Stolen spirits back home as bones returned to Arnhem Land

Lindsay Murdoch Sydney Morning Herald July 20, 2011

Aboriginal elders in Arnhem Land say the "spirits" of dozens of their ancestors whose skeletal remains were stolen from burial grounds more than 60 years ago can now rest after being reburied in a traditional ceremony.

"These people are now naked, healthy and free and can go back into the ground where they belong, back into their land and we can say goodbye," the elder Jacob Nayinggul said after overseeing the massaging of the bones in red ochre yesterday as he talked to them in his clan language.

Later, standing at a mass grave, Mr Nayinggul said it was "no bloody good for anyone" that the bones were stolen by scientific researchers in 1948. "We should live together, black and white with no mucking around, no stealing," he said.

The skeletal remains of more than 60 Aborigines, including children, were buried in two mass graves at a billabong in the shadow of Oenpelli Hill, near the community of Gunbalanya, 300 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

Most of the bones were collected from Arnhem Land in 1948 in one of Australia's largest and most comprehensive expeditions, which was jointly organised with the United States.

The bones were taken to the United States where, for 60 years, they remained in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, a museum and educational and research institute that has more than 131 million items in its collection.

For a decade, the Smithsonian refused to return the remains to Australia, despite US laws that state the institution must not hold the remains of native Americans.

The Australian National University historian Martin Thomas told the Herald that, as far as he has been able to establish, not one scientific paper was published about the remains, which were taken for supposedly scientific research. "I think there was a real sense of trophy hunting about the way it went on in 1948," Dr Thomas said.

Mr Nayinggul, who was a boy when the bones were taken, asked Dr Thomas, who has been researching the 1948 expedition, to explain to white people the importance of returning the remains for his people.

"Living Aboriginal people find their navigational points on their country by knowing the dead are in certain places," Dr Thomas said.

"They talk to them, at times … the spirits stay on country and are associated with the physical remains," he said.

"And the spirits are connected with the living."

Before yesterday's burial, the bones were smoked and wrapped in paperbark.

Experts who studied the bones estimate they are probably not more than 120 years old, meaning they could be the parents or grandparents of living Aborigine people.

Some of the bones buried yesterday were from a separate collection that had been held at the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) for almost a century.

They were sent to the museum from Arnhem Land in separate batches in 1913 and 1918.

The Australian government backed demands by Aboriginal elders and anthropologists for the Smithsonian Institution to return the skeletal remains to Arnhem Land.

The Smithsonian at first agreed to send only two-thirds of the remains back to Australia.

But the institution relented and agreed to return the remaining bones after a public plea by the Aboriginal elder Thomas Amagula in 2009 at a symposium in Canberra.

"When I hear about the efforts and money the American government is spending trying to find and identify the remains of their soldiers who have been lost overseas, I wonder how the Smithsonian Institution can justify its refusal to return all the remains of our ancestors who were taken without our permission," Mr Amagula said at the time. "We think this is very arrogant.''

Australia reached agreement with Britain in 2000 to facilitate the repatriation to Australia of indigenous remains stored in British collections.

Tens of thousands of Aboriginal skeletons were removed from Australia during the European occupation until the practise was stopped in the 1960's.

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