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Photo of a man with face paint and bandana taking part in a smoking ritual.

Major Sumner AM ofciates at a Ngarrindjeri reburial ceremony in the Coorong, South Australia, April 2015

This chapter describes some of the issues that can arise in preparing community/museum engagements. These issues may arise within (or between) communities themselves, or between a community and a collecting institution or heritage agency. All communities are different, with their own histories, cultures and, with particular regard to repatriations, sentiments. The fundamental rule is the principle of respect — for the Ancestral Remains, for community members and for other representatives. It should be noted, however, that not all repatriation activities have issues. The majority of returns occur smoothly and respectfully.

Receiving notification that Ancestral Remains are being held in a collecting institution can initiate a time of great shock for a community. It is best compared to hearing the news of a death in the family. Emotions can range from sadness to anger, and many questions arise, such as: ‘How did the Ancestral Remains get there?’; ‘Did we fail our ancestors in letting them be taken or in forgetting that they had been taken?’; ‘Who is responsible for their return?’; ‘What is the appropriate way to treat them?’; ‘Why did people take them?’; ‘How have they been treated?’; ‘What do we do now?’

At the same time, the person making the approach to the community will be subject to the rules and procedures of their own organisation or agency. While institutions are usually sympathetic to community requests for repatriation, there are still official procedures to be followed and paperwork to be done. This can impose some barriers between the community and the agency as the business side of repatriation intervenes. A repatriation manager will therefore need to respect the community’s circumstances and be prepared to allow adequate time for the community decision-making process. Communities will similarly need to respect the repatriation manager’s obligations to their employer.

Establishing your approach

The starting point is the knowledge that provenanced Ancestral Remains are, will be or have come under the care of a collecting institution or heritage agency in which a repatriation manager is employed, and that that agency now wishes to return the Ancestral Remains to the community.

Identifying the appropriate community is critical. This is dependent upon knowing the location of the place where the remains were collected or the lands to which the person was a traditional owner. There is no part of Australia that does not have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander affiliated with it in some way. Often these groups are officially recognised by federal, state and territory governments as the appropriate people to make decisions or provide cultural advice about the cultural heritage of a particular area.

There is a chance that the identified community has not previously been told that Ancestral Remains from its homelands even exist in collections, and that they are available for repatriation, and this news may cause distress. The identified community needs to have the cultural authority to engage in the repatriation activity, not only to ensure that the Ancestral Remains are not returned to the wrong group, but also to ensure that no group is unnecessarily distressed by a repatriation activity.

While collection institutions can be concerned about upsetting communities, it is critical for an agency to understand that, while community members may express sadness or anger at the news that remains are in a museum, this is not a reason to keep such information from them.

A number of communities will already have engaged with repatriation, and may have their own preferences about which processes should be followed.

Who are appropriate representatives?

Each state and territory in Australia has agencies responsible for cultural heritage management in that jurisdiction. These may be government or non-government agencies (for example, land councils, native title representative bodies and Prescribed Body Corporates or Aboriginal legal services). There may be one or more agencies with shared services (for example, museums as legal repositories under federal or state laws). These agencies work daily with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within their administrative borders, and have accumulated knowledge and experience regarding the appropriate person or group to contact on any particular issues. These agencies can thus provide great assistance in identifying potential claimant groups and in assisting them to arrange the return of Ancestral Remains.

It is usually best to start repatriation engagement by working with authorised representative institutions. Such organisations will usually handle the engagement as a corporate group, or they will refer the museum to an authorised and empowered individual or group. It is important to be aware that while many people want the return of Ancestral Remains, and may enquire as to what Ancestral Remains are held, they may not necessarily be supported by the wider community in their efforts to pursue repatriation. Repatriation is an empowering act; it recognises a person’s or a group’s right to be the primary representatives for the dead, and indeed to act as experts in heritage issues. There is always the risk of accidentally ‘empowering’ someone who is not considered the appropriate person by the wider community.

Officially endorsed Indigenous agencies and representative organisations also typically have internal audit and reporting requirements. They are legally accountable to the Indigenous people they represent. Individuals, on the other hand, do not necessarily have such accountabilities, making it difficult to provide them with the sort of financial and in-kind services required, or to hold them accountable should issues arise.

For these reasons, early engagement with state agencies that have engaged in cultural heritage management, representation and perhaps previous repatriation experiences is a valuable way to begin the repatriation process. It is advisable to make use of local knowledge and the established history of engagement, and to work within state legislation and protocols. This will speed up the process of repatriation and help protect the repatriation manager, the relevant agency, the Indigenous community and individuals.

Community leadership, consultation and governance: 'right people, right way'

As described above, identifying the appropriate people or agencies to deal with is crucial. When dealing with human Ancestral Remains, mistakes are not only inconvenient, they can also be socially disruptive and destructive if Ancestral Remains are given to agents considered inappropriate or unauthorised by the majority of the community. This is further complicated by differences in social, or traditional, structures of authority, which can come into conflict with legislated or governmental authorities. For example, an Elder may have traditional authority in their community; however, another individual may be recognised or employed under a government regulation as the preferred contact for heritage advice. The two may not always be in agreement.

On the rare occasions where there are disputes within a community, the museum officer, as an ‘outsider’, should not interfere. There will always be potential for dispute within community groups, or between individuals and those groups. This is a normal feature of all societies and cultures and must be respected as a part of the social process. For this reason, persons or agencies, such as museums, proposing to repatriate Ancestral Remains should not see themselves as the supreme judge over who should receive the Ancestral Remains, nor should they hurry the community into making decisions. The people appropriate to sorting out internal community issues always remain the members of the community itself.

Fortunately, the identification of appropriate communities and representatives is now rarely a problem. The combination of community recognition of delegates, along with the experiences of external heritage agencies, means that there has usually been a long period of testing and engagement with groups, and that structures for the management of heritage issues will already be in place. Local land councils, native title bodies, legal services, landowning groups and other Indigenous bodies are used to dealing with heritage issues and have recognised leaders in this field. These bodies are also often officially representatives of the community and are ultimately responsible to the community, and sometimes to the law, for their actions.

It must be acknowledged that not all repatriation exercises will be supported by all members of the community. Groups or individuals may argue that the Ancestral Remains were returned to the wrong people, or that other people were not consulted. The opinions of such people must be respected. However, ultimately a repatriation manager will be accountable to the laws and protocols of the wider community and of the state or territory in which they return Ancestral Remains, and to the processes of the organisation within which they operate. For this reason, group consensus, typically reflected through delegated and long-recognised individuals, usually proves to be the best approach.

It can also be problematic when, in identifying people to speak to, a researcher seeks out  people who agree with their opinions, or who they think may be receptive to specific research proposals (in particular, involving invasive, and potentially destructive, scientific research). This is a particular issue when ambitious researchers have a personal research agenda that they give priority over the repatriation event itself. This bias by the researcher can lead to inappropriate people being empowered, as they gain an authority over the Ancestral Remains to which they may not be deemed to be entitled by the rest of the community, or place them in a difficult position later. Individual community members do have the right to hold different opinions over whether or not research on Ancestral Remains should be allowed. However, this can place these individuals in a difficult position when their authorisation runs counter to the preferences of the wider community. This is yet another reason why it is generally better to work through authorised community representatives or agencies.

Confronting histories: emotional, cultural and spiritual challenges

Not everybody is comfortable when confronted by Ancestral Remains. The reasons for this are many, and not specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They include fear and/or dislike of being near human Ancestral Remains, fear of associated spirits or ghosts, distress that may arise when the story of how Ancestral Remains were acquired becomes known, and uncertainty as to whether or not it is appropriate for a person to handle them.

It is not unusual for Indigenous repatriation advocates, having secured the return of Ancestral Remains, to still be hesitant about handling them, approaching them or even entering the place in which they are stored. Non-Indigenous people, such as foreign curators, sometimes see this to be a sign of insincerity in the repatriation process — the assumption being that if people want Ancestral Remains they should be prepared to be near them and to handle them. This is wrong. It is common, and customary, for people from diverse cultures to prefer not to be in contact with human Ancestral Remains. It is particularly strong in Indigenous belief systems. This does not mean that the person does not respect the Ancestral Remains. To the contrary, preferring not to handle or be close to Ancestral Remains can also reflect profound respect for them, for the living people they once were, and for socially closer relatives or custodians, who usually have the exclusive right to touch them.

Recognition of a belief in the inherent sacred power of Ancestral Remains is also important. In many parts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, some people are considered so closely related to a source of sacred power, such as a sacred site, that although they are recognised as the traditional owners of that site it is still considered too dangerous for them to enter its precincts owing to their extremely close spiritual association. Entry is usually done on their behalf by a less closely aligned family member, such as a mother’s brother or other authorised individual. The same principle, regarding the danger of overly close affiliation, also occurs in the handling of human Ancestral Remains; just as a closely related person can be harmed by being too ‘close’ to the Ancestral Remains, an Indigenous person culturally unauthorised to manage them can also be in danger.

There is also a contrast to this where, despite the risks, control over Ancestral Remains is still seen as a way of empowerment, both politically and spiritually. A culturally unauthorised person can gain empowerment through access to, or ownership of, Ancestral Remains. This provides another reason why the repatriation manager must make sure repatriation is being made to an appropriate and recognised cultural authority.

There are, therefore, many sensitive cultural issues to be considered when engaging in repatriation activities. These issues affect both non-Indigenous and Indigenous workers. Being fully aware of the issues that will arise in managing the return and future control of Ancestral Remains is paramount.

Keeping Places, Cultural Centres and Final Resting Places

The terms Keeping Place and Cultural Centre have often been used interchangeably in discussions about where Ancestral Remains should be held upon their return. These are two very different types of facility. Generally, a Keeping Place is a smaller, lockable and private facility where Ancestral Remains may be safely stored prior to reaching their Final Resting Place. Such facilities are not for day-to-day access and are dedicated to the safekeeping of important cultural materials. A Cultural Centre, on the other hand, typically has the added services of providing office spaces and facilities for Indigenous cultural activities, possibly including a museum for community or public displays. Examples of Cultural Centres are much larger buildings, often with a small museum, administrative offices and a dedicated space for the private housing of Ancestral Remains. Access may be only for Indigenous people, or it may have wider access for non-Indigenous visitors. A Cultural Centre can contain a dedicated Keeping Place as part of its cultural facilities.

The major differences between Keeping Places and Cultural Centres are function and cost. A Keeping Place is usually meant to keep Ancestral Remains safe from interference, while a Cultural Centre provides extra community services. A Keeping Place is usually much more affordable for a resource-poor community, and strategies exist to make them cost-effective through passive environmental controls and pest management. A Cultural Centre, on the other hand, can be much more expensive, require much more time to secure resourcing for and take much more time to build, and have high ongoing running costs, such as staffing, lighting, air-conditioning and security. The community needs to be very clear about what it wants and about the ramifications of its choice. A Keeping Place, for example, could be a simple building, a steel container, or even a large-diameter gated concrete pipe, or it could be an annex to a larger cultural institution or museum. Its basic attributes are security and seclusion. Conservation of the Ancestral Remains or materials need not be the main aim. Ancestral Remains and some objects were fully intended to decay or be consumed by termites. That was their expected fate, and in some cases this was seen as a reflection and representation of the mortality of humans. Custodians are sometimes more concerned that the Ancestral Remains not be seen by unauthorised people, and that they lie in respectful surrounds, than that they be given over to long-term preservation as items of cultural heritage.

An excellent example of a Keeping Place is that managed by the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC). KALACC is the peak organisation for law and culture in the Kimberley region. Incorporated in 1985, it has been supporting the repatriation activities of the more than 35 language groups in the Kimberley.21 These responsibilities include providing a central place that Ancestral Remains originally from the Kimberley can be returned to, and a Keeping Place for them while KALACC’s repatriation officer undertakes consultation with relevant communities. KALACC has a Keeping Place, located at its main offices, consisting of two storage facilities (decommissioned insulated shipping containers), one for Ancestral Remains and one for sacred objects. Prior to the installation of these containers, KALACC worked with the Western Australian Museum to test whether this mode of Keeping Place was feasible; they were tested for temperature, humidity, pests and security. The store is located in an area experiencing high temperatures, seasonal heavy rainfall and high humidity, all enemies of preservation. The containers are made of heavy-duty steel, and raised off the ground — with an additional shade roof. The insulation provides a passive climate control, slowing down heating and cooling to a rate that the Ancestral Remains and objects can cope with without causing damage. Expensive lighting and air conditioning are not required. This provides a very simple, effective, and inexpensive Keeping Place. KALACC has installed two similar facilities at other locations in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia.

A Cultural Centre, or ‘community museum’, on the other hand, can be an expensive thing to both build and sustain. Costs are ongoing, with air-conditioning, electricity, staffing and security. The development and maintenance of exhibitions can be costly. A museum or Cultural Centre can maintain a Keeping Place within its walls. This Keeping Place may be subject to strict cultural protocols, while the remainder of the building or facility has freer access rules. However, it is likely this would place workers of all ages and sexes uncomfortably close to Ancestral Remains, and possibly to sacred objects, even if they were kept in securely locked stores. This may be stressful for some individuals, as well as flout cultural protocols.

The community should therefore be aware of the ongoing establishment and operational costs associated with the sorts of facilities they might prefer. A Keeping Place can be established relatively quickly, aiding in the prompt return of Ancestral Remains. (However, it is important to choose the right sort of building materials: ideally, these should be ones capable of surviving local conditions for many years.) A Cultural Centre, on the other hand, can take much longer to build (up to several years) and be costly to run.

Museums as Keeping Places

A distinction should be drawn between a ‘museum’ and a ‘Keeping Place’. In a museum, materials are stored to keep them safe, with appropriate conservation measures put in place. However, there is also usually a strong commitment to public display, education, research and access. The holdings of most major museums consist in the main of secular materials, those for which there are no strict cultural protocols of viewing. Holdings of culturally sensitive restricted materials, such as Ancestral Remains or secret/sacred objects, usually only form a small part of their total collections, although they may still be held in large numbers.

While national and state museums are repositories that may house Ancestral Remains, is it appropriate for them to label themselves, or be called, a Keeping Place? A Keeping Place is strictly a community-developed concept, referring to traditional practices of storing significant items, such as Ancestral Remains or sacred objects, in a place covered by Indigenous cultural sanctions. In light of this, a government-funded museum is not, strictly speaking, a Keeping Place, as it is administered under a different set of rules that do not reflect Indigenous ownership or authority. An exception would be when the museum is community-owned and -operated, or when protocols have been put in place, in conjunction with communities, under which the museum is endorsed as a Keeping Place.22 Ideally, a Keeping Place should be under Indigenous control, with Indigenous protocols taking precedence over the storage and management of materials.

The transfer of authority over collections can offend some museum advisers raised in a traditional professional culture bent on conserving collections for all time. Nonetheless, storing significant Indigenous collections through the model of a Keeping Place is in accordance with many Indigenous cultural protocols and reflects an operating cultural system. Museum professionals need to step back and understand the cultural context of such items.

Australian national, state and territory museums now usually offer to store Ancestral Remains and sacred objects at the request of custodians. In addition to the historic collections they have held for years, museums now house remains found recently or returned from overseas. This support is increasingly common where communities do not yet have access to the financial or infrastructure resources that would permit them to take Ancestral Remains back into the community. In such circumstances, the Ancestral Remains should be treated with respect and housed under museum-quality conditions.

It is important, however, that ownership of Ancestral Remains temporarily held in a museum be vested in the requesting community. As long as ownership lies with the museum, future changes in policy, resourcing or staffing can mean that repatriation ceases. If the community owns the Ancestral Remains, then any such changes do not affect their ownership, and it can take back the Ancestral Remains at any time.

The Final Resting Place: burial, reburial and other options

The governance arms of repatriating institutions or agencies can often be unaware of the specific cultural issues associated with the placement of Ancestral Remains in their Final Resting Place after their return. They assume that burial is the only legitimate form of final disposal. This is not usually a condition of repatriation required by Australian museums. As stated throughout this handbook, repatriation should be unconditional, with the processes, pace and circumstances of the final disposition of Ancestral Remains determined by the relevant community.

There should be no pressure on communities to give Ancestral Remains a final treatment of any sort, or under any timeframe, other than that decided by the communities themselves. The process of determining what the eventual final disposition of Ancestral Remains might be can require long discussion. Various community members may have differing ideas about what should happen, or communities may wish to research what other people have done in comparable circumstances.

Some questions to consider may include the following: what does historical documentation say about past ceremonies? What does the archaeological evidence of recently uncovered Ancestral Remains suggest regarding which burial practices might be followed? What are the options that a community might consider? The burial or reburial of Ancestral Remains is clearly one. For some Ancestral Remains — those taken from massacre sites, hospitals or institutions — this will be their first burial. They were never given full mortuary ceremonies. For others, excavated from burial sites, this will be their second burial, or ‘reburial’.

There are also many instances where remains were traditionally interred in caves or rock shelters, either as part of an ongoing mortuary ceremony or at the end of a longer mortuary ceremony process. It may be preferred that the remains receive a similar Final Resting Place — one that does not require burial.

Communities may wish to accord traditional funerary treatment to remains, or to accord them ceremonies associated with the religious beliefs they hold today, or a combination of both — all and any of these preferences are valid; it is wholly up to them. It is important to remember at all times that pre-contact Indigenous peoples did not have to have a ceremony to accord funerary treatment to remains that had been stored in museums — this is an entirely new requirement. Deciding on how to accord returned remains an appropriate funerary treatment can be a lengthy or a short process.

There are also traditions of Ancestral Remains being housed in special houses or displayed in ceremonial grounds. These Ancestral Remains may never have been buried, or, if they were, they were subsequently disinterred and then managed in accordance with traditional practices.

The decision as to the final mode of disposition belongs to the relevant community. Providing communities with assistance when asked, ranging from basic advice to research services, is usually appreciated.

Here are some examples of how some communities have treated Ancestral Remains once returned:

  • A series of holes were dug in an established cemetery using a post-hole digger. The Ancestral Remains, which were mainly skulls, were respectfully wrapped and placed in each hole by a number of community members. The holes were filled in and a plaque finally erected along the line of small graves.
  • A commercially produced concrete burial chamber was purchased and placed in the ground in a cemetery. Ancestral Remains that had been returned were placed in the lined grave. The grave can be reopened for the interment of other Ancestral Remains as they are returned or as they are uncovered elsewhere by town development.
  • A cinder brick ‘room’ was built in the country town cemetery; its interior housed a number of shelves. Both interior and exterior were painted with local Aboriginal designs, and there were dedicatory plaques outside. The Ancestral Remains were placed in the room. Local Catholic and Anglican priests were invited to bless the site and the Ancestral Remains at the same time that a traditional smoking ceremony was held.
  • Ancestral Remains were placed in a small cave and secured with concrete and steel bars. Only the Elders knew the location.
  • The local parks agency provided National Parks land for the burial of Ancestral Remains. Large holes were dug, and Aboriginal custodians carried the paperbark-wrapped Ancestral Remains to the holes, where they were respectfully placed in rows before being buried. There was no official marker to identify the location.
  • Ancestral Remains were reburied in a dedicated cemetery on Aboriginal land. Museum staff assisted in laying out the Ancestral Remains in correct anatomical order so that they could be carried to the gravesite and placed in the graves in their articulated form by Aboriginal custodians. A ceremony was held the next day, and to commemorate the event a plaque was erected in the cemetery.
  • Ancestral Remains were placed in a hidden rock shelter.
  • Ancestral remains were accorded a blend of old and new traditional ceremonies, with the remains placed on a tree platform similar to that from which they were originally stolen; they were later taken down for burial in a grave beside that of a respected Elder.

These examples illustrate how communities have created culturally appropriate ways of caring for their returned ancestors. Many people no longer live on their traditional lands or have access to them. Thus keeping ancestors close to the current community by burying them in the local cemetery is often the only option. Communities must weigh up many elements — for example, the requirement for ancestors to be buried near to where they were originally taken from versus how to do this if their original burial site is not known, or is not accessible, or is now very far away from their community. Should ceremony reflect the religious beliefs of people today, or those of the deceased, or both? These deliberations are very serious and can take a long time to resolve.

Logistics and funding: financial cost and workload

The work associated with repatriation takes both time and money. However, much can be achieved with limited resources, especially if the person seeking repatriation draws upon the knowledge of other groups or agencies with experience with repatriation. Such agencies include Indigenous Advocacy groups, Aboriginal legal services, land councils, native title representative bodies, national and state heritage agencies, museums and a growing number of experienced, high-profile individuals. Such agencies can advise on:

  • the possible locations of Ancestral Remains domestically and overseas
  • the contact details for individuals and agencies that may be able to assist
  • information on legal issues
  • the protocols of the states in which they are located
  • the best way to make application for the return of Ancestral Remains
  • the best way to physically handle and store Ancestral Remains to ensure they are not damaged
  • workplace health and safety issues, to ensure the Ancestral Remains do not constitute a safety hazard
  • the transportation of Ancestral Remains internationally or across state and territory borders
  • the best ways to deal with media
  • those who can best advise on recordkeeping.

Some agencies, such as museums and government heritage agencies, can also occasionally assist with either in-kind staffing or financial support. Alternatively, some agencies do have funding that they can use for their own repatriation activities but cannot distribute funding to interests outside of their organisations. In such cases, it may be possible to form a partnership in which the agency assists a community repatriation plan under its own wider activities (‘piggy-backing’).

Using existing resources and experience can bring costs and time down considerably. For example, cost-effective measures may be employed by reducing the need to employ a specialist researcher (or the time the researcher is required), or by providing information about economical storage techniques that will not require expensive climate control or pest management. Nonetheless, costs can still be high, and there are as yet minimal external funding opportunities for communities to draw upon. Costs may include the following: petrol and catering at community consultations and funerals; caskets or appropriate funerary ‘containers’ and other reburial equipment; staff time to undertake community consultation and liaison with external authorities, such as national parks, cemeteries, local councils and local landholders.

Repatriation activities can take some time. Initial research is needed to identify where Ancestral Remains are, or might be, kept; lengthy correspondence is often required; communities need to be consulted; and collecting institutions have governance processes they must follow. This means that periods where little happens will alternate with periods where much is happening. In some repatriation cases, the transfer of Ancestral Remains from a collecting institution to an applicant group has been completed within weeks. More commonly, however, repatriation can take months to years.

It is rare that an individual in a collecting institution will be able to work full-time for an extended period on repatriation, unless they are managing a large number of cases and are suitably resourced. This is important when considering what staffing resources to dedicate to the task. It may prove inefficient to get funding to engage someone for a short term (for example, six months) to work exclusively on a repatriation exercise when the case may take several months — or several years — to see through to completion.

Keeping records: information management techniques

Good recordkeeping is important. To some, this requirement might be considered culturally inappropriate or irrelevant. However, such recordkeeping does serve to protect both the Ancestral Remains and the community in future years. It has been shown that poor recordkeeping has caused problems for both museums and communities, resulting in the need to repeat research years later.

Records should preserve not only the history of the Ancestral Remains but also the history of the process of seeking their return, financial records, correspondence, meeting minutes, names of people participating and final outcomes. The records should be kept in a secure location to avoid loss or damage, or access by inappropriate readers. Much of the information contained in repatriation records may be distressing for people; this particularly applies to older photographs or scientific descriptions of Ancestral Remains, which are essential but which often use terms that can be seen as clinical, unsympathetic and offensive.

Most agencies currently involved in repatriation receive some funding from the Australian Government, either because they are themselves government agencies or because they have received funding through such an agency. They are thus required to keep records for official auditing purposes and to ensure that public money has been spent appropriately. The majority of community representative organisations are required to be officially established as a business or organisation under the relevant state legislation. Such agencies, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, will deal with each other. Each must therefore ensure not only that its resources are being used in line with government requirements, but also that any resources it provides to other agencies, such as an Indigenous community, are both given according to government requirements and spent by that community representative agency in accordance with particular laws of governance and reporting.

This need for ‘accounting’ — both financial and ethical — is the reason many agencies cannot deal with individuals unaffiliated with any formal Indigenous organisation. In such cases, it is harder to demonstrate that the resources were provided, or spent, appropriately. It is also harder to bring the person to account if laws are breached. Keeping good records helps protect all agencies against charges of poor management or inappropriate expenditure. It also helps protect individuals against charges of misuse of resources. These recordkeeping services can usually best be provided by an experienced Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisation.

The keeping of comprehensive records of the Ancestral Remains is also important for all agencies involved. In years to come, it may be important for a community to be able to review the history of the collection and the return of Ancestral Remains; for example, in a future native title claim. It may also be necessary to demonstrate that the Ancestral Remains are indeed those of a deceased ancestor and not of a more recent murder victim or missing person. There is anecdotal evidence of a case in which Ancestral Remains were stolen from a community office, in a quick ‘grab-and-run’ theft where the box containing Ancestral Remains was likely to have been mistaken for containing money or some other valuables. Upon discovering the box contained Ancestral Remains, the thief abandoned it. It was necessary to consult the relevant records, including photographs, to prove that the Ancestral Remains in the box were actually the ones that had been repatriated.

There is also still a collector’s market for Ancestral Remains. They are sold through auction houses and online sale sites. While the sale of Australian Indigenous Ancestral Remains is rare, it is not unheard of, and there is always the chance that stolen Ancestral Remains may turn up for sale. Often such sales are illegal, although the seller does not always know that. Again, it is important to preserve documentation that can ensure any such Ancestral Remains that may later turn up for sale or trade can be identified.

When Ancestral Remains are discovered, the police are often called in to investigate. If the remains prove to have been stolen, discarded and then recovered by police, they may be confused with victims of crime. Documentation that records characteristics of the Ancestral Remains can help in ensuring a quick return to the right communities.

Unfortunately, many communities do not have resources for preserving documentation over the long term. It is not unusual, with changes in staffing, for the memory of repatriation activities to be lost. Files are sometimes misplaced or destroyed. There have been instances in which a community has asked a collecting institution to send them through copies of previous correspondence several times over a number of years because the information keeps getting lost. Quite apart from the collecting institution’s governance responsibility to keep detailed records of its activities, this possibility of loss of information by a community is yet another reason for the institution to keep complete records. The records should be kept in a secure store, with access and use to be under the community’s control.

Community reports

Museums should be prepared to offer, on request, a community report written in plain English. Such reports would collate all the known history of the Ancestral Remains, describe the Ancestral Remains to be repatriated, identifying sex and possibly ages, and outlining any trauma (disease or injury) that the person may have suffered, plus any other relevant information. These reports help to establish a more personal individual identity for the Ancestral Remains. Scientific terms should be glossed using plain English terms.

It is important that the research on the history of the collection be provided. Many museums have returned remains with minimal associated historical information. While community reports can describe the remains as they are now, they may miss much important information regarding the earlier history of the collection of the remains, owing to poor research at the returning institution. This is a particular problem with remains returned from overseas.

Original reports should be considered the property of the community. The preparing institution will be required to hold copies of the reports, in line with normal governance requirements. Reports should not be supplied to external researchers without community approval.

Occupational health and safety issues

Management of Ancestral Remains also requires consideration of health and safety issues. These fall into two main classes: mental and physical.

Exposure to Ancestral Remains can be a traumatic experience for some, especially when the process of mortuary practices has changed so that people no longer have as much exposure to Ancestral Remains as they had in the past. Non-Indigenous officers from collecting institutions can often be personally and mentally removed from the Ancestral Remains in their care, seeing them as historic objects more than as Ancestral Remains of once living people. As a result, they can often be indiscreet when exposing those Ancestral Remains to Indigenous people, or in the terms they use to describe these remains. The first exposure to Ancestral Remains in a collection can therefore sometimes be a shock. It is, therefore, appropriate to prepare visitors for their proximity to, and the revealing of, Ancestral Remains.

Indigenous Australians usually see Ancestral Remains in a much more ‘connected’ way than do non-Indigenous collection managers. For them, the Ancestral Remains still embody aspects of the spirits of the ancestor. They can be spiritually benevolent or malevolent. Individuals may feel welcomed, or they may feel threatened or at risk, especially when the remains of other groups are held in a single repository. These responses are in accordance with traditional belief systems, and a refusal to see or handle Ancestral Remains should never be seen as a failing or weakness; rather it requires sympathy for the views of the Indigenous visitor.

Care should also be taken when expecting people to handle Ancestral Remains, particularly when the person may be unprepared for the experience. Once exposed to Ancestral Remains, the person cannot undo that experience, and unless they are prepared for the memory, through maturity or an acceptance of responsibility, it can cause nightmares. Young people, for example, might respond differently from older community members. It may cause them distress well into the future. What becomes known cannot become unknown.

This trauma can be avoided or managed by full disclosure of the experience people can expect when they enter a place with Ancestral Remains and allowing them to make personal decisions with how they would like to proceed. It is important to respect people’s subsequent decisions. Do not create a situation in which people are caught unawares.

Ancestral Remains may also carry physical risks, although this is rare. In the past, Ancestral Remains have been treated with lead-based paints to make them whiter for display (more ‘bone-coloured’). They may have been treated with toxic pesticides and arsenic. They may have been examined using liquid mercury to measure inaccessible cavities, with some mercury remaining behind. Soft-tissue Ancestral Remains may be stored in dangerous chemicals, such as formaldehyde, which are dangerous to touch or inhale. Mould or bacteria, which can trigger allergies or illness, may also be present. If unusual smells are noticed, and no information regarding the presence of possible hazards has been provided, then the Ancestral Remains should be isolated and contained, and the returning institution contacted for further information.

Ancestral Remains that have been chemically preserved may not always decay in the way unpreserved Ancestral Remains do. This means that, depending upon the nature of the Final Resting Place, the Ancestral Remains may be uncovered or exposed in the future. This could also cause distress, and the risk should be disclosed by the returning institution to the community.

Collecting institutions seeking to return Ancestral Remains are usually well aware of the risks and should do whatever they can to determine whether such risks exist and advise communities accordingly. However, it is always best to ask explicitly whether any such risks do exist, and, if they do, to develop suitable health and safety procedures.

Ancestral Remains should therefore be stored in a well-ventilated space, or in a space that can be easily ventilated when opened. If the space is not well-ventilated, then people should not spend long hours working in there. It is best to handle Ancestral Remains only in a well-ventilated environment, to use gloves and breathing masks wherever possible and to ensure hands are washed well afterwards. The risk is usually minimal, and communities may prefer to not use such ‘barriers’ when preparing Ancestral Remains; however, this must be their decision.

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