The Australian National University has celebrated the beginning of Reconciliation Week with the installation of burial poles from the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island.

The installation is the final chapter of a two-year journey between ANU’s National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) and the Galiwin’ku community, which saw Indigenous blood samples repatriated to the community after they spent 50 years sitting in archives at ANU.

NCIG Deputy Director and Gimuy Walubara Yidinji woman Azure Hermes has played an instrumental part in returning many of the 7,000 samples to community and Country.

“My family is in this collection. These samples are like my own flesh and blood,” she said.

“I see the 7,000 people in our collection as if they’re my own family. I want to make sure that the advice I give would be the same advice I would give my own flesh and blood.”

Over 200 blood samples that were taken from the Galiwin’ku community in East Arnhem Land were returned home in 2019.

The samples were first taken after a typhoid outbreak on Elcho Island in 1968 and 1969, however, according to Hermes it is unclear whether consent was ever given for the samples to be used in medical research.

The sample repatriation process for NCIG is built upon a model of strong consent and self-determination.

“These communities really had to reconcile … they had to figure out how we do this culturally right and respect those who have passed away, but also respect future generations who these samples could help,” she said.

“This doesn’t necessarily just affect one person in the long run, it affects your whole community at some point in time. By giving people that space to talk about it and waiting until either the individual or the family are ready to make a decision is how we wanted to do this.

“It’s about giving people power back … it’s self-determination.”

Galiwin’ku and NCIG took 11 months to properly consult before consent was established.

Hermes explained the cultural importance of such samples coming home to Country.

“Galiwin’ku is such a traditional community … there was real connection to the samples, it didn’t matter that they were just three mils of blood collected in the 1960s — it still had a connection to a person,” she said.

“When they heard that the samples existed, the fear and how upsetting that was for them was something real and quite hard to witness because they still had that emotional connection to it.

“They were piecing it together in their minds thinking that if a person had passed away and had been gone for a really long time and they believed his body had been put to rest and his spirit had moved on. But what if it hadn’t because those three mils are sitting in Canberra.”

Ross Mandi Wunungmurra with samples during repatriation process. Photo supplied by ANU.

At a ceremony at the ANU campus in Canberra on Thursday, burial poles created by the Galiwin’ku community and commissioned by the University were installed.

The poles are sister poles to the ones that sit on Elcho Island and were planned to be unveiled last year but was postponed due to COVID-19.

“The polls going in will really cement that relationship that we have with Galiwin’ku,” said Hermes.

“Hopefully it leads to more ceremonies and more art installations around the University with communities that we work with.”

Women collecting paperbark for burial poles on Elcho Island. Photo supplied by ANU.

The repatriation of the blood samples has started a conversation for the NGIC around how genomics, if self-determined, can support the success of Indigenous peoples. 

“I understand that people will read the story and feel in two minds about it because genomics and genetics and DNA is a really taboo subject for Indigenous people because we’ve got politicians and media personalities out there always trying to define … Aboriginality,” she said.

“If we really want to Close the Gap, there has to be recognition genomics as a serious player in this space.

“Right now with NCIG we want to work collaboratively with Indigenous researchers and form a national agenda where we are leading the conversation, leading the push and leading the research when it comes to genomics.

“In order to do that we really need to have a conversation with government about, not only just setting up that national agenda, but funding it properly. We as researchers, we’re going to push ahead and do it, but we’d really love it if [government] was standing next to us.”

By Rachael Knowles