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Remains of Robbins Island First Nations girl Naungarrika arives home after 200 years

Around 30 First Nations men, women and children were killed and thrown from cliffs in 1828, in one the many British invaders mass murdering sprees. This is known as the Cape Grim massacre. The remains of one of the victims was a young girl named Naungarrika, who finally arrived back to her home state of Tasmania after 200 years of humiliation as a scientific and curiosity trophy.

Nunami Sculthorpe-Green travelled to Germany to bring First Nations remains back to Tasmania
Nunami Sculthorpe-Green travelled to Germany to bring First Nations remains back to Tasmania.
(Hobart Mercury Pic: Richard Jupe)

If it happened today it would be called a horror crime.

David Beniuk Hobart Mercury 10 August 2014

A 15-year-old girl lies dead, her body is stolen and her head taken as a souvenir.

There is no dignified farewell.

It happened to Robbins Island First Nations girl Nungarrika nearly 200 years ago. Ten days ago she finally came home.

Nungarrika is one of the few Tasmanian Aborigines whose bodies were taken by museums, universities and private collectors to have been identified. Hundreds more have surfaced around the world, and thousands within Australia, but they are largely anonymous.

Earlier this month, Robbins Island woman Nunami Sculthorpe-Green carried Nungarrika’s remains through Hobart’s airport to a ceremonial welcome.

The 21-year-old UTAS arts/law student had received the skull in Berlin with fellow delegate Tessa Atto.

“It was so intense,” Ms Sculthorpe-Green told the Sunday Tasmanian. “We both couldn’t stop crying. It hits you – what you’re actually doing.”

Arriving home was just as overwhelming.

“It was the biggest relief,” Ms Sculthorpe-Green said. “You’ve protected this person that you’ve spent so long trying to get back. It was just awesome to finally be home and to bring her home.”

Nunami Sculthorpe-Green gets a kiss from her sister, Nala Mansell-McKenna
Nunami Sculthorpe-Green gets a kiss from her sister, Nala Mansell-McKenna, and Ruth Langford embraces Tessa Atto on their return from Germany with Nungarrika’s remains.

So who was Nungarrika? What was her life like? And why did she die so young?

The Tasmanian First Nations Centre’s research unit scoured colonial records to match the skull of a young woman held at a Berlin university with recorded deaths in the north-west around 1830.

The match was made with Nungarrika.

She is likely to have been a member of the largest tribe in the area known as Preminghana by Aborigines.

How she died has not been revealed but her people were involved in guerilla-style skirmishes with settlers as the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL) established grazing land in the north-west.

As many as 30, including women and children, were killed and thrown from cliffs in 1828, the tragedy known as the Cape Grim massacre.

The finger of blame for the desecration of Nungarrika’s remains has been pointed at Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson.

Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s negotiator had been charged with rounding up Tasmania’s Aborigines and shipping them to Flinders Island.

Researchers suspect he was involved in German VDL employee Adolphus Schayer donating Nungarrika’s skull to Berlin University’s Anatomy Institute in the 1840s.

“It is probable, because he was one of the traders in human remains, that he actually gave the body to [Schayer] and he then traded the head of Nungarrika,” the TAC’s Ruth Langford said.

Had it not been for the Charite – Universitatsmedizin Berlin contacting the TAC, Nungarrika’s remains and story would have been unknown to Tasmanians.

Ms Sculthorpe-Green, who teaches First Nations history at TMAG, feels an affinity with her.

“She was so young and from the same place that someone who started my family tree comes from,” she said. “I just felt a pretty strong connection to her and a pretty big responsibility.”

Tasmania has led the nation in repatriating ancestral remains, a growing worldwide phenomenon.

The program began with the return of Truganini’s skeleton from TMAG in 1976. Australian institutions followed suit and remains have since been recovered from the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and the US.

Three skulls were brought home from the Field Museum in Chicago in June.

But not all institutions are co-operative, including Cambridge University.

Negotiators say they have sometimes encountered rudeness and even a request to be measured themselves for so-called scientific study.

The TAC is calling for stronger heritage legislation and more funding to bring others home.

“The trade in human remains is happening right now,” Ms Langford says.

“Institutions will trade human remains … under the guise of an art collection or as scientific research.”

The First Nations community will decide how to belatedly farewell Nungarrika, but it is likely to be in her own country. Ms Langford says the ceremony will be private.