Sunday, January 9, 2011

Repatriation Down Under

In the spirit of a recent post over on the SAFECorner blog, regarding the repatriation of Native American remains under NAGPRA laws, now 20years on, I would like to take this opportunity to share a repatriation story from my adopted "home," Australia. This story conserns the return and reburial of two adult skeletons, ceremonially wrapped in bark cloth and buried according to the still-living mortuary customs of the Bundjalung people, whose Country lies near Lismore, New South Wales, after being stored for 200 years at the Leiden University Medical Centre in Holland.

Originally spirited out of Australia for "research purposes" by the famed botanist Joseph Banks, they were seemingly quickly forgotten about until an effort was made to identify and track them down as part of Australia's "National Repatriation Program," overseen by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Ethnographers from the National Museum of Australia, here in Canberra, as well as the Dutch ambassador (left nameless in this article), helped to assure their smooth transfer to the National Museum, and then Southern Cross University (near Lismore) upon their return to Australia, while two Bundjalung community elders (Gwenn Hickling and John Morrissey) traveled to Leiden to oversee the first stage of the repatriation. What is especially touching to me is the immense pride that several younger members of the community felt knowing these 'old people' have now returned. This even included the singing of a Welcome song by Goonellabah Public School students in the local language, part of continuing efforts at cultural and linguistic preservation/revival. Good on them!

It is not specified as to how much, if any, the remains were anthropologically or osteologically studied and recorded before repatriation occurred, nor what exact criteria was used to determine that the Bundjalung community are the closest living descendants. Like much of coastal temparate/tropical Australia, the Lismore/Richmond Rivers area would've been home to numerous small, linguistically distinct groups at the time of European contact. This, to me, demostrates that 100% certain, 1:1 examples of archaeological/ethnohistoric remains being matched to one particular ethnic group is still problematic across much of Autralia, as it is in America, Canada, and anywhere else that Western contact saw the forced movement and mixing of peoples. Indeed, there are even claims, primarily made by the descendants of European settlers, that the peoples known as Arakwal and Bundjalung "don't exist," but the validity of this is hotly contested. However, it is possible that supporting documentation/"labeling" by Banks himself might have been curated along with the remains and associatied mortuary artifacts. Nevertheless, this is an event that should be celebrated by all, given the solace it has so obviously provided. As Elder Bertha Kapeen stated, "It's very significant for Aboriginal people everywhere, not just here."

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