• Chairperson of Yalu and Yolngu man, Ross Mandi Wunungmurra, with the samples on Galiwin'ku in 2019. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A special ceremony will mark the repatriation of over 200 manggu samples to their island home.
Shahni Wellington

19 Nov 2019 - 1:13 AM  UPDATED 19 Nov 2019 - 1:48 PM

Over 200 blood samples will be returned to the Galiwin’ku community of Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land on Tuesday. 

The blood, or 'manggu' in the local Yolngu language, was collected after a typhoid outbreak on Galiwin'ku in 1968 and 1969.

A ceremony will mark the return of the samples to the families of the original study participants, many of which have since passed away.

All people on Galiwin'ku at the time were sampled and tested for typhoid fever, a life-threatening infection usually spread through contaminated food or water.

The samples have been housed for the past 50 years in Canberra at the Australian National University.

After extensive consultations with Yalu Marnggithinyaraw Indigenous Corporation (Yalu), a representative community body, the University is finally returning the samples to their island home. 

Chairperson of Yalu, and Yolngu man, Ross Mandi Wunungmurra, says most descendants were unaware of the study.

"We were at first shocked and upset because we didn’t know about that," Mr Mandi said.

The National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) have been 'custodians' of the blood collection, as part of a wider Indigenous genome bank.

Last year, the NCIG began conversations with the Galiwin'ku community on the best way to repatriate the blood samples. 

"We had a meeting about it, how they could do it – and things they came up with – They have to take it back to the community.

"Restore it and talk about the blood samples with the community," Mr Mandi said.

Galiwin’ku, also known as Elcho Island, is located off the coast of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory with a population of just over 2200.

According to the 2016 census, 94% of inhabitants are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander with many of those belonging to the Yolngu people.

In Yolngu culture, it is very important that once a person has died, their body and spirit returns to the land from where it came.

"It was something that is our culture. We have to take it in our way and bury it – cultural way. It’s part of the person," Mr Mandi explained.  

"The family is all really happy. Then we said that it was good for these samples to return home." 

Now, the blood samples of those who have passed away will be repatriated in a special burial ceremony, and commemorated at a formal memorial site.

The people of Galiwin’ku have also given permission for the samples from deceased family to be sequenced, to allow ongoing medical and health research.

All the leftover blood and byproducts would be returned to country for ceremonial burial.

A time of mourning and celebration

Throughout their meetings, the Galiwin'ku community made it clear that the blood samples were to be returned as part of their cultural beliefs. However, the community also thought it was important to take part in the research.

Gimuy Walubara Yidinji woman and Indigenous Engagement Coordinator at the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, Azure Hermes, had been meeting with Galiwin'ku people since 2017 and said the group decided that data would be collected and used from the blood samples.

"It meant that they could still be included in this research, but we don't keep any of their biological samples in Canberra - they return to country," said Ms Hermes.

The National Centre for Indigenous Genomics recognises the significance of the repatriation for the community.

"This is a time of mourning because it is sad that we have had the samples, but it's also a moment of celebrating because now they're being returned home," she said.

"So we've tried to really work hard to make this culturally appropriate and try to make this special."

More targeted research

The 200 blood samples formed part of the 7,000-strong collection in the Australian National University John Curtin School of Medical Research.

While the samples from those who have passed away will be part of ceremonial burials, around 1,000 blood samples from those who are still alive will be sequenced and then disposed of in Canberra.

The National Centre for Indigenous Genomics hope their research can improve the knowledge of Aboriginal people's DNA and their genome.

"We are (Indigenous people) the most underrepresented population when it comes to genome science."

"When we do research, and they're doing studies on cancer, and diabetes, and all those sorts of things, we're actually as Indigenous people not receiving any benefit from that," Mrs Hermes said.

"With more DNA and research, we should be able to start getting much better results and much better understanding about why we're getting so sick and about why medication isn't working for us."

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