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Land Rights News Central Australia: Land Rights News (September 2010)

Published: September, 2010

l-r: Museum specialist Terry Snowball, Dr Joe Gumbula from Milingimbi and Thomas Amagula from Groote Eyland

Smithsonian finally returns remains

The remains were taken from Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt more than  60 years ago.

The handover ceremony took place on 2 July at the National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resource Centre in Washington D.C.  Dr Henrietta Mann, a Southern Cheyenne Indigenous American, welcomed the Australian delegation that included representatives from Groote, Milingimbi and Gunbalanya, who performed a purifying smoke ceremony.

The remains were removed from burial sites during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948.  The remains of 83 Aboriginal people were stolen during the expedition and shipped to the United States of America where they were stored in the Smithsonian’s facilities.

The return of the nine individuals marked the final repatriation of skeletal remains of Aboriginal Australians taken during the expedition, following the return of 74 remains in 2008. It is also the culmination of years of hard work by local Indigenous groups and the Australian government.  Former ATSIC Chair Lionel Quartermaine began the process of repatriation in 2005 when he wrote to the Smithsonian Institution requesting their return.

Thomas Amagula, an employee of Anindilyakwa Land Council, was a delegate at the 2008 and 2010 repatriations.  He said the negotiations were a testing process.

“We had great difficulty in having them understand how important the return of these remains was to us,” he said.  “They couldn’t see that the remains needed to be laid to rest on their country where they belong, so that their spirits could rest in peace.”

Mr Amagula said he attended a dinner held in Canberra in 2009, marking the 61st anniversary of the expedition.  “Everybody was celebrating,” he said.  “I wasn’t celebrating but felt angry and annoyed.”

Despite the pain felt by Mr Amagula and others affected by the desecration of their ancestors’, he believes there are positives that can be drawn from the events.

“For today’s young people this is a good way to teach the history of what has happened,” he said.  “We can also teach them about our culture and why these issues are so important to our culture.”

The Smithsonian Institution is still in possession of the remains of Indigenous Australians. People from the Mirrar clan group, Gunbalanya and Groote along with FaHCSIA are currently negotiating with the government of the Czech Republic over the return of remains.

* This article is dedicated to the memory of Nawakadj Gumurdul, a Senior Traditional Owner from Gunbalanya, who was committed to achieving the return of his Old People. He passed away before the last of the remains were returned but his hard work is remembered and appreciated.