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Sacred objects returned home following collaboration between Warlpiri Project and AIATSIS

Callan Morse -

Senior Warlpiri men and staff from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) gathered at the South Australian Museum on Friday to receive a collection of sacred objects after their repatriation from the United States of America.

The return of this material was a collaboration between AIATSIS and the Warlpiri Project, a Warlpiri created and led project which works to help Warlpiri repatriate ancestors and objects.

The objects were collected between 1956 and 1958 by the late Professor Nancy Munn, Emerita Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, during her PhD field work in the town of Yuendumu, north-west of Alice Springs.

"We're not talking about repatriation we're doing it. Senior Men are working hand in hand with younger generations to teach our Tjukurpa," the senior Warlpiri men said.

"We've opened the doors to create a stronger pathway for us to transfer knowledge to our younger Warlpiri.

"The Warlpiri Project is about learning and sharing culture on the job, younger people are learning when they are sitting next to Elders, singing along with us and walking with us. Hopefully we inspire other tribes – it's significant."

Warlpiri Elder Warren Japanangka Williams sharing his knowledge with the other Warlpiri Men about material recorded by Nancy Munn in the 1950s. (Image: AIATSIS)

The return of these objects is part of a larger undertaking led by the Warlpiri Project and Warlpiri men, Karl Japaltjarri Hampton and Jamie Jungarrayi Hampton with the South Australian Museum, to return Professor Munn's entire collection of archival material relating to their people and culture.

The return of the objects was jointly facilitated by AIATSIS, the Warlpiri Project and Professor Françoise Dussart, Professor of Anthropology and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut, a close friend and colleague of Professor Munn.

Professor Dussart has been working with the Warlpiri community at Yuendumu since the 1980s. As Professor Munn's literary executor for her Australian material, she recently prepared Professor Munn's personal research materials for archival deposit and return to the Warlpiri community.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney congratulated all parties on their contributions to the repatriation's success.

"I commend AIATSIS and the Warlpiri Project for their work towards the return of these sacred objects – taken so far away for more than 60 years," she said.

"This is a significant moment for the Warlpiri Nation and so important for future generations to have these precious materials returned to their rightful place."

AIATSIS has previously worked with the Warlpiri Project to return material from the University of Virginia's Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collections.

Warlpiri Elder Robyn Japanangka Granites holding a photograph of himself as a young child taken by Nancy Munn in the 1950s. (Image: AIATSIS)

Ngemba man and interim AIATSIS CEO, Mr Leonard Hill, said AIATSIS was very happy to support the return of the sacred objects.

"Reuniting custodians with their sacred material is a vital part of AIATSIS's global mission to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Custodians to make decisions about their cultural heritage," Mr Hill said.

"This repatriation further demonstrates how AIATSIS's collaborative approach to returning material builds trusting relationships between partners, supports cultural informed decision making and achieves fantastic outcomes."

AIATSIS leads the Australian Government's Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program that facilitates the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material to Australia, supporting First Nations peoples in exercising sovereignty over cultural heritage material held in overseas collections.

The AIATSIS RoCH program and the Warlpiri Project are funded by the National Indigenous Australia Agency. The Warlpiri Project is also supported by Marion Scrymgour MP and the Granites Mine Affected Area Aboriginal Corporation.

Senior Warlpiri Men will return the items to their keeping place at Yuendumu in due course.

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