(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
A United Nations conference has called for an intensified effort to achieve the repatriation of Indigenous ceremonial objects and human remains being held in foreign museums and other institutions.
It's a key outcome of the inaugural World Conference on Indigenous Peoples that has just ended at UN headquarters in New York
As Kristina Kukolja reports, it's an area where Australia in some respects appears to have led the way.
(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)
Since the early days of British colonial settlement, the skeletal remains of Indigenous Australians captured the interest of those seeking to understand the origins of the human race.
Secret-sacred objects were also avidly collected -- all in the name of science.
Much of what was taken eventually found its way overseas, including to museums and galleries in Europe and the United States.
For over 30 years, the return Indigenous remains in particular have preoccupied Steven Webb, an anthropologist and professor of Australian studies at Bond University in Queensland.
He says that as a scientist, he once struggled with the question of whether stolen Indigenous remains should be preserved for research or returned to country - until he had what he calls a moment of enlightenment.
"I remember an old lady coming up to me in a meeting once, afterwards, and she said, 'We'd really like these remains back.' This was years ago. She said, 'We'd really like these remains back because when they're not back in our country the spirits fight.' As she said that she waved her hands over her head and she said it to me quietly, in a corner almost, and from that day I thought this is genuine felt grief for these people and they want them back."
Professor Webb has been involved in negotiations for the return of Indigenous remains from several parts of Europe.
He says some countries, such as Sweden, were more obliging, and others less so -- among them France, which prohibits by law the export of historical remains and artefacts collected by the French, regardless of where they came from.
But what stood out for Professor Webb was the case of Poland.
He was given the task of assembling remains at Wroclaw University, in preparation for them to be sent to Australia.
But it was only after arriving home that he learned the Polish government had intervened at the last minute and blocked their return.
Professor Webb was baffled.
"You know, they were invaded in a brutal fashion, as many countries were in Europe, but they also suffered enormous losses in both concentration camps and in battles and so on in their countries. With that sort of legacy on their doorstep from a very brutal conflict they might see that the conflict of colonialism inflicted similar sorts of issues on Indigenous people around the world. So, when those people wanted to receive their ancestors back from countries, as I say, like Poland, I would have thought personally -- and this is a very subjective view, but I would have thought -- that the Polish government would have obliged with that return."
Professor Webb says many European museums and galleries have held Australian Indigenous remains without even looking at them for decades.
He observes it was only when Indigenous communities began asking for the remains be returned, that their scientific value was suddenly deemed paramount.
"Most collections that have been assembled overseas have never really been studied. That's the irony anyway. It's the irony from [the point of view of] anthropology. It might not actually be from the Aboriginal point of view. I can accept that. But often when institutions in Europe have been asked to return remains, they say, 'But these haven't been studied.' They've only had them [for] a hundred years and they've still not studied them and all of a sudden they've found that they're very valuable. Now, the're reluctant to give them back because now they want to study them."
Professor Webb says the unwillingness to relinquish Australian Indigenous remains can also be attributed to a limited understanding of their beliefs.
"Of course if you work in Australia you do have that idea because you do work with Indigenous people and you do see people in their communities and you sit down and talk with them, and you immediately understand what they mean by having their ancestors coming back home and coming back to country, and what it means to have that happen. And also what it means for the spiritual world to have that return of people to their own country. If you work in England or Germany you're not subjected to that so you don't have that aspect of understanding and sometimes I think that this goes up into government levels where they don't understand that an Indigenous group of people wanted to have their remains returned."
Steven Webb says when remains do finally make their way back to Australia, the final stages of returning them to their rightful resting places can be lengthy, and confronting.
"It's quite a scary thing for many Indigenous people to be confronted with the fact that they've got human remains that have to come back to them. Like any society, not all Aboriginal people want to handle the dead. We don't. We have funeral directors to do that for us, but many don't want to do that. Some can handle them, others don't want anything to do with it because of the connotations of handling the dead. Then there's a more practical side: 'Ok, if they're returned, what do we do with them? Do we put them back in the ground? Wait a minute, traditionally we didn't put our dead in the ground. Then there's also another practical issue of the question of where do we put them? Do we put them in a whitefella's cemetery or do we put them in some ground which is ours? If we want to put them in the ground which is ours we need money to buy that. We need to have the ground allocated by the local council and so on.' These things can't happen overnight and for many communities it's the start of quite a lot of angst and a lot of work."
Professor Webb says, over the years, Australia has emerged as a global leader in the repatriation of Indigenous remains.
But, he says, its pioneering work has at times challenged the very credo of anthropological research, and divided experts in the field.
"When these remains were eventually claimed by Aboriginal people in the early 1980s this became an affront to science. Or, at least, some anthropologists thought this way. They said, 'Well, if you're going to destroy these remains you're basically destroying valuable scientific information.' You can argue about that, but you'll never come to a total consensus because what you're dealing with is an ethical issue which comes into it. Some scientists would say there's no ethics in it, they're just dead bones and we study dead bones. They could be of animals, but they're also of humans. They legitimately argue that if we hadn't studied the dead bones of humans we wouldn't know anything about our origins, our variations, and the way we've evolved over what we know is about six million years. What's wrong with that? Well, what was brought into this argument was the fact that a lot of the Indigenous remains in museums were taken without permission. They weren't only taken without permission, they were taken sometimes without the person being hardly cold in the grave. It was quite cold and calcuated. And European people, non-Aboriginal people, would say 'Just take the body.' Well, for Aboriginal people that wasn't the way it should have been done."