• The AIATSIS delegation arrives at Manchester Museum to see the ancient artefacts for the first time. (Danny Teece-Johnson)Source: Danny Teece-Johnson
Danny Teece-Johnson

The Point
22 Apr 2020 - 4:22 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2020 - 4:37 PM

Righto, it's time to let the kangaroo out of the pouch.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is Australia's best-kept secret, and I can't understand why. Honestly, there is a team in there who reminds of a cast from Marvel's Avengers. They travel the world, searching for stolen ancient Indigenous artefacts, find them, then return them home to their Traditional Owners - often a century or more since they were forcibly removed without permission.

AIATSIS is Australia's only national institution focused exclusively on the diverse history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

They have a growing collection of over one million items encompassing films, photographs, audio recordings, art and artefacts, printed and other resource materials.


In November of 2019, I was privileged to travel to England with an AIATSIS-led delegation to film and document the first-ever repatriation of cultural and ceremonial artefacts from the United Kingdom. It blew my mind, but not in a good way. I was thinking about how the first-ever repatriation from the UK happened in 1990, yet here we are - 30 years later - preparing for only the second hand back of cultural material to community.

I travelled with an amazing team at AIATSIS, led by CEO Craig Ritchie and the head of the Cultural Repatriation Project Chris "Simmo" Simpson. Honestly, the work this crew does is so special and unique. I don't know why we don't celebrate these victories more often and tip our hat to AIATSIS for the ground-breaking work it does.

I think there is a myth out there that AIATSIS is just a library - trust me, I once thought the same. But it is so much more than that and play such a vital role in preserving and protecting our history, stories, and culture. It was an amazing feeling being in the Colonisers land with this group of blackfulla's making history.

AIATSIS works tirelessly with some of the most obstinate museums in the world; who genuinely believe that possession is nine-tenths of the law. These museums are determined not to give artefacts back - just ask Gadigal man Rodney Kelly about the Gweagle Shield

The real heroes to this story are the two Gangalidda and Garawa men I travelled with; Senior Lore Man Uncle Donald Bob (The Clint Eastwood of the Gulf), and someone I see as the future Prime Minister of this country Mangubadijarri Yanner - or as I called him, the Black Panther.

Travelling with these two men was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had in my life. "Mangu", as he is affectionally known, is one of the most impressive young men I have ever met. His wisdom, intelligence and passion for his culture remind me of some of our greatest activists and leaders of our times.

Here I was in the wet, stereotypically cold streets of London - a place where I never wanted to travel to in my life - with two Traditional Owners. Watching these humble men go about their business meeting with historians and anthropologists in such a dignified fashion, despite the white elephant in the room - that these objects were stolen, and often have a dark and bloody past.

How these men handled themselves reminded me of how strong we as a people. How resilient we are, how intelligent we are, and how we will overcome any obstacle to get our artefacts and remains back. Because they are the missing pieces in the puzzle of history that is our truth as a Nation.

The items were handed back at an official ceremony at Australia House, much to the delight of Manchester Museum staff who worked so hard to make this happen, the AIATSIS Staff (who are the Robin Hoods of Black Australia) and most of all the two strong, proud Gangalidaa Garawa, who will take them back home to use them in ceremony once again.


On our last day, the delegation decided to go to the gates of Buckingham Palace, stopping at the Cook monument to reflect on our journey and our people's history. It was a mixture of emotions; sadness, anger, and staunchness all wrapped in one. This is the place the orders came from to invade Australia, to colonise us, to decimate our culture, our people and our history.

But they failed, because we are still here, and we are 15,00kms away from home taking back what is rightfully ours.

And as long as AIATSIS is around, this won't stop. Until more than 100,000 items in 220 institutions across the world - most of which were gathering dust in the basements of museums in the US, UK and other parts of Europe -are returned to their Traditional Owners.


Always Was. Always Will be Aboriginal Artefacts and Remains.