony that is entirely new—an unsettling prospect for some of them.

And if the deceased has already been through particular rituals, what are the implications if those rituals are repeated? Will they still be effective? Could they endanger the spirits of the dead and those trying to honour and farewell them? [36]

We can't do it the full traditional way in this day and age and we're not going to do it the fully modern way so we've had to find the halfway mark.—Tom Trevorrow, chairman, Ngarrindjeri Heritage Comittee, SA [41]

Not everyone is allowed to get involved with reburials. Authority and decision-making rests with senior men and women who, in turn, can take their cues from deeply traditional ‘proper lawmen’ throughout a region [37].

Some institutions refuse to return remains, often offering flimsy excuses for why they cannot return them.

Funding reburials is not easy with the Australian government giving only little support. The outstanding repatriation work of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre alone was estimated to cost $600,000 between 2009 and 2013 [37].

While we go to great expense to find and recover the bodies of fallen servicemen wherever they are in the world, no official attempt has ever been made to find, mark and commemorate the sites where Aborigines were shot down by settlers, soldiers and police.—Henry Reynolds & Marylin Lake [45]

Another challenge is to plan the reburial of so many remains when they are returned. Planning, ceremonies and travel cost a lot of money which makes it unlikely that each and every remain gets its own reburial. Reburials can be heavily influenced by Christianity.

Land for reburials needs to be tenured and negotiated with national parks, private landholders, local councils and other stakeholders. Some Aboriginal groups ask to develop a special ‘resting place’. In some cases, government-funded ‘garden sheds’ housing secret sacred objects were destroyed by floods or fire [37].

Some Aboriginal groups involve their children in reburial ceremonies to let them know how important this was for future generations [37].

If we don't fulfill customary obligations, that regret will stay with us forever and we shouldn't expect to be welcomed by the ancestors when it's our turn to go.—Bob Weatherall, Chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy [36]

Aboriginal remains wrapped in Paperbark are put in a hole in the ground. Reburial of Aboriginal remains. Remains of two Bundjalung people are put to rest nearly 200 years after they were stolen and brought to Europe.
Photo: Theresa Dalton, courtesy of The Koori Mail

Remains repatriation timeline

Some examples of Australian Aboriginal remains which were returned include [1,2,3]:

  1. 1976
     

    The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania becomes the first museum in Australia to repatriate Aboriginal remains, with the return of the remains of Truganini to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community [34]. The Royal Society of Tasmania had exhumed her body 2 years after her death in 1876 and put her skeleton on public display for 40 years.

  2. 1985
     

    May: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania returns the Tasmanian Aboriginal human remains commonly known as the Crowther Collection (33 skulls and three skeletons) for cremation at Oyster Cove. The “largest gathering of Tasmanian Aboriginal people in a decade” attends the cremation [13].

  3. 1990
     

    February 1990: Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland gives back the head of the great-great grandfather of Tasmanian lawyer Michael Mansell after he went to Dublin petitioning for the return of Aboriginal remains including the one of his family [14].

  4. 2000
     

    The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, UK returns 500 remains.

  5. 2003
     

    The Edinburgh Museum, Scotland returns remains that were dug up from burial grounds in South Australia.

    April: Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin hands over 60 Aboriginal human remains to Aboriginal representatives, who had travelled to Ireland to collect the remains and return them to Australia [10].

    10 September: The Museum Victoria returns the remains of an Aboriginal baby girl nicknamed ‘Jaara Baby’ to her modern-day relatives, the Dja Dja Wurrung people of north-west Victoria, 99 years to the day after they were found in a tree trunk by a woodcutter.

  6. Skull of an Indigenous person held in a museum's collection. Skull of an indigenous person (Andaman Islands). Many Indigenous remains like these are still held in museums all over the world. Lack of cultural sensitivity or museum personnel impede their examination and return.
    2004
     

    October: Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden sends back 20 Aboriginal skeletons it had collected in 1910-11 from the Kimberley, Western Australia [7], the first voluntary repatriation undertaken by a major European museum [37].

  7. 2006
     

    November: Natural History Museum, Britain agrees to return the remains of 18 Tasmanian Aborigines but only after it conducted scientific tests on them [11].

  8. 2007
     

    May: National History Museum, England. Remains returned after a 20-year battle with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

    June: Glasgow Museum, Scotland. Return of skulls of Torres Strait Islanders to their ancestors on Mer Island.

    October: Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden returns 10 Aboriginal remains which were taken from graves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia by a Swedish archaeological expedition in 1910 and 1911 [5].

    There was this idea at the time that Aboriginal Australians were like human fossils, of a kind that had survived longer in Australia than elsewhere.—Anders Björklund, director Ethnographical Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, explaining why Aboriginal remains were taken [8]

  9. 2008
     

    February: Lund University, Sweden. Return of the remains of two Aborigines that had been in the museum’s possession since the end of the 19th century. This return brings the Swedish remains returned to Australia to 32 [6].

    April: National Museums Scotland. Return of six Aboriginal skulls.

    July: Edinburgh University, Scotland. Return of the last remains in its collection to members of the Ngarrindjeri people (SA).

    London's Natural History Museum Natural History Museum, London. Reluctantly, the museum let go some Aboriginal remains. Many more are stored in its vast halls, believed to have been transferred there for safekeeping from the Royal College of Surgeons while London was being bombed during World War II [19].

    August: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, USA. The remains of 33 Aboriginal people from the Gunbalanya and Groote Eylandt (Arnhemland, NT) return 60 years after they were agreed to be returned. The remains are believed to be the first return from a major American institution.

    November: Charite Medical History Museum, Berlin, Germany. The museum’s director announces his intent to return the skulls of 18 Aboriginal Australians taken to Germany more than 100 years ago. The Charite would be the first scientific institution in Germany to return remains.

    December: University of Oxford, Britain agrees to hand over the remains of three Aboriginal people. The three human skulls and lower jaws - acquired in the 1860s and held in its museum of natural history - belong to the Ngarrindjeri people from Goolwa (Port Elliot) in South Australia [9].

    It seemed so utterly unreasonable that the British Museum needed - actually needed - 1570 sets of remains from Aboriginal men, women and children.—John Danalis in his book Riding the Black Cockatoo

  10. 2009
     

    January: Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton, Britain promises to repatriate two skulls and two thigh bones, donated almost 100 years ago [16]. The museum also holds a Ngarrindjeri skull which has been turned into a water carrier and is considered ‘extremely rare’ [17]. The skull is with the museum since 1925 when it was donated by a local collector.

    June: Seattle Art Museum, USA is the first US institution that independently initiates a repatriation. It promises to return ‘a sacred Aboriginal object’ to its traditional land in central Australia and to consult with central Australian elders and representatives [18].

    July: The University College, London, UK, hands over the skulls of three individuals from Victoria’s Gunditjmara community and another from the Dja Dja Wurrung nation [19]. It is the first repatriation to Victoria.

    Italy and Australia sign a repatriation agreement.

    Brighton's Booth Museum of Natural History Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton. Even small museums hold Aboriginal remains which were often donated by private collectors.
  11. 2010
     

    July: The National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA returns Aboriginal remains taken from their burial places during the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (Northern Territory) [27].

    October: The ancestral remains of an Erup (Darnley Island) child return, 161 years after they were taken to the UK. The remains were first acquired by Captain Owen Stanley in 1849 during a visit to Darnley Island, then passed on to an antiquarian who gave them to the Norwich Castle Museum in 1854. Finally, the World Museum Liverpool received the remains in 1956. [28]

    A story about Aboriginal remains on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald Aboriginal remains repatriation on the front page of a newspaper. This is a rare occasion and came about when Aboriginal activist Mick Mundine received an answer from Prince William to the letter he had written asking for the whereabouts of some remains. [29]
  12. 2011
     

    March: The Natural History Museum, London, UK announces to return remains to the Torres Strait which it had bought from a dealer in 1884 but could not date. This return would be the largest repatriation of remains to Australia [30].

  13. 2012
     

    27 October: The Martin-Luther University, Halle, Germany announces to return 4 skeletons and 3 skulls to Australia, but does not give a date [43].

  14. 2013
     

    26 April: The Charité Medical Museum in Berlin returns remains of 33 individuals, the first return of Aboriginal remains from Germany [47]. As the first German scientific institution, Charité in November 2008 signed an agreement with Australia for a “dignified burial” of Aboriginal remains.

    September The Queensland Museum in Brisbane returns remains of Aboriginal people to the Balonne River region.

The Charite’s collection is among a dozen in Germany and many more in Europe where Australian diplomats have asked curators to repatriate Aboriginal remains [3]. Britain and Sweden have already successfully returned Indigenous remains.

About 10,000 remains are still held by Australian, about 5,000 by British institutions [21].

Don’t be fooled to think that Aboriginal remains are those of anonymous ancestors. In the case of the first American return some traditional owners believe the collection may include the remains of their grandmothers [2].

This is about our ancestors and our heroes who fought against the invasion. They had their heads cut off and their skeletons were sent overseas to museums around the world.—Bob Weatherall, Chairman Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy, Brisbane [4]

The long travel of Aboriginal remains

The case of the Charite in Berlin is a good example of how Aboriginal remains change hands and travel within and inbetween countries.

The Charite’s collection of 10,000 bones was gathered by German pathologist Rudolf Virchow [3]. After his death in 1902 he bequeathed them to a state society.

In the 1930s the collection was confiscated by the Nazis, and when World War II started they were stored in a warehouse where they remained for decades after the war had ended.

Several German museums cared for the bones collection until they arrived at the Berlin Charite in 2005.

But even in the presumably save hands of museums Aboriginal remains are prone to theft or destruction by war bombings [14] which sends them on a journey further away from repatriation.

Video: “Return to Country” - Sweden returns Aboriginal remains

In 1910-11 Swedish scientists stole Aboriginal remains from throughout the Kimberley region.

Watch as almost 100 years later they are finally returned home to Fitzroy Crossing. Video by Aboriginal company Goolarri TV.

If you do something wrong and you right it, there is no animosity after that.

International repatriation of remains

Some countries have signed agreements with Australia to facilitate the repatriation of Indigenous remains. The British government committed in July 2000 to help return Indigenous human remains from collections in the UK to Australia [9].

Over 600 Indigenous ancestral remains are believed to be held by UK institutions [25]. Among them is the skull of Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy. The skull might have been transferred from the Royal College of Surgeons to London’s Natural History Museum, but the museum’s director advised that much had been destroyed during World War II [25]. Even a royal initiative by Prince William in April 2010 could not accelerate the matter.

The Australian government is committed to the unconditional return of Indigenous human remains from overseas countries and institutions.—Jenny Macklin, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister [25]

The Australian government contributes minimal, if any, funds to the repatriation of Aboriginal remains.

$4.7m
Estimated cost to recover and rebury the bodies of about 300 Australian and British soldiers at Fromelles, northern France, funded by the Australian government [23].
$20m
Price to construct a new Commonwealth war cemetery at Fromelles. Australia shares this cost equally with Britain [24].

Resources

Cover: Riding the Black Cockatoo John Danalis grew up with an Aboriginal skull sitting on the mantelpiece of his family’s home. This is the story of the journey he undertakes when he decides to return the skull to its traditional owners.

Part history, part detective story, part cultural discovery and emotional journey, this is a book for young and old, showing the transformative and healing power of true reconciliation. Read more

Cover: Human Remains Human Remains tells the scandalous story of how medical men obtained the corpses upon which they worked before the use of human remains was regulated.

Not only convicted murderers, but also Aborigines and the unfortunate poor who died in hospital were routinely turned over to the surgeons.

Cover: Human Remains London, 1868: visiting Australian Aboriginal cricketer Charles Rose has died in Guy’s Hospital. What happened next is shrouded in mystery. The only certainty is that - like many others - Charles Rose’s body did not go directly to a grave.

Possessing The Dead explores the disturbing history of the cadaver trade in Scotland, England and Australia, where laws once gave certain officials possession of the dead, and no corpse lying in a workhouse, hospital, asylum or gaol was entirely safe from interference.

Movie: Dark Science Movie: In 1910, a scientist called Erik Mjöberg led the first Swedish expedition to Australia. Mjöberg set about plundering and desecrating their grave sites and smuggling the remains back home—actions that were to have lasting consequences for all concerned.

Dark Science is a critically-acclaimed documentary about this expedition.

Footnotes

Article sources

[1] 'Scots return remains', NIT 10/7/2008 p.12
[2] 'Remains coming home after 60 years in America', Koori Mail 431 p.4
[3] 'Germany to hand back black remains', NIT 27/11/2008 p.11
[4] 'Return of remains overhaul urged', Koori Mail 439 p.7
[5] 'Sweden to return Aboriginal remains to Australia', ABC, 19/10/2007, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/10/19/2064893.htm
[6] 'Swedish uni returns Aboriginal remains to Aust', ABC 20/2/2008, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/02/20/2167340.htm
[7] 'Aboriginal remains home from Sweden', National Museum of Australia, 6/10/2004, http://www.nma.gov.au/media/media_releases_index/2004_10_06/
[8] 'Sweden to return Aboriginal remains to Australia' The Local, Sweden, 19/10/2007, http://www.thelocal.se/8844/20071019/
[9] 'Oxford Uni to return Aboriginal remains', LiveNews, 17/12/2008, livenews.com.au/articles/2008/12/17/Oxford_Uni_to_return_Aboriginal_remains
[10] 'Aboriginal Remains Return Home', Indigenous Law Bulletin 23/2003, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ILB/2003/23.html
[11] 'UK museum to return Aboriginal remains', Sydney Morning Herald, 19/11/2006
[12] 'First Aboriginal remains to be returned from U.S.', Reuters, 25/7/2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSSP21999620080726
[13] ''Tassie': A Roundup of Aboriginal Activities in Tasmania', Aboriginal Law Bulletin 60/1985, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AboriginalLB/1985/60.html
[14] 'Quest for the missing dead', The Guardian, 24/2/1990, ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/dingonet/questfor.htm (25/12/2008)
[15] August 2000, http://www.faira.org.au/lrq/archives/200008/stories/stolen.html (25/12/2008)
[16] 'Coming home', Koori Mail 442 p.14
[17] 'Government urges Aboriginal skull return', Koori Mail 445 p.19
[18] 'Sacred Aboriginal object returned from USA', NIT online, nit.com.au/story.aspx?id=18120
[19] 'Etchings talks begin in UK', NIT 6/8/2009 p.12
[20] 'Riding The Black Cockatoo', John Danalis, Allen & Unwin, p.71
[21] John Danalis, loc.cit., p.137
[22] John Danalis, loc.cit., p.175
[23] 'Fears for bodies of the fallen Fromelles diggers', The Age, 17/8/2009
[24] 'Fromelles to get Digger cemetery', The Australian 1/8/2008
[25] 'Pemulwuy hope', Koori Mail 473 p.8
[26] 'Pride in culture', Koori Mail 479 p.21
[27] 'More on the way home', Koori Mail 480 p.11
[28] 'An Erub child home at last', Koori Mail 486 p.11
[29] Sydney Morning Herald, 1/4/2010
[30] 'Remains coming home', Koori Mail 497 p.9
[31] 'Jacob's got a secret', Koori Mail 504 p.6
[32] 'New worries as remains handed back', Koori Mail 413 p.17
[33] 'Old human bones found near Sydney', Koori Mail 412 p.40
[34] 'Remains returned to New Zealand', Koori Mail 403 p.7
[35] 'Ashes to ashes...', Koori Mail 465 p.42f
[36] 'We need a black keeping place', Koori Mail 465 p.45f
[37] 'Putting it right', Koori Mail 466 p.43f
[38] 'Insider's view of repatriation', Koori Mail 466 pp.45
[39] 'Remains back in safe hands', Koori Mail 460 p.9
[40] 'Horrors of the past', Koori Mail 397 p.24
[41] 'Reburial for stolen bodies', Koori Mail 385 p.7
[42] 'Stolen spirits brought home to be at rest', SMH 20/7/2011
[43] 'Martin-Luther-Universität gibt Skelette an die Aborigines zurück', Die Welt 27/10/2012
[44] 'Spirits cannot rest so far from home', SMH 13/03/2010
[45] 'Myth over what matters', SMH 2/4/2010
[46] 'Elders tell museums: send our people home', SMH 13/5/2009
[47] 'Indigenous Remains To Come Home From Germany', artsHub, 22/4/2013, au.artshub.com/au/news-article/news/arts/indigenous-remains-to-come-home-from-germany-195097, retrieved 30/4/2013