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Handover of Kaurna Ancestral Remains, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2018

The definition of ‘repatriation’, as it applies to cultural heritage, is constantly expanding as more and more agencies engage with the social issues particular to their intellectual interests. For example, there is the repatriation of human Ancestral Remains and secret/sacred cultural objects; in such cases, the return of the original is the aspiration. Then there are such activities as ‘digital repatriation’, in which copies of images and documentation held by the agencies are provided to cultural custodians. ‘Digital repatriation’ is more aptly identified as ‘digital restitution’.

The provision of images, copies of documents, or three-dimensional reproductions of Ancestral Remains alone would not truly constitute repatriation within the meaning or aims of this handbook. Nor would it necessarily be acceptable to the appropriate cultural custodians. In the context of human Ancestral Remains, repatriation requires the return of the physical Ancestral Remains, and the delegating of authority to make all decisions regarding the future disposition of the Ancestral Remains, to the custodians entitled by tradition and/or customary law and/or Western law, to care for them.

In the case of Australian Indigenous cultural heritage, the term ‘repatriation’ is normally reserved for human Ancestral Remains or objects of high sacred significance. For objects of a more secular or public nature, or for documents and media, the alternative term is ‘restitution’. Restitution can encompass both the return of the original material and/or the provision of copies of materials, such as photographs, documents, and sound and film media.

Why repatriate?

There are many reasons why Ancestral Remains should be repatriated. As an opening statement, the preamble to the Australian Government’s policy on repatriation succinctly presents a national and international acknowledgment about the benefits of repatriation, stating:

The Australian Government recognises repatriation [of Ancestral Remains and secret/sacred objects to their communities of origin] helps promote healing and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.2

In addition, the Australian Government recognises that communities of origin are the rightful custodians of their Ancestral Remains, and that they should determine when and how repatriation should be undertaken. To support this, the Australian Government, on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, seeks the voluntary and unconditional return of Ancestral Remains and any associated notes and data.

The most straightforward and significant reason for the return of Ancestral Remains is that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals, recognised by custom as the social, cultural, and/or biological descendants of the deceased, want them returned.

Other reasons include:

  • Nearly all Ancestral Remains were collected unethically, through graverobbing, or other interference with the body that was illegal under customary law and British or Australian law at the time of collection.
  • All human Ancestral Remains acquired without free and informed consent of the individuals concerned or of their families and descendants should be treated with respect. This includes the right of the deceased to be returned to families and to be part of respectful mortuary ceremonies.
  • The Ancestral Remains of one culture should not be treated with any less respect than the Ancestral Remains of another culture.
  • The families, biological and social descendants of the individuals may be found to have the legal right to act as executors of the estate of the deceased.
  • The Ancestral Remains have rarely been subjected to the scientific investigation that holding institutions often advance as the reason they should be kept.
  • Support for repatriation through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (2007).3

Return of authority and responsibility

Repatriation is not simply the return of Ancestral Remains. It is also the return of authority over those Ancestral Remains and responsibility for what happens to them in the future. True repatriation must be unconditional. There have been occurrences where overseas institutions have sought to return Ancestral Remains conditionally, or make long-term loans, with the conditions that the Ancestral Remains be stored in museum-quality conditions, that they be made available to researchers or that the returning institution be allowed to take biological samples of the Ancestral Remains for future research. There have also been demands that repatriation must only be made to demonstrated biological descendants, or that the community must be in complete agreement as to the final disposition of Ancestral Remains once they are back in their care.

Conditional returns are not complete repatriation; instead, they might be considered to be a form of off-site storage for the returning institution. In such a process, the custodians become responsible for the management and protection of the Ancestral Remains, but they are denied the authority to manage them according to their own preferred customs. Custodians may, of course, accept the return of Ancestral Remains with such conditions if they deem it appropriate. The important thing is that the custodians be fully informed of the risks and advantages and not be coerced into making decisions against their wishes.

Although unconditional returns are typically unproblematic, there are issues that can arise. These include managing accompanying information, practical management of remains, acquiring funding, appointing project managers, and identifying and preparing Final Resting Places. There may also be disputes within the community as to who should lead future events for placing Ancestral Remains in their Final Resting Place; there may also be those who desire further research on the Ancestral Remains and those who do not; and there may be conflicting opinions as to what ceremonies or procedures will be applied in the return of the Ancestral Remains to the community and to their Final Resting Place.

There is also always a risk that the Ancestral Remains may be stolen, go missing, be damaged or even be sold or traded. All these scenarios have happened in the past. Nonetheless, after repatriation, management of these risks becomes the responsibility of the community. With authority over Ancestral Remains comes responsibility for Ancestral Remains. When Ancestral Remains are returned with conditions from the collecting institution, then the authority of the community is reduced, but the responsibility for care remains.

Repatriation should therefore be unconditional. With the return of the Ancestral Remains also comes complete authority and full responsibility. There may be occasions where the custodians themselves initiate their own conditions — such as a particular partnership with researchers. However, such conditions should normally follow repatriation and not be a condition of it.

Respectful management

In the repatriation debate, the term ‘reburial’ is often used as administrative shorthand for community-acceptable disposal or final treatment of Ancestral Remains. This can lead to some confusion over the appropriate way to treat Ancestral Remains upon return, implying to communities that reburial is the only acceptable final treatment for Ancestral Remains, even when original funerary processes did not involve permanent of even temporary burial. The Indigenous community to which the Ancestral Remains are affiliated determines respectful management. There is no obligation on a community for all returned Ancestral Remains to be buried or reburied. Many Ancestral Remains were collected from open-air repositories, such as rock shelters, rock platforms, tree or wooden platform burials, or sacred houses and Keeping Places. Many Ancestral Remains, collected by Europeans from killing sites, ceremonial mortuary grounds, hospitals, asylums, and prisons, never underwent a complete culturally appropriate mortuary process or had a Final Resting Place. As noted above, returns should be unconditional, and the community must have the right to determine the processes of laying the Ancestral Remains to rest.

Successful repatriation

What is a successful repatriation? In the past, there have been incidents in which Ancestral Remains returned to Australia were unprovenanced; that is, their point of origin was not known. There are also cases where communities have been unable to receive Ancestral Remains owing to a lack of resourcing for respectful management. This has, in some cases, led to feelings of failure on the part of individuals and/or communities.

A successful repatriation event, therefore, does not only happen with the physical return of remains. It also occurs when the rights to respect and authority for the future care of the remains are acknowledged. The first stage alone — the return of Ancestral Remains to Australia — is in itself a success in that it recognises the rights and authority of a claimant or representative group (in such cases, usually an Indigenous representative body) by the Australian Government, foreign governments and collecting institutions. Once the Ancestral Remains are in Australia, even if held in a museum or heritage agency, they are increasingly under Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander control.

This is a great achievement on the part of the advocates for return. It also applies to those Ancestral Remains returned to a state or region. The closer they get to their point of origin, the more they come under Indigenous control. For various reasons, some Ancestral Remains may continue to be held in Keeping Places on or near where they were taken from. Lack of certainty over location, or lack of access to a given location, may mean that they continue to be stored in such community-administered repositories for some years. This is not a failure on the part of the community or individual representatives. It is a success in that the Ancestral Remains are under local Indigenous control, one step closer to their place and community of origin, and that authority for their respectful management now rests with the community.

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