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Neil Carter, Lui Ned David, Major Sumner, 7 May 2018, Long Journey Home: Repatriation symposium

MICHAEL PICKERING: That brings us to whatever the time is now. Perfect. We can actually get underway 10 minutes early. I'd like to invite Mr Major Sumner, Mr Ned David, and Mr Neil Carter to take a seat, and we'll get on with the first activity.

Again, I'd like to welcome Major Sumner, Neil Carter and Ned David. I'd start of by asking you each to introduce yourselves. Where you're from, and generally background in what you've done in repatriation if that's okay?

MAJOR SUMNER: My name's Major Sumner, I'm a Ngarrindjeri from the South East coast of South Australia along the Coorong. I've been involved in repatriation since early 90s and even a bit farther back than that with different parts of looking at our old peoples remains back in South Australia, and in and around Adelaide. So, I’ve travelled overseas a fair bit doing repatriation from different museums. Been involved in negotiations, reburials, so doing a fair bit with the repatriation of our old people.

NEIL CARTER: I'd like to pay respects to the traditional owners of this country. My name's Neil Carter. I'm from the top end of WA, the Kimberley. I'm a Gidja, and Gooniyandi man. Gidja on my father's side, and Gooniyandi on my mother's side. Both stolen generation people, and I was born on a cattle station up north in the Kimberley, where my parents were sent, and grew up in the Kimberley. And my first experience with repatriation was back in 2002, when I worked for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, which is a little town right in the centre of the Kimberley.

The first experience I had working on repatriation was when we were told that our ancestor remains were taken away back in 2010 by a Swedish expedition, and taken to Stockholm in Sweden. And being the cultural heritage officer for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, I started going out and talking to the elders from where the remains were taken from.

When I went up to Mt Barnett and spoke to the elders up there, and I said, ‘Old people remains have been taken away from your country, and they've been taken away and put in a museum in overseas, in a place called Stockholm in Sweden.’ And the old blokes asked me, ‘Where did they take 'em from?’ I said, ‘They took remains from that hill over there. Grace's Knob.’ And the old bloke said, ‘No wonder that country sick. That spirit has been broken between man and the land. We need to bring them home and put them back in the country so that healing can be done.’

And that's my first experience with repatriation. We worked on bring back those remains, brought them right back to Fitzroy Crossing. It was remains that were not only taken from that area, but other areas around the Kimberley, and we didn't want the remains just sent home to us. We wanted our people to go over and escort those remains back with dignity. And bring them back to country. And that's what we did. Now, those remains have been put back into country, and their spirits are resting.

And then, I had to leave that job because they ran out of funding for my position. And then I was called back in 2008 by the elders, to work on repatriation.

And since 2008, I worked on quite a few reburials up in the Kimberley. Remains that had been brought back from museums. We also brought remains back from Austria, Vienna in Austria that was taken away from the Kimberley by a priest and sent to Vienna. We got those back. And this is what my work is up in the Kimberley, so I work with the elders, and the old people say, ‘We need to bring those remains home and put them back into country, so their spirits can rest, back in the country’.

NEIL CARTER: And that's my experience with repatriation, and it's still ongoing. And there's more to come. When I went to America, in the Smithsonian museum they've got Aboriginal remains from Derby, which is a little town just next to Fitzroy Crossing. And I said, ‘They gotta go home, they gotta come back.’ And when I left that museum, I felt like that I'm leaving my people behind. And we need to take them back home to country. So, that's my work.


NED DAVID: Good evening [Indigenous language] that welcome to country. My name's Ned David, I from the Torres Strait. My mum comes from Eastern Torres Strait or we call it Far Eastern the Torres Strait. My father's from the central islands, so I both have Meriam heritage and of course Kulkalgau which is a central islands. I'm incredibly honoured to be here today. My experience in repatriation is not as extensive as Neil and Major, so every single time I think I'm at a forum or a meeting with these two gentlemen, I'm always learning something and unbelievably grateful for that.

I've been involved now for 10 years I think, in repatriation and I think the words that Neil expressed at the end of his comment, this is an ongoing I think, body of work that I do believe my children will continue to work to address after I'm long and gone.

This I think is an area where certainly in First Nations issues, where we can't talk about reconciliation or addressing all First Nation concerns by ignoring this agenda. And some of those comments by Mat Trinca I think really drives on that point where this is not an isolated issue just for Australians. It's a global issue and I'm so grateful that there are people who are in the audience here today, from other countries who I think share the same sort of concerns, and I hope over the next few days that the conversations that we have will lead to progressing this area. So, thanks.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Now, Ned, you touched on there about working with Neil and Major, and what a privilege it's been, and this I think raises something which is at the heart of this symposium, which is the sharing of experiences and knowledge. Now the three of you come from communities thousands of kilometres apart, and it would probably have been rare for you to meet if it wasn't involved in repatriation activities, and certainly as I've observed and learnt, you each have a lot to share with all audiences. So what I'd like to ask you is, what have you learnt from each other during the course of your repatriation research and activities?

MAJOR SUMNER: With the knowledge and that, that we all carry with us, even though Neil and Ned haven't been there long as myself, but the knowledge they carry too from their own areas of where they come from. The stories, the want to get their old people back, the journey same as you was this long journey. It's not just the long journey of bringing them back home, it's how they got there. The long journey going from our countries, to where they finished up.

Back in the 1800s. It's a long journey. Longer than coming back home again. They coming back on a jet, on a jet plane. They went over there on a sailing ship.

There's people in our communities that can talk about stories that's been handed down. The knowledge that we've all got and that we all carry with us. We can all share that. We all learn from each other.

And that's something that when we talk about living in a country for so long, we've had contact with each other. We've had contact through songlines, through trade routes, through people in the Torres Strait just didn't stop in the Torres Strait, they had boats to come onto the mainland. And they'd go back home again. That happened for thousands and thousands of years.

We can share the stories of that time. We can share the stories of today. Of the repatriation. We can share the stories of our battles, with different organisations, of getting our old people, getting permission from governments to go and pick them up, or getting permission from governments for them to release them from the museums. With all them stories to share, of how hard it was in the early years. How hard it was to talk to people that didn't want to talk to you. That didn't want anything to say to you. How hard it was to try to make people understand that them old people, they need to go home, because the country was suffering. The spirit of this land.

And everyone sings about the spirit of Australia in their songs. They go and promote that, the spirit of this country. And yet, the spirit of this country is getting broken by taking the ancestral remains out of the ground. Our people, our ancestors. We can all share this knowledge, we can all share that feeling, that grief, that energy, that joy when we're bringing them back home.

Like myself, when I bring them back home on the plane. As long as I'm awake I'll sing a song in my head. A welcome song to welcome them and taking them back home to country. Taking them back home.

One thing really upset me once. We come to a different countries and as we come through the different countries, me and my cousin, we had some of our different remains in these boxes, so we carried them onto the airport with us, and then back onto the plane. And then when we got into the ... you know, everything was okay, we walked through the customs and security and that, and come from Scotland to England to Singapore. And then from Singapore to Australia.

Australia was the only country that wanted to look in them boxes. They had to make sure that we wasn't carrying anything against the law. And yet we ... I said, “No you can't. You're not looking in there.” So, we was confronted by people in our own country and yet we went through all these other countries. No one said anything, they understood. We had all the paperwork. We had everything. The seal was still on them little boxes. No one tampered with them. And yet we was questioned in our own country.

So, stories like that we can share with everyone, about how it was then. And yet now, it's better. It's good to see that there's other people that share, and other people that want to be, and want to see, the old people remains coming back home.

The thing that bothers me is, when we get them back here. Who's to say two or three hundred years down the track they haven't gonna be dug up again and taken somewhere else? For what we need is a memorial burial site in our own areas where we can put our people. People talk about them then, people tell stories about them.

You want to sing songs about anyone, sing songs about the spirits of our old people that's going back into country. These are the things that will heal this place. Not just the land, the people that live in this country. Healing of them. It'll shorten that gap between some of the distances between each other’s cultures. And that's what's happening too. We talk about reconciliation. We can reconcile with other people. We have to reconcile ourselves too.

So repatriation or our old people from lands got a lot of other stuff involved with it. We are involved, our children, our families. It's not just me and my own people from [Indigenous language]. It's all of my people that's involved in it. My relatives. Neil's people. Neil's relatives. Ned's people, his relatives. The time that we as elders or as people that's a part of the ceremony. This photo, I think that's a photo from on the Coorong. One of our burials. I think so. I'm just looking at the Pelicans flying there. That looks like our country.

So, the stories that we tell, the stories that we share, sometimes we sit down and talk by ourselves, about how, about when, about where, about who. We need to get that information out so that people will see it. They'll read about it. They'll hear a story. You can tell them the stories about the bad times, but also we can tell them the stories about our good, the good times are now.

So, that's some of the stuff that I talk about, I think about. That's just a little bit. Because years, and years, and years, of doing this. So there's no really education program that can make you, or prepare you for this. You have to get in there and do it. And we have to like Ned said, these children will be doing it, and I'm sure my children, and my relatives.

Couple of years ago I asked a man that lives in Cornwall, I asked him to, if he could check and find out how many Aboriginal remains were still in England. So he went and he checked for me. Went around all the museums, checked. Got answers about some. And the ones that they only know about, he said, ‘Major, there's about 60 to 70 thousand left in the museums in England. Right across England.’ He said, ‘That's the only ones that we know about. There's also private collectors. There's also people that come by them.’

So, all of these things that we talk about, this long journey, it'll be a long time before we get all of them old people remains back home. It's gonna take generations, because the wheels turn very slow. Thank you.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Neil, you're in a particularly unusual situation, in that you’re one man who has responsibility for coordinating repatriation over at least 30 different Kimberley cultural groups. And put together, the amount of area you have to cover is the size of a medium size European country. So you have a range of experiences working with very, very different groups. Has your engagement with working with Ned and Major been of value in your engagements, working with those other communities?

NEIL CARTER: Yeah, working with Major here, and Ned, even though I work in a very large area up in the Kimberley and cover 32 language groups, but I'm encouraged by the thought and feeling that, even though I deal with a whole different lot of different groups of people, and going up to the Torres Straits and talking to elders up there with Ned, and even working with Muki, it's encouraging to know that we're all in the same boat. We all think the same way. We all feel the same way. We all, like my eldest said, we need to bring those remains back and put them back into country so their spirits can rest and that the land can heal. That's the same feeling everywhere. And even when I went up to the Torres Straits and we had the elder up there talk about how the remains of his people sitting in a museum and he should feel the sea breeze and the feeling of the island from where he was taken from, rather than being locked up in a museum.

And we all feel that even though these remains to museums, to collectors, to anthropologists, they're skulls and bones, but to us they're people. They're our family, they're our ... the spirit is still there. And this is the whole feeling throughout the whole of the Kimberley, even the Torres Straits, and even in South Australia and everywhere. Even the New Zealand people feel that you need to bring those ancestor remains back home and put them ... and it's not a primitive cultural thing, it's just a normal human being reaction and feeling, that we all feel. And we're all human beings. And nobody wants their great-grandmother's skull to be removed from a burial site, like us up in the Kimberley. We didn't have picks and shovels to dig a grave, so we put our remains in crevices in the hills, or in caves, or in trees. And some parts of the Kimberley when somebody passed away, they wrapped them in paperbark and put them on platforms up in the tree until they became skeletal, and then they were put into caves and things.

And to have somebody to come along and take that away, and use it like an object of study, and put into a museum, and then have a young student handle your great, great-grandmother's skull, and ooh, looks a bit different to us. You know, and to find out if we're different. It's just a normal human reaction to all that, and we all feel the same way. There's a cultural connections and significance that goes with these things. Like our people up there say, ‘We need to bring them back, so the spirits can rests and the land can heal’. but that's just normal human reaction to all of this. I've never heard of Aboriginal people going stealing white man’s grave, skulls and bones. Because we feel that once somebody's passed away, their spirits need to go to rest, as well, and be put there, and placed there, and left there. We all feel the same way, and that's what I've learned working with Ned and Muki.

And it's not only Aboriginal people feel that way, I mean, the New Zealanders, our brothers from Japan, will feel the same way. And all over. It's just a normal human emotion to all this, and it's barbaric really. Barbaric that these things happened and ancestral graves sites were all raided, and our ancestors remains were taken away and put in museums.

So, what I've learnt, working with these guys, is that we're all the same. We're all in the same boat. Not only Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people, but all over. The indigenous people all over the world will feel the same way as we do. So it's encouraging to know that me up in the Kimberley working with all my different groups up there, there's people all over the world, all over this country, and even overseas that feel the same way as we do. And that's what I've learnt.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Ned, you're in a rather interesting situation. You've been a senior advisor to Government on repatriation and served on a number of Government boards, which as we know the sort of Western rules of Government are very different to traditional social rules. You're also a traditional owner and custodian with the obligations that, that brings. So you've had a very, very wide range of experiences and I'm sure, issues, and again the Torres Strait is again a very unique both location and set of cultures. How is working with Neil and Major been for you?

NED DAVID: Oh look, I think Neil really summed it up where I think we have this really shared, I guess, feeling about this agenda. Interestingly enough, as Neil spoke, I couldn't help but recall, or relive those moments. Mike you would be aware of this 'cause you were present at a number of these conversations where we spoke to elders in the Torres Strait, and I think it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the people in the audience here who have been a part of this journey with me, and yourself Chris, Hilary and few others are here today. You know, Amber from New Zealand who we've built this group, this shared passion on this agenda, so going back to how I think we genuinely sort of undertook a range of discussions back in 2008, 2009, trying to ensure that every single community in the Torres Strait understood where we were in terms of repatriation. That I think was an unprecedented series of events where I don't think it's ever been replicated or ever been undertaken before, in terms of people going and talking about an extremely sensitive subject, to communities.

Looking back at 10 years ago when we talk a lot about it now, as to how everything that happened during this period of time, it was like someone else had a hand in it where meetings with people, everything was clockwork, we divided all these conversations to ensure that people felt comfortable, we didn't breach any of the protocols in place around talking to everyone together. We spoke to elders separately, spoke to kids separately. Obviously the message was the same, but it pitched appropriately to the particular audience we were speaking to, and how we did that I don't think we've ever did anything like that in the Torres Strait before.

So, interestingly enough, before we even undertook this, we, the group itself, made up of about half a dozen of us, had a strong feeling that this was more a formality than anything else. To get the approval, or the sort of imprimatur from the collective group, to support the submissions that we were going to put towards these institutions in the UK.

But, in doing those forums, those meetings, you talk about a region that's made up of two distinct language groups, a number of different tribes and clans, where not necessarily agree on everything all the time. I think that in itself, proved that on repatriation, on this particular issue, everybody agreed, everybody shared it, everybody supported it. 'Cause as I said, it was formality for us to get this outcome that the leaders, the elected leaders of the various elected arms in the Torres Strait and we have a couple, we have a few, who don't generally agree on much.

But this was something that was a process that at the end, we did a number of things and we learnt that I must acknowledge that we learnt a lot from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, who have been advocates for repatriation far longer than us. And in my opinion, I think did a lot of the hard yards that assisted us when it came to that, our sort of turn to develop a submission that we'd seen how our Tasmanian brothers and sisters had gone before us. Some of the pitfalls that I think made it a little bit hard for them. The stuff that Neil had done. Old [Indigenous language] from Ngarrindjeri, the work that they've done. We looked at everything to ensure that we avoided any of those hard bits, and I talk about it a fair bit, where we planned for a five-year turn around.

To go and talk to the Natural History Museum, and it took us six months to get a response. I think that in itself is an unbelievable outcome I think for anyone dealing with an institution in the UK. Admittedly, I think we did it at the right time where we people, the right people, in the right places, at the right time, who had been there long enough to realise that this was a time for some real genuine thinking around doing the right thing for First Peoples. We just happened to be I think the right group, in the right place at the right time, and we celebrate that moment. And we learnt, I think like most people would do, dealing with the UK, that one institution doesn't necessarily mean everyone will follow suit. Sorry to say, but the British Museum continues to play hardball with us, which I find unbelievable. I don't know whether I'm supposed to share that openly at this forum, but yeah, bloody BM, sorry. Can't believe I just said that. Sorry Mike.

MICHAEL PICKERING: You'll be punished with an extra drink, later in the day. And that raises probably to move onto the actual experience of getting remains back, and dealing with different agencies, and different museums, organisations, collectors. Perhaps you could talk about some of your experiences, good and bad, about dealing with various organisations, and the sort of challenges that you've had from those organisations. So I might open up Ned, you can ...

NED DAVID: I wanted to follow up a point that both Neil and Major touched on, and I think this is more to do with my role on the advisory committee for Indigenous repatriation with the federal government. And the last I think, significant body of work that we did as a committee, which I think the committee continues to advocate for, is the National resting place.

I think it's really important that any conversations around repatriation for, certainly for Australia, and certainly for the domestic scene, that we realise that there is a very long list of ancestral remains that falls into that category where is very poorly provenance and it's, until such time we get to a point where there's a process, or a system in place, whatever that means, to identify remains back to their tribe, or place of origin, we can't ignore that there is a need for a resting place. And I think the work that the committee did at that particular time where once again, we got a large number of groups spread across Australia to agree that it should be here in Canberra, and the support from a large number of groups for this particular idea, it's timely I think. This conversation and having international people in the audience here today, that we should put that particular idea, where it should be right up front and centre.

We need for the Australian Government and every other government, state, local, whatever, to understand that this is something that needs to be treated just like any other, I believe, institution that is in that particular you know, be the War Memorial, or any of these large iconic type beacon of conscience, that it serves that particular purpose. We need that, and we need it back, we need that up, we need that particular agenda to be promoted and marketed you know, with the due respect that it deserves. And there is no other better place for it. I still believe that, I still support that, than the Australian Capital. And I think that the committee did that work and I think it needs to carry on until it sees the thing become fruition.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Thanks. Neil, your experiences with …

NEIL CARTER: My experience with my work as the repatriation officer, and repatriation events that happened with us up in the Kimberley. We had all our remains from the domestic museums moved over to Perth and then we had, this if for the Kimberley, and then we had them all, we had a group of elders go down and packed all the remains in trucks and drove them back up to the Kimberley. And then we had the repatriation of the Swedish remains, and we up in the Kimberley didn't know that there were those remains over in Stockholm, but it was the government approach at first, and then they came and let us know, and then we took over from there, and said, ‘Well we don't want the remains just mailed back to us, we want to go and escort the remains back’.

And with the Austrian remains, they actually wanted to give them back. So we did the same thing, and escorted the remains back. And we know that there's museums that are still holding our ancestral remains overseas, that don't want to give them back. But, once we get the remains back home, and then we ... I work on the ground with the elders, and I say, ‘Now, okay, these remains come from Barker Gorge’.

And the Barker Gorge is the [Indigenous language] people, and then the [Indigenous language] elders choose this bloke, and that bloke, and that bloke, and the senior ladies are these people, and then I go and speak to them. I don't send papers, I don't send written notes or emails and stuff. When you talk about the dead, when you talk about ancestral remains, up in the Kimberley you can't even mention the persons name after they've passed away. So I go and speak to them face-to-face, and this means travelling miles, and miles, and the Kimberley is such a big place. And no sealed roads, a lot of the roads, the only sealed roads are between each town. Once you get off those roads, you're on dirt roads. You gotta go through creeks, and up hills and across flooded rivers to get to people.

And that's the way I work, and I go and sit, like when I spoke to the old bloke from Mount Barnett and told him about their remains. We went and sat under a tree and lit the fire, and had a billy can of tea, and then we had the discussion about the remains. And they decide what they want to do with the remains, and they mostly, they say, ‘Now if those remains come from Barker Gorge, they have to go back there’.

A lot of times we get remains that are from say the Bunuba people. Their remains come from different locations, so they decide to rather than put a skull over there, and another one over here, and one over here, they decided to put them all together. And I took you to that cave, where they put those remains back in that cave, the Bunuba people.

And then they have ceremonies, and it's not like just go and placing the skull back on the crevice, or in the cave, they welcome the remains back. They make the remains, the spirit of those remains, feel like they come home. And there's women, and kids, and then we have ceremonies, and we have a feast.

And then usually the placing back of the remains is done daybreak in the morning. Like the Bunuba ones, and old Left Hand stood up, then he was all painted up, and he called everybody up, and we all had to wake up from our swags and all that. And the elders, the young blokes all painted up, and had the boxes with the remains, and leaves over the boxes. And then he spoke in language.

And then the people came, and they started walking towards the cave. And the young blokes carried the boxes. And the elders came behind, and he was talking in language. And the women came behind, and they were crying, and they were crying not only for sorrow, but for happiness that the remains had been brought back home.

And then they took the remains into the cave, and then the kids, and they had the smoking ceremony. And then they marked the entrance of the cave with white ochre hand prints. After all that, there was a sense of quietness, and stillness. Like everything's been put back right. They were back where they were taken from. And that wrong has been corrected.

That's only one that happened like that. No, but there's more. Even the Walmajarri people did the same thing. The Gooniyandi people. The Bardi people, they took their across the bay with a boat. We couldn't bury them over there where they were taken from, 'cause that's a pearling companies land, and they wouldn't let us bury them there. So they took the remains across with a boat, a whole fleet of boats, and then they had ceremony across there, and they carried the remains up into a hill, and put them up in this little cave up the top. And the ceremonies, and then we came back and then we had feast, and then dancing right through till late at night.

And this is what it means. It's a celebration of bringing home the remains, and putting them back where they came from. If you can't put them back exactly where they were taken from, at least they're back in that tribal land from where they were taken. They would have walked all over that land when they were alive.

And then that place is protected, and a lot of our mob didn't want their sites registered officially. They just want to keep an eye on that place, and make sure nobody goes near them, those remains, again and disturb them. But, that connection now between spirits and land has been put back right. And that's what it means to our mob. And that's correcting that wrong has been, that had been done, and putting things right, putting the soul and the spirit back to rest, and the land. That's the experiences. It'd be good if any of you are up in the Kimberley and you come to one of our reburials ceremonies. You'll feel that spirit, you'll feel that connection. You'll feel that satisfaction and you'll feel that righting that wrong. And that's the experience of our reburial.

MICHAEL PICKERING: While we're on that I just, you have previously told me the story of being advised that some remains were held overseas, and then sending a delegation to pick up those remains, and then finding out that there was actually information.

NEIL CARTER: On the ground, when we know if there's remains overseas that we know of, I go round the Kimberley and I say, ‘These remains come from your country, and your country.’ And then we send the people from those places where the remains have been taken from, over to escort the remains back.

The Austrian remains, we were told that they come from the Kimberley and they didn't know where they were taken from. So we sent two of our staff members over. I’m a bit scared of going overseas myself, so I sent these other two blokes. Anyway, when they were at the handover ceremony in Vienna, the curator of the museum announced that they came from Beagle Bay, and they were taken by a priest. And that caused a whole lot of problems for me as the organiser, sending the wrong people over to bring back those remains.

Misinformation like that, I had to quell a lot of anger directed towards me actually, because I sent the wrong people over. And I said, ‘Well, we didn't know. You know, we didn't know that those remains were taken by the priest from [Indigenous language], Sandy Point, Beagle Bay, Nyul Nyul people, we didn't know that, until actually we got you guys to Cressida over there to do all that for us, and let us know.

But now, it's all good, and we about to take back the last of the remains because the people that were where the remains come from, they just were going through this Native Title determination, and it just finished last week. So those remains are gonna go back.

But this is something that's very important to us, and even with me doing other repatriation work, I have to make sure that I'm giving Bunuba their remains, and not Walmajarri remains to Bunuba people, 'cause I'll be dodging spears, and the boomerangs. Yeah, but, that's very important to know. So, doing my little part of the research, to make sure that those remains belong to the people I'm giving them to.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Yeah. Major, you have at least 25 years’ experience that I know of, in meeting museums. You must have seen a lot of changes over your experience.

MAJOR SUMNER: Yeah. With the back in the early years, there was, and this with F.A.I.R.A, Bob Weatherall, Rodney Dillon from Tasmania, we went to a museum, and we got Ben to do a talk, have a discussion with some of the people that was in charge. It was a big table about as long as this here, we all sitting around it, talking. And as we talking, there was this man sitting there, and every now and again, he'd look around at Bob Weatherall. And talking away, and then he'd look around at Bob again, and Bob looked at me and looked at Rodney, and it went on for a while, just about an hour. He kept looking round.

Next time he done that he said, ‘Bob, when you die can you donate your body to us?’ Oh, Bob reached around Rodney, grabbed him and dragged him right across the table, it was a full on, books and pens, and water thing went everywhere. Bob had him. It took Rodney to take, 'cause Rodney's you know, he's big, both big fellas, so there was no way I could jump in the middle of them. So, Rodney took Bob away, 'cause Bob was choking him, he was screaming at him, he had him by the throat on the table. And this was in the boardroom, so if you ever go into this boardroom, of the museum of Natural History, keep it in your mind. Just imagine how Bob was wrestling this fella round on this big table.

So, yeah, that was one experience, in the early years, with F.A.I.R.A and you know, there's a few Aboriginal people working over there then to organise things and that, but that was one of the most active ones.

The other ones were, they talked to you but you couldn't feel, they didn't want you there. You could feel, you know, there was one of them was really funny. Me and George were sitting there, George Trevorrow and talking to them, I think it was Cambridge, talking to them, to this lady that was there. And just talking away, and then we said, ‘No we're gonna take our old people home and rebury them’. And this was, keep in mind, this was all the games that people played. ‘We're gonna take them home and...’ but she said, ‘If you rebury them, then they're just in the ground. We're not gonna do any research on them, or we're not do anything with them’. We said, ‘Well we don't want you to do research, we want to take them home. They been here over, or nearly over, a hundred years now. And you've been doing all the research since then. What more can you do with them?’

And oh, it got into a very awkward situation, where there was all sorts of things happening. And one of these days, I'll have to tell you all about that. But for now, we'll leave it there. Just keep you on the edge of your seat.

But, a lot of tactics people use against you, to try to win you over to say, ‘Yeah, okay, leave 'em here. You can do whatever you want to do with them’. They used our people in a lot of different ways. They used them for education. They used them in the School of Anatomy to teach people about the human body. I can't understand that. It wasn't until 1967, that we was recognised as humans. Until then, we were recognised as animals, so how could you use our remains to teach people about the human body, if you're classed as an animal?

So, we asked these people this and they said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that was the Australian Government. We knew you were a human’. And these are some of the people you speak too. So all of these ways of, and all the problems, all the issues, that you come up against. That you confronted with.

After the museum of Natural History, we went to Manchester. And when we went there, we got a completely different reception. With the fella that was there, I done the ceremony, and after the ceremony he asked, he said, ‘Can you come down in the basement and do a ceremony on him with a smoking ceremony in the museum?’ I said, ‘Yeah that'd be okay.’

So when I went down there I asked him, I said, ‘How come you want me to do a smoking ceremony on you?’ He said, ‘Because, honestly mate, I've seen things that I can't explain’. And I said, ‘Like what? What kind of things?’ He said, ‘When I'm here sometimes by myself, walking round doing work here, I see images of people that look like you.’ The spirits of our people were visiting him. They were there. And must have knew that he was a good person, because he seen them regular.

Now, on that note, when we done the ceremony, we got painted up, a couple of other people got painted up along with me, and this person asked, he said, ‘Well, can you paint me up?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that would be all right’. So we painted him up too 'cause he got involved in the ceremony. And just by getting painted up, he no longer works in the museums. He got ostracized by everyone, because he went, and this is his words, he went ‘Native’. That's what they told him, ‘You went native so you're out of here’. So he only lasted about six months longer, and he was gone back home.

But he had a lot of contact with us, with me. We become good friends. Last time I went over there, I went and stayed at his place for a couple of days. Me and my wife. Done the ceremonies.

So, there's a lot of experience like that in the early years, but now it's different, it's better. People want to repatriate, they want to talk to you about the remains.

A couple of years ago I went over to Italy. There was a conference there about modified objects. They wanted to change the names of certain skulls that had just been modified into some of them from the Ngarrindjeri. We ourselves, we done this to our own people, it was our relatives that we done it too. We made drinking vessels out of the skulls, with the idea that when you drank from that skull, the knowledge and the wisdom that, that person, that relative of yours had, would go into you, and you'd be very wise and knowledgeable. So because they had that work on them, and made into that vessel, water vessel, it changed it to a modified object.

And the people from New Zealand, the Maori, they used a photo of one of the tattooed faces, the skulls, to advertise this museum. They had them, I've seen a lot of them there, in England. Seen a lot of your people there. So that was another modified object, because it had work done on it. So they wanted to change it so to stop the repatriation, because they had work they no longer was recognised as human remains. They tried to get that changed. But the conference we went to, changed it. They stopped that from making that decision, and making that change, so that they become modified objects. There was enough of us there to stop it.

So, this is part of the stuff that we do, that we're confronted with. The people that you meet wouldn't have a clue what's going on, when you're looking at ceremonies in the Ngarrindjeri. And like everyone else, we didn't have a ceremony for reburials. We had a ceremony for burials. Not to bring 'em back and take 'em away and then bring 'em back and rebury them.

When we put our old people the rest, same as with Neil's mob up there, we put them up on the platforms. And when they dried out after a big smoking ceremony, we smoke them under this platform. That went for about 10 days, till all the moisture, everything, was out. They were mummified, so we carried them around with us for about two years, everywhere you went you carried that relative with you, in what they had the funeral basket. And then after that period, the mourning period, you put them to rest.

So, ceremony about reburials, we had to create that. We had to think about the songs, the dances. We still have that platforms, we put them up there. Still the smoking ceremony, because the smoking ceremony this time, is to smoke any negative energy, that would have attached themselves to our old peoples remains. We have to get rid of that before we put them back to rest. We get other people involved, the dancers, the songs, the singing. People to build the platforms. When that's finished, everything there gets burnt. We burn the whole lot. Part of it then, the ashes, are spread down in the grave with all the old people that we put to rest.

So it took a number of us to plan this. To design it so that we did have a reburial ceremony. And this needs to be practiced and taught to our younger people, so that they do the same thing. They carry this knowledge with them. They are involved with the reburials. They teach it after, when you say it to 'em to hand that on.

There's a lot of things that we've done from right back, to how it is now. We made, I suppose you could say you made friends, you made people that didn't really, I wouldn't say enemies, but they just didn't really like you. That's their problem, I let them deal with that. And when I see them, when I [inaudible] their way, I let them know that I seen them. Okay.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Thank you. Neil and Ned, is there anything you'd like to say before we close? You got any comments you'd like to add? And is there anything that we haven't addressed, that you would really like to say?

NEIL CARTER: I'm just happy to be here and just share my experiences and, like I said before, I feel comfortable that we're all, we all feel the same way. And working with these two guys here, we know that feeling of repatriating our ancestral remains, it's universal it's not only us Aboriginal people, but it's our brothers and sisters from New Zealand, that honour there from America, our brothers and sisters over there, and our brothers here from Japan and all the other people. I mean, we all feel the same way, and it's something that needs to be corrected, and just put right, and it's reconciliation, it's human dignity.

And I'm glad to be able to just sort of sit out here in front of you people and just convey my feelings. And to be sitting with these two blokes here. And with the people here at ANU [Australian National University] like Chris over there, just sort of keeping really quiet and all that, and hiding over there. You know, working with people like these people here that help us achieve repatriation work and it's not all doom and gloom. I mean, things are looking better than how it was, and people now realise that you can't just go and take somebody's remains and take away and put 'em in a museum. All the time that these remains are taken from our burial sites, and grave sites, money changed hands. People were paid for these things, and they were sold like items of, like goods. But I think their whole attitude is changed.

Hopefully it will get through to some of these institutions that are still holding our remains, and don't want to give them back. I think once there isn't a work of repatriation left, once all remains have been repatriated, I think it's make a place much more peaceful, unified world. Like how I feel when we put our remains back into country, and put it to rest, and how old Left Hand feels, like our ancestors are back in country now. And that connection between land and spirit and man, has been reconnected, and put right, you know.

And what's that word repatriation? Can it no longer be used? It'll be a much happier world that we live in, and a much more peaceful and correcting that wrong that has been done.

NED DAVID: Yep. Thanks Mike, I just want to say thanks to Major and Neil. I think it's only right that acknowledge there's a list of people who are no longer with us, who were really strong trailblazers and advocates in this area for repatriation. I want to acknowledge their efforts, certainly their inspiration for some of the work that I do in the Torres Strait. I think there's a strong case here around this subject matter that the people that are involved in repatriation, First Nations, Indigenous, non-indigenous, there are people who are there with a genuine, I guess, feel to correct, you know, a wrong. You can't be involved in this agenda, if you don't have your heart in the right place. If you're there just to tick a box, or to eke some sort of living off this, you're not the right person for this gig.

You know, that is something that's like a centre I think for any group involved in repatriation, that you need people who are genuine about this thing. 'Cause that's one thing you know, you would have got from what Neil and Major, I think, has tried to conveys, if you're not in this for the right reason, people are gonna see you, see right through you. If you're just there to get some sort of benefit for yourself, other than to contribute to this, 'cause people will see you. People will see right through you.

That's something I've learnt in this game. I've learnt the hard way that you entrust yourself to people, whether they're institutions, or anywhere else, who are not there for the right reasons, you see them get revealed for what they are. This is an agenda that you can't have non-believers, be part of. You've gotta be there for the right reason, you've gotta be there with this genuine need, to contribute and help. Because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the First Nations from around the world, we need to be in a place where we know that you're there to help us genuinely. And if you're not there for the right reason, then you should get out of the game. That's what I've learnt in my short time, certainly in the last 10 years, that people who are not here for the right reason, will get caught out eventually. That's all.

MAJOR SUMNER: I'd like to just thank all the people [inaudible] and that for all the work that's done in the background. All that works that done, now we're there doing the repatriating ceremonies and that, but the people that works there to find them, to bring them people, to put a name where they come from, find the names. We should be thankful for them. And they're there for the right reasons too, so Chris, thank you.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Well, thank you to our panel. We have gone a little bit overtime but I think it was worth it. So we'll close here, and for a short break, I hope you can sort of run, stampede downstairs, then stampede back here for the next session. But, please thank our panel for their wisdom.

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Date published: 14 November 2019

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