Leanne Stanley says it was a relief to finally have the ancestors back home.
“Laying them to rest, I don’t even know how to describe it…thankfulness I guess," Leanne tells NITV.
"They’re right now, they’re finally back home. They’ve been brought back to country and they should have never have left."
“When we first collected them and the realisation that we’ve got them, that was really the biggest part... we had them in our hands so to speak.”
Late last year five sets of Aboriginal remains were returned to their rightful home to the Wellington Aboriginal community in western New South Wales.
The reburial of these ancestors completed the repatriation of nine sets of remains taken from the Wellington district from the late 1800s up until the 1970s.
John Duggan from the Office of Environment and Heritage, (OEH) says the remains had indicators of a traditional lifestyle.
“Some had squatting facets which means people were squatting when they ate food, or rested. They used their teeth and jaw as a tool for weaving or binding. There were certain breaks in long bones that healed well through traditional means, and there was also evidence some of the remains were diseased with European infections” he says.
John says one of the remains was a traditional man who was found with a stone axe beside him.
“He had actually wandered into the [Wellington] caves, fallen through a hole in the cave floor and ended up on a lower level and couldn’t get back up. He eventually passed away. He was very robust and fit, at least six foot tall. A very large man for those times,” John says.
He said the man was on display for many years at the Australian Museum in Sydney.
“On one hand it’s exciting because you’re bringing people to country but you’re also upset because they were taken in the first place. It was very bittersweet.”
John Duggan, Heritage Conservation Officer at the OEH said the remains re-buried this month were those of three men, one woman and a lower jawbone of an unknown sex. They were finally returned home and buried on country when the OEH and the Wellington Local Aboriginal Land Council requested their return from the Museum in 2015.
“The community wasn’t aware of the remains. So they were very surprised and very keen to get them back, the whole community wanted to get them back, back on country,” says John.
When the request was granted, John along with Leanne, as CEO of the Land Council, and five community members travelled to Sydney to bring the remains home.
But before they returned to home soil, a special cleansing ceremony was performed.
“We had some local boys from here come down to Sydney and they did a smoking ceremony in the presence of a couple of our elders, and a couple of onlookers came by and paid their respects. It was just amazing,” says Leanne.
She says this was the most emotional time of the whole process.
“When we first collected them and the realisation that we’ve got them, that was really the biggest part. If I had to choose one part that was most significant it was then, we had them in our hands so to speak.”
John says the journey with the community members to pick up the remains was both an exciting and somber experience.
“On one hand it’s exciting because you’re bringing people to country but you’re also upset because they were taken in the first place. It was very bittersweet,” he says.
“To be able to bring remains home and give them the dignity they deserve, to be buried on country, and amongst their own people, is extremely rewarding.”
The Wellington Aboriginal Community welcomed their ancestors back home with open arms.
“The remains were placed in traditional bark carriages and wrapped up in twine and presented back to the earth with a smoking ceremony and a blessing,” says Leanne.
Young and old gathered for the ceremony with the younger members of the community playing their part.
“They were very intrigued and very much a part of the whole process. They helped when it came to cover them in the soil. They all came over and picked up whatever shovels were around and some were using sticks so they could help in the reburial which is amazing. They weren’t asked to, they just did it. That was really, really good to see,” says Leanne.
She says the work was a joint effort with the OEH, the Museum and the Land Council.
“It’s an amazing board here at the Land Council, Barry Smith, our Chairperson and, Paul West, our Deputy Chairperson. They were the backbone, and of course, John preparing the remains and making sure that everything had been done traditionally. He even had a plaque done up for the community, so people are aware that they’re people’s gravesites,” she says.
“We just really acknowledged what had happened over the last 18 months or so which is a huge accomplishment to the community. We could not have done it without the Office of Environment and Heritage, and of course, the Australian Museum. We wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
John says his work as a Heritage Conservation Officer is an honour.
“To be able to bring remains home and give them the dignity they deserve, to be buried on country, and amongst their own people, is extremely rewarding,” John said.
“It solidifies their connection to place. These people who are bringing them home are their descendants.”
Leanne says the community is grateful to have their ancestors’ home.
“Some people don’t get that privilege of bringing home their people, they’re never able to make peace. We’re truly blessed to be able to do that.”
“Wellington is my home town. So it was a huge privilege to be able to be a part of the process of bringing them home. There’s a high chance it was probably one of my relatives. My family is the traditional owners from the area, well one of, so it was really, really great."