The mammoth task of returning stolen remains of ancestors to country

Peter Harris (centre) at the repatriation meeting in Menindee. (ABC Broken Hill - Alexandra Back)

Alexandra Back ABC Broken Hill 6 January 2014

In a small civic hall in the outback community of Menindee, people with sombre faces study colour-printed maps of NSW while discussing old bones.

It's hot outside, inside too, and a fan whirrs while members of the community consider the mammoth bureaucratic and spiritual task that is having Aboriginal remains returned "on country".

For Gerald Quayle, a Barkindji man and senior member of the community, such discussions have been a long time coming. "These remains have been gone from country for too long".

The reality of the task became clear to Mr Quayle when, years ago, he visited the Australian Museum as part of his work with the culture and heritage division in the NSW government. He found his ancestor's remains stacked on shelves and collecting dust in the museum's basement.

"I sort of stepped away from the rest of the group and done my own little exploring and found heaps of remains that were in storage there that came from the far west.

"And I was looking for one particular area, and that was the Darling River area, I knew that country, and I seen a lot of remains that need to be brought back."

Just the beginning

Early last November, the NSW government organised three meetings, one each with the communities of Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee, to consult with the community on repatriation.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Indigenous remains and artefacts kept in museums across Australia and around the world.

At one time, museums and explorers would organise expeditions with the specific intent of collecting "Aboriginal specimens" to take back to the cities and study or put on display, either privately or publicly.

"I think, in today's society people's opinions have changed and we're trying to do the right thing by the communities," said Merv Sutherland, a heritage officer from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

Mr Sutherland, who has been working on repatriations for eight years, and his colleague Phil Sullivan, are the men tasked with liaising between communities and museums.
"I see it, I guess, as a step in the right direction, [to] reconciliation; it's an opportunity to do the right thing.

"It gives the community some wellbeing and a bit of peace of mind to know that these old people are not on shelves or in cardboard boxes, but they're back on country and their spirits can roam free," Mr Sutherland said.

Many remains that have ended up in museums came from along the Darling River in the far west of NSW.
The Darling River at Menindee. (Flickr Geoffrey Rhodes)

While repatriation has been happening in Australia for decades, Mr Sullivan says it is something that can't be truly quantified, nor something that can shed value over time. "That don't mean nothing, being common, it'll still have the same effect as it will for the first time and for the hundredth time."

At the moment the pair are working closely with three museums in particular, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the Shellshear Museum at the University of Sydney and the Melbourne Museum, though Mr Sutherland admits that there are many more remains in many more museums across Australia that need to be brought home. "It's just the beginning," he said.

The barriers to repatriation

There is nothing that compels museums, universities or any other person or organisation to return Aboriginal artefacts or remains.

While it is now illegal to take remains or artefacts off country without proper approval, the primary piece of legislation that protects Indigenous objects and heritage, the National Parks and Wildlife Act, only came into existence in 1974. Any remains that were found prior to that are exempt.

Predictably, it's often difficult to prove that someone came into possession of a particular bone or artefact after that year.

Museums will not simply hand remains over to a community. For one, they often won't release artefacts without a safe "keeping place" for the objects to return to, and many communities don't have such a place. Deciding where to keep any artefacts, or where to bury remains can draw out the process of having either returned.

Mining and grazing activity can also mean that remains cannot return to the exact location where they were found, even if that were known, so communities must decide on a safe repatriation area. In Kinchega National Park outside of Menindee, there is a fenced off area where the community has already decided any remains will be buried.

But before all of that, each community must write to each museum formally requesting the remains be returned. A relevant Aboriginal advisory group, or museum board, will then assess the request, a process that can take months.

For some, the effort is too little, too late. Mr Quayle said it is "ignorant" of the universities and museums not to have the remains brought back sooner, unbidden. "As a Barkindji person I don't think it's my role to be going askin' for something that had been taken from our country."

Generational apathy

There are other battles that must be won before remains are returned to country.

Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee are not exempt from the apathy of younger generations, and the meetings held in community halls and clubs were attended by only a handful of people.

Peter Harris, an artist and Ngiyampaa man who went to the meeting in Menindee, said it was "50-50" as to why people didn't come to the meeting. Around half had to work but a lot of them don't care, he said.

The latter is something Mr Harris grapples with, such is his connection to the land and his ancestry.

"For me it was, we gotta do this, we gotta bring our people back," he said. "[It means] a real lot, because these are our ancestors that went before us, y'know?"

He remembers when remains were returned to his country from Geneva a few years ago.

"We don't know what sort of life they had but you know, for me, the archaeologist who took 'em had no right to take 'em and that.

"We didn't think it was ever going to come back ... but seein' him come back home and buried in our own lands, it meant a real lot to me anyway."

When remains do eventually return to country, it's like going to a funeral, said Mr Sullivan.

"It'll be a high priority for them; it's probably the highest priority they have.

"It's a spiritual concern ... about trying to look after and take care of their people. It's all about family and looking after family, it's the most important."

With Jacqueline Breen