Repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural items signifies start of collective healing for WA Indigenous Australians
One week, eight flights, 70 hours in transit and over 36,000 kilometres later, the remains of six Noongar Menang ancestors have been returned to Noongar Country in Western Australia.
Held for years at Grassimuseum in Leipzig, Germany, the remains of three men and three women were originally exhumed in 1880 from King George Sound in WA’s South West.
The remains of these Noongar Menang people were taken to Italy by anthropologist and zoologist, Dr Enrico Giglioli, where they were eventually sold off to Leipzig in 1888.
“Some of these people [were in] private collections. A zoologist [sold] off our ancestral remains to be gawked at, treated us like animals.”
“It’s shameful, it’s disgusting and it’s racism at its best,” said Megan Krakouer, Menang yorga and Project Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project.
Thirty-five Gunaikurnai old people and one Ngarrindjeri old person were also returned to Victoria and South Australia, respectively, as part of the repatriation from Germany.
A proud Menang woman, Ms Krakouer and fellow Menang man Uncle Stuart Hansen made the journey to Germany to bring their ancestors home with the support of the Wagyl Kaip Working Party, WKSN Trust, South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council and the Department of Communications and the Arts.
“It’s pretty emotional, it’s really quite empowering. … We went over there for a week, we spent some private time with the ancestral remains initially, myself and … Uncle Stuart Hansen and during that time conducted all these different cultural ceremonies,” Ms Krakouer said.
“Because there were three females and three males that had to come home … it was appropriate that a man and woman went.
“The Commonwealth Government, they were only prepared to pay for one position, and that’s where the WKSN [Trust] … covered the other person [to] come across so it was … culturally appropriate.”
For Ms Krakouer, having ancestral remains taken to the other side of the world demonstrates the overt racism in the 19th century that saw her ancestors treated as subhuman.
At the official handover last Thursday in Leipzig, cultural protocols were carried out to welcome the ancestors back into the hands of Noongar Menang Traditional Owners.
“What I saw [was] unity and collaboration … righting the wrong.”
Ms Krakouer said the museum’s curators and directors were incredible and handled the day with great love, respect and pride.
“They really understood the magnitude of it, of returning our ancestors back home.”
As they touched down in Perth on Monday afternoon, respected Noongar Elder Dr Richard Walley OAM was there to welcome Ms Krakouer, Uncle Stuart and the Menang remains to Whadjuk Country.
“It was extremely emotional but at the same time [we] saw groups come together, and there was that unity, respect, love and support … and that’s really powerful.”
The Menang woman said this is the first time something of this scale has happened in WA and that the remains will stay on Whadjuk Country until the Menang people decide the next steps around reburial at King George Sound.
“It’s collective healing, it’s bringing people together. It’s bringing that awareness about, so young people in particular can understand and appreciate … the challenges that our Aboriginal people went through, our ancestors, at colonisation. It’s an education process.”
Ms Krakouer said although repatriation events like this are important, there is a long way to go with 1,600 ancestral remains still being held elsewhere overseas and an environment of internalised racism in Australia.
“In 2019, the racism is still entrenched and that’s reflective of the suicide rates … the incarceration rates … [and] the deaths in custody … there are a lot of people that are being left behind.”
For Ms Krakouer, the racism entrenched in Australia’s psyche has become totally internalised, legal and systemic.
“The grim reality is that when we look at the Closing the Gap Strategy and campaigns, there’s no improvements, if anything it’s worse,” Ms Krakouer.
“The racism that was born of the original people still very much exists today and that’s [what] we need to overcome and address and tackle chest on.”
Ms Krakouer said the descendants of these returned ancestors are still experiencing suffering, disconnect and pain.
“We can’t leave our brothers and sister behind … We can never forget and disrespect the correlation [between] colonisation and the current situation in 2019.”
Cultural artefacts also returned
Several Nyamal cultural artefacts have also been returned to WA recently from the University of Manchester’s Manchester Museum.
In October the Museum announced it would repatriate 43 culturally significant artefacts back to the Nyamal, Gangalidda Garawa, Aranda and Yawuru peoples and November 22 saw the official handover of Nyamal and Gangalidda Garawa items at London’s Australia House.
Part of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Return of Cultural Heritage Project, CEO Craig Ritchie said it was fantastic to mark this important event with the Nyamal people.
“The importance of First Nations Peoples having control of their cultural heritage material, to look after it appropriately on Country or in museums and galleries here and abroad, cannot be overstated,” Mr Ritchie said.
Senior Nyamal Elder, Tony Taylor, returned the cultural items to Nyamal Country last week where they will be cared for by Nyamal Traditional Owners and again used in cultural ceremonies and protocols.
By Hannah Cross