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Warlpiri community lay ancestor to rest 60 years after he was removed from sacred burial site

Joseph Guenzler -

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains images and names of deceased persons.

On Tuesday morning the Warlpiri community convened near Pikilyi (Vaughn Springs Station), west of Yuendumu, to rebury a Warlpiri ancestor whose initial burial site was disrupted by station owners more than six decades ago.

In a ceremony led by the community, the ancestor found final repose on Country after decades in Adelaide, under the care of the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum.

In a statement, Warlpiri Traditional Owners said: "The Pikilyi ancestor repatriation held at Yuendumu and on Country this week was so important for the Warlpiri nation."

"The Yuendumu community thank the South Australian Museum and all of the Yuendumu community organisations and Mt. Doreen station for their support of the events."

The Warlpiri ancestor, believed to be a senior lawman, was initially interred in a traditional Warlpiri tree burial, referred to as Kantirirri, within a bloodwood tree before the establishment of Vaughan Springs Station by the Braitling family.

Warlpiri community gathers at Yuendumu to welcome the ancestor home after 60 years. (Image: Supplied/SA Museum)

Pikilyi holds significance for the Warlpiri people who have inhabited, hunted, and conducted ceremonies in the region for generations.

The burial tree was felled during fencing works by the Braitling family between 1962 and 1965, revealing the ancestors remains.

Without the Warlpiri community's knowledge, the ancestor was mistakenly placed in a cardboard box labeled 'Queen of the Walbiri' and stored at the Yuendumu mission house for an unknown duration.

Subsequently, missionaries passed this box to University of Adelaide Dental School staff, engaged in a dental study of Warlpiri people at Yuendumu from 1951-1971.

In 2018, South Australian Museum staff identified the box containing the Warlpiri ancestor during a University collection audit.

In response to the request of Warlpiri Elders, the ancestor was transferred from the University to the custody of the South Australian Museum in 2021.

Since then, additional research has been conducted under the community-led Warlpiri Project, dedicated to repatriating ancestors and sacred items from institutional and private collections.

In 2022, the 'Queen of the Warlbiri' was determined to likely be an older man, and oral history research by Warlpiri man and South Australian Museum researcher, Warlpiri Repatriation Officer Jamie Jungarrayi Hampton, provided insights into the original burial tree and its destruction.

Richard Logan, Dean and Head of School of Dentistry, University of Adelaide, said the University was pleased to be working with the Warlpiri community to ensure the ancestor is returned home.

"The Adelaide Dental School has had a long history of working with the Walpiri community dating back to the early 1950s involved in research led at different times by Professors Murray Barrett, Tasman Brown andGrant Townsend," Mr Logan said.

"The research that was undertaken was successful because of the mutual respect that existed between thecommunity and the researchers."

"Over the years, however, practices that were not considered appropriate by today's standards did occur and it was wrong that, in this case, the ancestor's remains were taken back to Adelaide in the 1960s without the permission of the community."

Earlier this week, Warlpiri elders, South Australian Museum staff, and the Head of the University's Dental School transported the ancestor from the Museum's Keeping Place to Mparntwe (Alice Springs), en-route to Yuendumu.

On November 27, the Warlpiri community united to welcome the ancestor back, leading to his ultimate reburial this morning in a closed ceremony at a specifically designated site.

Walpiri man, Jamie Jungarrayi Hampton said it was "an honour to help my community on this important project and event".

"I want to say thank you to my Elders for guiding me on this journey, and I'd like to thank the South Australian Museum for their support."

South Australian Museum Chief Executive Dr David Gaimster said this reburial was the latest step in an important collaboration between the Warlpiri Project and the Museum.

"The ongoing work of repatriation is an essential part of truth-telling and reconciliation for museums and institutions like the University," he said.

"The community-led Warlpiri Project has been a great leader in these developments, and we are humbled to assist this ancestor's journey back to Country."

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