The historic return of cultural heritage material occurred in England on Wednesday, with the handover of more than 100 items of cultural significance from the Manchester Museum to the Northern Territory's Anindilyakwa peoples.
174 items of cultural significance including enungkuwa (spears), ajamurnda (bark baskets), errumungkwa (woven armbands) and dadikwakwa-kwa (painted doll shells) were returned to representatives of the Anindilyakwa community, Traditional Owners of the land and waters of the Groote Archipelago in the Northern Territory.
After traveling thousands of kilometres from Groote Eyland, Anindilyakwa community representatives Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Maicie Lalara and Amethea Mamarika were on-hand to receive the items which were collected by British sociologist and social anthropologist, Professor Peter Worsley, during his PhD fieldwork on Groote Eylandt in the 1950s.
The return from the Manchester Museum was facilitated by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
AIATSIS acting chief executive Leonard Hill thanked the Manchester Museum for the "highly significant" return.
"This is a highly significant return and demonstrates how respectful partnerships between AIATSIS, First Nation communities and overseas collecting institutions can create opportunities for people to encounter, engage and be transformed by the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," Mr Hill said.
"For more than 50 years, Manchester Museum has been a custodian of this collection, and now, in collaboration with AIATSIS, they are being returned to their custodians - the children and grandchildren of those who created them.
"AIATSIS and the Manchester Museum have a productive and committed partnership and I thank them for their collaborative and ethical approach to caring for their collections and respecting the Anindilyakwa community's wish to have their material returned to Country."
The act of returning these materials to their custodians has the power to maintain and revitalise cultural practices.
Following the handover, Anindilyakwa Land Council deputy chair Thomas Amagula shared his satisfaction in the success of the repatriation.
"On behalf of the ALC and the Traditional Owners of the Groote Archipelago, I would like to say how pleased l am that these culturally significant objects are being repatriated to our islands," Mr Amagula said.
"The ALC represents the 14 clans of the land and seas of the Groote Archipelago, and the repatriation of the Worsley Collection by Manchester Museum is an important step for the ALC in pursuing one of our core visions: to protect, maintain, and promote Anindilyakwa culture."
By exploring connections and stories held in the archives of AIATSIS and the Manchester Museum with the memories and cultural knowledge of Anindilyakwa Elders, the project worked to collectively determine where this material can be best cared for so that it inspires future generations and is cherished by contemporary ones.
As part of the repatriation project, Manchester Museum curators accompanied researchers from AIATSIS' Return of Cultural Heritage team for collaborative consultations on Groote Eylandt with the Anindilyakwa community in 2022.
Manchester Museum director Esme Ward said the collaborative first lead to a significant amount of knowledge sharing between Traditional Owners, AIATSIS and the museum.
"Our collaboration with AIATSIS over the course of the past four years has been characterised by openness and warmth and we're grateful to be able to support their mission in ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and cultures are recognised, respected and valued," Ms Ward said.
"We have learned so much from working with them, putting us in an even stronger position to deliver on our commitment to returning collections and belongings."
AIATSIS leads the Australian Government's Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in exercising sovereignty over their cultural heritage material in overseas collections and facilitates its return.
Since its inception, the program has returned material from overseas collectors to fourteen communities.
The Anindilyakwa cultural heritage material will begin its journey back home to Groote Eylandt by both air and barge in the coming weeks where it will be welcomed by senior Anindilyakwa community members.
An on-Country return celebration is planned for later this year.