In what is now acknowledged to be a “glorified grave-robbing campaign,” between 1788 and 1948, anthropologists and opportunists took skulls and bones of Indigenous Australians wherever they could find them—from graves, hospitals, asylums and prisons. Consequentially, the Australia government’s International Repatriation Program estimates that some 1,000 Aboriginal remains are still held in museums worldwide today. Aboriginal experts say the number may actually be more than ten times greater.
While efforts to bring Aboriginal remains home have increased in recent years, as the numbers show, there remains much work to be done when it comes to repatriation and community healing. A new website funded by the Australian Research Council and project partner organizations aims to support those intertwined efforts. Called Return, Reconcile, Renew (RRR), it illuminates the historic and ongoing implications of stealing ancestral remains from Aboriginal communities, provides a virtual space for support and healing, and also offers a roadmap to help Aboriginal communities successfully secure the return of stolen ancestral remains.
According to the team behind it, RRR, named after the international project of the same name founded in 2013, “seeks to raise public awareness about the importance of repatriation, assist repatriation practitioners and researchers in Australia, New Zealand and the USA, and support local management of private repatriation-related information by, at present, three Australian community organisations: The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), Gur a Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK) and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority.”
The project website is just one of the methods helping to identify Ancestral remains and their origins, and ensure their return. The Australian government funds many of these efforts, notably the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. These projects continue the fight for the repatriation of Ancestral remains and cultural objects that gained momentum thanks to Indigenous activists in the 1970s.
As Creative Spirits explains, when it comes to repatriation efforts, Indigenous communities have faced resistance from institutions abroad—where the bulk of Aboriginal remains are held—but also in Australia. The South Australian Museum, for instance, only began repatriating its collection of 4,5000 Aboriginal remains this year.
“For [the Ancestors] to be desecrated like that, and to be used for ornaments and as a trophy, that’s just not honorable,” says Eunice Aston, who works in communications and community engagement with the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority, in an RRR video interview. “It still makes me angry because these are supposed to be civilized people, and we’re the ones who are supposed to be uncivilized.”
On the RRR website, users can access explainers, video interviews, and a public area of a digital archive of personal and organizational records, information on related legislation and much more. Additional resources will be added to the website in 2020, including more detailed instructions for repatriation practitioners.
The work’s importance speaks for itself. As RRR Chief Investigator Lyndon Ormond-Parker tells Nick Baker of SBS News: “The way that we treat our dead is a reflection of the society we live in.”