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29 ancestors' remains returned to their homelands

Rhiannon Clarke -

The remains of 25 Indigenous people have been returned to their homelands after being held overseas for many years.

Four UK museums held the remains of the 25 Aboriginal people and four indigenous people from Taiwan.

In October this year discussions between museum officials and eight Indigenous communities commenced over the repatriation.

Elders from across Australia travelled to England to recover the remains of 11 Aboriginal people from The Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Museum, who have spent a century on the other side of the world.

Five of the remains have been restored to the care of their respective communities, while six are currently being managed by the Australian government in preparation for their eventual return to their rightful place.

The repatriation ceremony took place in Oxford (Image: The Pitt Rivers


One of the remains belongs to a Ngarrindjeri man, whose skull was taken from Coorong in South Australia and kept in a museum, finally being brought back to Country where he has been reburied in a sacred place.

Speaking on the day of the ceremony Ngarrindjeri Elder Mark Koolmatrie said the day was filled with sadness but also a joyous day as it is one of a homecoming.

"When I picked up the remains of this person I said 'Pakanu I'm taking you home'...which is our word for grandfather," said Mr Koolmatrie

Ngarrindjeri Elder Mark Koolmatrie leads the traditional reburial ceremony

(Image: Caroline Horn, ABC)

"Those people were highly respected in this world and they are highly respected in the next world."

It's unclear who the remains belong to but what is known is they were well respected in their tribe. Now his remains lie in a high area where he can look over the next generation.

In early November, a Scottish university returned the skulls of four Paiwan tribal warriors to an Indigenous community in Taiwan.

These warriors were killed 150 years ago and their remains were confirmed to belong to individuals from Mudan township, home to the Paiwan people.

It is believed that Japanese soldiers took the skulls as war trophies in 1874 and they were later transferred to the University of Edinburgh.

Taiwan's Minster of Council of Indigenous Peoples Icyang Parod requested repatriation in November 2021, which was approved in July of the following year.

Before the handover ceremony, a Paiwan service was conducted to honour the warriors.

Minister Parod hopes that repatriation can bring solace and healing to the community and emphasises the importance of collaboration between academic institutions and museums.

University of Edinburgh staff greeting representatives from Mudan,

Taiwan, at the university on Friday.

(Image: Neil Hanna, University of Edinburgh/PA)

The skulls are currently awaiting a decision on their permanent resting place at Taiwan's National Museum of Prehistory.

This act has been praised as a significant step towards achieving transitional justice.

Recently the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC repatriated the ancestral remains of 14 Indigenous individuals back to Australia.

A ceremony was held overnight in the US marking their repatriation to Australia before the Indigenous ancestors were returned to their traditional custodians.

Of the ancestors, seven will be returned to custodians from the Ngarrindjeri community in South Australia, the Eastern Maar community in Victoria and the Yawuru community in Western Australia.

An additional five individuals will be repatriated to Victoria, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia under the care of the government, while two will be sent back to a community in Victoria.

One of the remains belonging to a Yawuru man from Roebuck Bay from Western Australia's far north has been returned after more than a century.

On December 7, the room was filled with tears and memories of the past were shared as a formal ceremony took place at the WA Museum, where the man's remains will be kept until a facility is built in Broome.

The Yawuru traditional owners travelled from Broome to Perth to attend the local ceremony, accompanied by representatives from the Whadjuk Noongar community.

The cultural coordinator of Nyamba Buru Yawuru Dianne Appleby, emphasised that the repatriation of ancestors sheds light on the sombre history that led to their removal from their homeland

Dianne Appleby shared stories at the ceremony.(Image: Grace Burmas, ABC)

"We have to talk about the tragedy and the trauma and to make sense of these events," she said.

"This is coming alive for us — they are people, they're not just bones."

Ms Appleby said about the brutal massacres suffered by the Yawuru community, with their ancestral knowledge and stories being preserved through generations by her grandmother.

Tragically, this historical trauma also resulted in the theft of their sacred ancestral remains.

The Yawuru community continues to work on the long-term project, with overseas institutions, mainly in Europe, still holding an additional 36 sets of remains.

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney welcomed the repatriation of the ancestors.

"Repatriation of First Nations ancestors is an important step toward reconciliation," she said.

"This sets a positive example for other collecting institutions internationally in recognising First Nations people as the rightful custodians of their ancestors."

Since 1990, over 1,700 ancestral remains of First Nations individuals have been repatriated, including 139 from America, according to the ABC.


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