• Aboriginal Ngarrindjeri elder Major Sumner from south Australia, in traditional costume, performs a ritual during a ceremony to mark the return of Australian indigenous people's remains back to their homeland, in a central London park, Thursday May 14, 2009. (AP)Source: AP
Josh Ridgeway on the importance of bringing Indigenous remains home.
Josh Ridgeway

Living Black
1 Sep 2011 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 25 Jun 2015 - 2:37 PM

The repatriation of our ancestors' remains is a critical task, but with it comes some significant hurdles that communities, governments and museums have had to clear. 

In past cases such as the 2008 return of remains to the Tasmanian Palawa community, there was concern over the Natural History Museum in the UK’s decision to conduct research prior to returning them.

Three years on, and times have changed but whether it’s for the better is anyone’s guess. Earlier this month the same museum helped to return three skulls back to the Torres Strait, and in France the return of the Toi Moko - tattooed preserved heads - to New Zealand not only required a law change but generated massive public debate on ownership.

However the museum took and published a photograph of one of the heads online despite protest from Te Papa’s Michelle Hippolite that the action was inappropriate and culturally offensive to the New Zealand Maori. In this age of information, pictures, words and sounds are distributed globally in an instant, and sometimes the ramifications of it’s nature can be dire.

On the whole though I am pleased that countries are beginning to deal in what’s believed to be a more ethical approach to the repatriation of human remains. Returning these items back for proper burial shows respect for those that have passed and allows our communities to reconnect with and put to rest their ancestors.

I also find it interesting that, as a result of recent efforts, constructive debate on repatriation over research has flared up; a critical dialogue if we are ever to move forward on the issue. 

I think as a people we need to not only discuss how remains made it into museums and what community they belong to, we need to recognise that keeping similar remains in institutions or collectors' homes is a form of marginalisation, displacement, and oppression.