Elders hope France repatriation deal can be precedent

Rodney Dillon … sees hope.

Indigenous elders have welcomed a new agreement between France and Australia on the repatriation of Indigenous remains.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

Indigenous elders have welcomed a new agreement between France and Australia on the repatriation of Indigenous remains.

They say they hope it sets a precedent for similar agreements with other countries.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and France's President Francois Hollande signed the agreement in Canberra this week.

Indigenous elders say it will help ensure Indigenous human remains held in French museums are returned to Australia.

Michael Kenny reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

Tony Abbott and Francois Hollande have agreed to establish a joint expert committee to help identify the origin of Indigenous Australian remains held in France.

Australia and Italy signed a similar agreement in 2009, and remains have also been returned from Britain, Sweden and Austria over recent years.

Palawa elder and Amnesty International campaigner Rodney Dillon has had a long interest in the repatriation of Indigenous remains from overseas collections.

He is a former chairman of the National Reference Group for the Repatriation of Australian Indigenous Remains.

In 2000, as a board member for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, he successfully pushed for a deal to speed up Indigenous repatriation between Australia and Britain.

Mr Dillon estimates four to five thousand Indigenous Australian remains are held in overseas galleries and museums, mainly in Europe and across the United States.

He hopes the deal with France can set a powerful precedent for similar agreements with other governments on an issue symbolically important to many Indigenous Australians.

"These remains were stolen in the first place. They were taken, and, the people's remains that were taken, they didn't want to be taken. So it's very, very disrespectful the way these were taken in the first place. And I think that the people who have still got our remains around the world are common thieves."

Since 1990, the federal government estimates the remains of about 1,150 Indigenous Australians have been returned to descendants for burial or cremation.

But the government estimates around 10,000 remains are held in Australian public collections.

Gumulray elder Bob Weatherall has campaigned for the repatriation of Indigenous remains to Traditional Owners for over four decades.

He is currently chairman of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy in Brisbane.

Mr Weatherall believes the government needs to shift more decision making over the repatriation of remains away from bureaucrats and into the hands of Indigenous communities.

"Aboriginal communities have enormous barriers in bringing their ancestors home and laying them to rest. There are remains up in the Kimberly that are sitting in shipment containers. They've been there for over 10 years. There has not been a concerted effort and commitment by Australian governments of all levels to, basically, assist Aboriginal people to alleviate those barriers and to lay their ancestors to rest."

Anthropologist Dr Steve Webb has been involved in research projects on the repatriation of Indigenous Australian remains for over 30 years.

The Bond University lecturer believes some European scientists have been allowed to interfere too much in blocking the return of remains to Traditional Owners.

He says very little scientific research has actually been conducted on the remains and many European collections have been lost because of bombing in the world wars.

Dr Webb has told NITV French scientists now need to take care to ensure Indigenous remains are carefully identified before being returned to Traditional Owners.

"There have been instances and times where non-Aboriginal remains have been returned to Australia because of the lack of expertise over in Europe with regard to identifying these sorts of remains. So I think, before any of this takes place, I think the French collections should be thoroughly inspected, in terms of the true identity of these remains."




Source World News Australia

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