Paul Tapsell, 7 May 2018
PAUL TURNBULL: We’re going to get started. I’ve got good news and I’ve got even better news. The good news is that if we do run overtime, there’ll be an announcement at about quarter to five telling us to get out of the building. If that happens, then we’re all going up to the University House bar to continue the conversation there.
Now, the even better news is that our last speaker today is Paul Tapsell. I don’t think Paul needs much of an introduction to anyone working in the field of repatriation.
He has a long and distinguished career both in universities and in museums. In fact, he’s kind of interesting as much as he combines those two worlds in excellent ways, but also has been fundamentally important in terms of the repatriation of ancestral remains, old people, but also of cultural treasures back to Maori.
So without further ado, it’s my very great pleasure to introduce my good friend and colleague, Paul.
PAUL TAPSELL: [Maori language] My first words are to our creator, however we may envisage that person to bring us together in this space of consciousness in this moment. [Maori language]
And secondly, I acknowledge the land on which we are meeting today and the people that are today’s custodians, Ngunnawal, for all those who have passed on on this land and I farewell them so that, we, the living, can get involved in this most important discussion that we’ve had today.
Thirdly, [foreign language] I acknowledge all of you for being here today. I also take the moment to acknowledge my peers, my relations, [inaudible] just walking in the door, Cressida, Paul and Gareth for organising, [foreign language], the true Japanese people.
Finally, also to Mathew for providing this venue for us to meet today who has been really appreciative of the work that we’ve done on the space of repatriation and has shown, I think, the long-term view version and courage that we need in Australia. I don’t say that lightly having recently been working in the Museums Victoria, working with the Donald Thomson Collection, working with a number of our colleagues there at museum, at the University of Melbourne, as well as the other universities, and realising just how politically fraught it can be — as I found out as a young person — to organise the return of community’s ancestors.
The issues we’re dealing with here are the issues of politics of returns. As much as we know what’s right and what should be done, there’s always other agendas occurring. Until we become aware of those agendas, we’ll always be hitting our heads against the brick wall.
So my very brief talk today — given that we’ll be given the alarm to get the heck out of here — revolves actually around an old Maori saying. Whenever we meet someone we don’t ask you, ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Who are you?’ We ask, [Maori language], which as my old people would say doesn’t mean, ‘Where are you from?’ It means, ‘Where are your bones from?’, ‘Who are your bones?’
It relates to everything I’ve heard today. That the country is our ancestors. The country is made up of the DNA of our skeletal remains, of our ancestors, that have been put back into the land to replenish Papatuanuku, have been reintegrated into a space of belonging back in the womb.
In doing that, our physical essence returns to the land. Our spiritual essence returns back to Sky Father and we integrate into the universe. So our consciousness is released again to reintegrate in another time, another place and other ways out of which we all finally must cross through a threshold, that of death.
So, I’ll tell some stories really quickly. My background has been — my dad used to mow the lawns at our family cemetery. So, a very matter-of-fact family. My grandfather used to look after that cemetery, or what we call a [Maori language].
I guess it’s those sort of backgrounds, like Amber was talking about and some other people that are here. When you grew up dealing with the dead, it’s kind of a matter-of-fact thing. But then you wonder why your cousins kind of don’t want to go too close to you. Because you’re kind of ... you’re involved in something that’s like, ‘I don’t know, bro, you kind of been round those dead people, eh. So you’ve got to stay back.’
These matter-of-fact ways of learning that become normal for us as children growing up, and going into these cemeteries. Nevertheless it’s about the negotiating the boundary between death and the living.
So, as a young child, we learned that. It’s something that becomes part of our everyday being. We understand when we walk out of the cemetery how to cleanse ourselves. We understand what prayer means and why prayer is used and the psychology of prayer. As well as also the spiritual wellbeing that can be maintained through prayer.
So, very quickly. [Maori language] for ‘Where your bones?’ And I’m going to just be a little bit provocative. Last three or four years, my PhD students have been playing with the idea that being indigenous is actually playing into the coloniser mindset.
We want to, like, step back a bit from being indigenous, back to what we mean in terms of kinship accountability to the land out of which ancestors come, as opposed to an ethnic identity that’s gone global in calling ourselves ‘indigenous’. It’s great and it has great use, but we also problematise it. When you come out of a tribal or intensely kinship background, like I have, the word "indigenous" has no currency. But the word [Maori language], the people of that particular land, that is key.
Once we understand that, and that’s right across the whole planet, so the way that Honour was talking about — wherever you walk, you’re walking on someone’s [Maori language], someone’s genealogy, on someone’s bones, on someone’s identity going back hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years.
Just happens we’re the living today, and are walking on that land. How do we honour that land? How do we belong to that land? Are we the hosts or are we the visitors? And what is the reciprocity between host and visitor?
So this is something that my students have come up with — what ‘pre-indigenous’ might actually mean — and it’s in the context of museums in particular, ethically negotiated spaces of co-production. So those who read some of our Museum Routledge series might now understand that around prestation, around belonging. Honouring cross-generational site-specific relationships inherently bound in a kin community framed moments of mutual agency for future inclusive benefit.
I’ll make this available so that everyone can digest and think about it. I would unpack it if we weren’t going to be kicked out. I’m going to, like, just let that float over your heads and just [inaudible] some pretty pictures.
So, I want you to imagine museums as vehicles rather than the academically framed authoritative voice of capture. What a cool place that would be if actually museums were in service of our people, and a recognition that we have reciprocity, equal reciprocity amongst leaders.
Now, the art of that reciprocity is actually based on who is the host and who is the visitor. And we often get so captured by repatriation around human remains being held in museums and they’ve got to give them back.
What we forget is that those museums are sitting on ancestral land of a tribal group, a kin group, that have had to bear the shame of everyone else’s ancestors in there and they’ve had no say over it. This is an important aspect of those seeking repatriation of their remains held in museums. First and foremost straight through the front door of those on whose land the museum sits on.
That’s the first healing that must be done, and a realisation of the shame that those people have had to put up with having other ancestors on their land. Not even buried in the land — interrupted in their reconciling, their reintegration back into Papatuanuku, Earth Mother.
So, relationships to land. I mean, here in Australia, and this is one of the Darug peoples when we visited up in Parramatta in Sydney. And it was just a fantastic cross-cultural interchange between Maori leaders, who had come in from Aotearoa New Zealand, watching one of this mob walk up and down in front with a rubbish bin doing the smoking ceremony.
I’ll tell you it was the first time any of my people from home had seen this. They were kind of like in awe that this was the way of going into someone else’s country. It was so outside their frame of reference that — and we had all our kids there watching us, about 60 kids watching this happen from home.
It was a reminder that as much as we think we’ve got the answers back in New Zealand, we don’t have the answers. And when you start to explain Australia is tens of thousands of years old as opposed to — we’ve only been in Aotearoa a thousand years — you start to get a depth of understanding and a realisation that living in stasis with your landscape with, [Maori language], with your earth mother’s placenta, everywhere in the planet has different requirements, different responsibilities, different obligations, accountabilities, and duties to honour that landscape. Not just for you, not just for your ancestors, but for those yet to be born.
But then museums — often the reason that most people — [indicates slide] come back, come on, come on, go, go, go, ah, don’t worry. There wasn’t an ancestor, he just decided to disappear. He shows on the screen, but he said, ‘I’m not going to talk to you guys. I’m leaving.’
With our ancestors that are in museums they do attract in the source communities. And the source communities in the Auckland Museum — which you saw before which I worked in for almost nine years — the engagement between the source community, the originating community of the ancestor, of the ancestral belonging, is negotiated through the home community, the home people.
Then you have passing of that ancestor into the care of the home people to take home. Or, in some cases, they actually bring the ancestor back to the home community themselves, which is the preferred way that the repatriations I was involved in most times with the human remains.
You actually had the home community that would facilitate the coming in of the source community, would show them their ancestors, would look at how they want them packaged up and taken home. What way that they wanted them not only packaged, but what prayers, what the protocols.
We’d have a discussion that sometimes went on for months on this. That discussion came after already many months of negotiation back in their home, when they didn’t even know that their ancestors were being held in the museum.
While Cress and I were there working, we — I think was over a thousand, about 1100 or so, ancestors’ remains were in the museum. Of those, when we first started working, thanks to Cressida, we eventually identified almost 90 per cent, 92 per cent, I think, exactly, from where they had come.
The stories Amber’s shared with you, about the process out of which they’ve come out of the land. Excuse my French but that’s what my very good Indian friend from San Francisco explained this. He goes, ‘You know what, brother, same shit, different tribe.’ So, he was on the money.
The point, though, of doing this, from a Maori perspective at least, it’s not about us, our generation. It’s about the next generation. Again, it’s been touched on today. Succession, the return of human remains, or the practice of death, is about renewing life.
We have to create a healthy attitude around that, according to the rules that our ancestors have put in place. I’m loving what Neil was saying about the remains being, after a period of time, two years, then secreted away into their caves. They become part of the landscape again.
When the missionaries came and everything else happened, we decided to adapt our practice of doing more or less exactly the same thing. So that after a year, instead of lifting up the remains and now going hiding them into caves, we now unveil a headstone representing that moment that we would otherwise have taken the bones and then secreted them away somewhere.
So this is that moment and that’s the moment where we then can start to talk about moving on. So, the grieving period’s over. Now we’re moving on.
Again, that’s about passing on what it means to be responsible what it means to be accountable, carry obligations, to be in duty, to be in service to your people in a space of belonging, as opposed to owning the land, owning your ancestors. We actually belong to them.
So, I’m going to talk about two things — kinship of the living, and the importance of us maintaining kinship of the living is predicated on our kinship of the dead.
So this is the family [inaudible] where I got my great-grandparents, my great-great-grandparents and, in particular, there’s some soil there for my great-great-grandmother that was killed in the battle which the British bayoneted her. My grandfather actually went to the battle site, lifted the soil from the battle site, and brought her home so that she could have a proper burial.
It was only when I was in my twenties, I visited one of our museums in Te Awamutu where we discovered a whole lot of sugar sacks filled with the bones of my great-great-grandmother and all her kin, sitting at the back of the storage. Since been buried, but that’s my lifetime, and good old colonial New Zealand.
So our crisis today is literally the disconnection of our communities from their source of their identity, their home landscapes, their ancestral sense of being. Though they’ll call themselves proudly Maori, or even coming from [Maori language] or [Maori language] or from [Maori language] or from [Maori language], it’s really hard to maintain connection to a landscape that’s been completely alienated into European title legal ownership, as opposed to three generations ago you belonged to that land. The land serviced the whole tribe as best it could under some very brutal regimes of colonisation through Crown legislation.
So there’s just a couple images demonstrating some of the difficulties we’re going through. We do have opportunity to bring our young people to honour the dead. This is a ceremony for our great-grandmother, who I previously mentioned [indicates slide]. Finally, the battle site where she’s killed. We were able to go back to that battle site.
Now the Crown is recognising what happened on that site and is talking about building a knowledge centre to help educate the whole country into the sacrifices made, especially by those who weren’t [Maori language]. That was our tribe, [Maori language], we stayed and fought to the last person.
Whereas [Maori language] they managed to get out and fight another day. But this was our home. We had no other home to go to. So, I’m only alive today because her son wasn’t there on the day. He was fighting elsewhere.
So, from a tribal perspective, I was involved with repatriation for a number of years at Auckland Museum. Beside me was [inaudible], and this is Amber’s relation [indicates slide]. Cressida and I remember her really well. She spent most of her time going around all the different communities, talking to the elders. She came from the [Maori language] of one of our paramount leaders of the Central North Islands that reached into all the different tribes.
So, using genealogy, she was able to relate, and be accepted as a visitor into the hosting communities, to sit down with them and say, ‘Hey, Auckland Museum has this, this and this that was taken from your land during this time from these particular caves’, through the research that Cressida had done. And, ‘How would you like them to come home? No pressure, literally no pressure. When you’re ready, we’re ready. Let us know.’
This is how the conversation started and you have to go through all of the stuff coming out. Because guess what? Nine times out of 10, there’s one of those kin was involved in the removal of those remains.
We always talk about it being the whitefella that was responsible. Yeah, ultimately was. But they always found someone from another tribe next door that had an axe to grind with this tribe and knew where the bones were hidden. There was a family that had another thing against another family.
We hid our bones really well. So for someone to find them, you didn’t accidentally find them. New Zealand at this time is just covered in huge bush. To accidentally find them is one chance in a thousand. But these guys were going in, very targeted, knew exactly where to go because there were informants.
So part of this going back into the communities was actually reconciling three, four generations of a hidden agenda of a particular family that had to be brought out to start the healing. So the healing had to actually start internally.
So some of these tribes, knowing who those families were, two or three years before they got to the point where they say, ‘Hey, we’re ready to receive our remains home.’ Nine times out of 10 they wanted them to come home quietly. Not with big ceremony because they had already gone through ceremony.
It was about putting them back into the land and considering the flow of their reintegration into Papatuanuku. Their [Maori language], their spirit had already ascended to [Maori language]. This was now about the [Maori language], the payment back to the birth mother now of their bones returning, and the right for us call that land our bones.
So the word I’ve found in the last decade I’ve probably been more hooked on rather than ‘repatriation’, because of the red flags it creates in museums and everything else, is actually restoration. The restoration of dignity, the restoration of the balance internally, externally to the kindred. The restoration of the relationships between museums, between the state, between older generations, younger generations. Between the dead and between the living.
So, this is really about kinship being an ongoing continuum from life to death, back to life, and onwards. And in particular, for me, it’s really about the crisis our land and water is in today. I hold the whole removal of our ancestors from the lands through this process, or the forgetting of them, as part of the whole colonisation process. So that today 95 per cent of Maori do not live on their home landscape anymore. They live in cities.
There are three, four generations disconnected from their ancestral landscape, from the obligations that go with that. So they haven’t learned any more from their grandparents because their grandparents have also lived in the cities — what it means to honour country, to honour what you need to do to nourish the land and belong to the land.
PAUL TAPSELL: PAUL TAPSELL: So, consequently this separation, which is now measured in our poor health statistics, just this violence, alcoholism, everything that all of us indigenous people know, it’s becoming worse and worse. Doesn’t matter how much money the government throws at it, it’s not fixing it.
I go, like Honour, right back to the point, right back to the source. Start with the process of restoring the land, restoring the bones into the land, and now restoring the sovereignty of the food to the land. The sovereignty of the water, so that the water, instead of being full of cow shit, we can recover our native proteins in that water.
New Zealand has an incredible diversity of proteins that are on the verge of extinction: marine proteins, estuary proteins, and river proteins, lake proteins that could feed all of New Zealand without one cow being born. But somehow we think that we need to have dairy frontier and everything else.
I’ll just finish with image of my daughter many years ago. I put this in for you Cress, I thought you might like this. This is how you’d remember Frieda. [Maori language], else our children will become drifting logs on the tide of humanity. Very famous elder Maori Marston said that.
His concern was that we would end up almost where we are now. That our children are growing up without knowing how to tether themselves back to the land of their ancestors. Consequently, like we heard on the news this morning, 65 per cent of all children with bad dental decay in New Zealand are now Maori.
That’s the opening to all the other bad things that occur. So they’re not eating well, too many sugary drinks, they’re living away from all the great food that their ancestors once used to provide. We need to find a way to resecure them.
So, finally, I’m just going to play a quick YouTube clip. It’s a song that is written by someone you’ll know, Smashproof. It’s an older clip, but it’s about three young Maori men who’ve become very famous in New Zealand for their music writing.
They return home from living in urban areas to see what’s happening back home. It was 2009. So this is, like, nine years ago now. The song just captures their heartache of what they see when they go back to visit their parents and their grandparents and their communities.
So that was nine years ago. That village [inaudible], every second home now is burnt out. It’s depopulated and the burnouts been from p-labs, pure methamphetamine labs. They use the house so long and then they just destroy the house and move on to the next house.
That’s New Zealand reality right now — collapsing communities in the rural areas, all these home communities, and yet you’ll see in the news that we’ve got some fantastic gains. We’ve got an economy apparently that’s worth 60 billion dollars per year now, coming out of the Maori space.
But the space out of which I grew up, in which my father took me out of when I was a kid, that space is more destitute now than it’s ever been. So, the disparity and the lack of the return of our human remains, despite all the good work we did an Auckland for those years, still three-quarters of those remains haven’t gone home yet. That’d be for another discussion, another time.
So thank you very much. [Maori language], thank you everyone for your time.
PAUL TURNBULL: We’ve got a good 10 minutes, I think, for questions and before we move on to general discussion, so.
QUESTION: Paul, thank you for the wonderful presentation that you gave. We’re affected in our tribal communities by drugs and gangs and meth as well. And something that our elders have talked about over time is ways in which to reconnect with youth. I was wondering if you could offer some perspective on that and what’s happening in modern communities.
PAUL TAPSELL: Majority of the communities I have dealt with repatriations they’ve not wanted youth involved, though there have been exceptions. More because of the shame around knowing how it originally happened. So when you dig deep, you start to uncover things that they don’t want to expose their children to.
The same way my father didn’t want me and my brother exposed to the violence and alcoholism that he grew up with. So he made a decision and, when we were young, took us out of the tribal community, just enough. But we visited every second or third weekend, but just enough so that we maintain contact but don’t get caught in that.
Our youth today — I loved what — I visited the Oneida people over Michigan and the food sovereignty movement that’s occurring. I think there’s some really good things happening because it’s all about teaching the youth the importance of holding on to your heirloom foods — your corn, those things that your ancestors grew — and then trade them with other indigenous groups.
I think that’s fantastic because they’re relearning what it means to be part of the soil again. But for that to happen, you actually need to have the soil. You need to have sovereignty over your own soil to be able to have sovereignty over your own food.
That’s a big challenge for us in New Zealand. We’ve only got three million acres or so left out of 66 million acres. And those three million acres are generally not that productive and very difficult to grow things.
On the other hand, the land that we did lose through colonisation, highly productive, but we’ve got the whitefella pakeha communities at a point of crisis where they are starting to realise — having been in control that land for four, five generations — that perhaps one of their major consumers could still be those who come from the land.
So it’s how we find a balance.It’s that [Maori language], that reciprocity amongst the two different groups to work together towards a future that looks after our children. How that’s going to occur? That’s the fun part. Thanks. It’s a great question. Thanks a lot.
QUESTION: QUESTION: Hi Paul. Good to see you again. You mentioned that repatriation is politically fraught and we’ve heard a lot today about the role of litigation for repatriation. But how do we get to a point where that’s not required? What do you think is the key to getting past that?
PAUL TAPSELL: I guess I shy away from the word ‘repatriation’, because to me that’s just saying ongoing colonisation. Because we’re fighting against that. It’s like, wouldn’t it be great if we actually had museums offering to return our people home, as opposed to us having to ask to repatriate them home.
So a reflection of a true engagement of a relationship that’s based on restoring, the restoration of the [Maori language], our authority as people.
Maybe that might be a museum like Australian National University that leads that. Though they don’t have remains to ‘return home’. They can take a leadership, like with Museums Victoria, and say — you know it might be Mike and others. I mean, the Ainu is a great example. We’ve got the Ainu remains sitting in Museums Victoria.
If I’d had my way, they were going to be taking home, offered back, and returned home with the Wurundjeri people bringing them home to deliver them to the Ainu. That was the plan.
Now whether that will continue, I don’t know, but that was what I was working on. Ask Mike, ‘Got some money there to help us do that?’ You know, that could be the space out of which — we’ve got to set some precedents. And if we can set some really good international precedents, like Te Papa has done in some spaces, this would be important.
But the museum becomes the vehicle, rather than the antagonist, that’s having to capitulate to indigenous pressure under the concept repatriation. So that’s kind of where I hope we go.
QUESTION: Thanks. Hi Paul. Thank you very much for a great talk. I’ve listened today to a number of people picking up on this point around healing and reconciliation, and you kind of crystallising that in many ways in terms of restoration and relationships.
I think a lot of people here, having been involved in this for a very long time, think very much about relationships in this. But I wondered — I mean, having also been involved in this project and thinking about these things for a while, something that comes out very strongly is this notion of dignity. Dignity.
I find it quite a useful one when thinking about this space and the conversations about restoration and relationships and the dignity, like you were talking about Ali, in terms of the ceremonies at handovers are about resetting that relationship between museums and yourselves. Everyone can walk away with dignity restored.
I wondered whether, Paul, you might want to talk about that in terms of, or a Maori perspective on that concept of dignity, the philosophical background that it has in human rights. I mean, the Human Rights Convention dignity is the primary thing from which human rights flow.
I wondered if others also might want to touch on that in terms of their philosophical perspectives from their own cultural backgrounds.
PAUL TAPSELL: The Hawaiian perspective is very similar to the Maori perspective. I think Sir Hugh best summed it up. An order, and this is around the treaty settlement process, but I think it translates directly into the human remain returns dignity. He talks about dignity in the Maori concept of mana, of an authority that’s bestowed on us from the Atua, of which we have a lifetime to nourish, to build, and to share.
Given what has happened with the loss of land, exactly the same with the loss of our ancestors, that — and we can lay that in the space of coloniser, Crown, the taker, Maori, the ancestors being the victim. His perspective on dignity was for the mana of Maori to be restored, we have to first forgive the aggressor.
So, in forgiving and showing compassion to them, then we restore our own mana. It’s not unlike what Paulo Freire talked about, the pedagogy of the oppressed, where the oppressed must forgive the oppressor. His spin on it was a bit more about restoring each other’s mana, restoring each other’s dignity, so that you can move forward and then have a relationship that then is clean.
And our children will no longer be affected by it on either side. One carrying the guilt and trying to live in resistance from what their ancestors’ done. The other carrying the shame of what has been done to their ancestors.
So that’s probably my response to that. Thanks Christa.
QUESTION: Paul, thanks again for that presentation. I always look forward to you, your thoughts, and your experience. I couldn’t help but — you know, that last clip, and something that definitely concerns me from the Torres Strait is how we try or attempt to make this agenda relevant to our youth or our young ones. Because it seems that we’re always up against stuff on social media and whatever that’s more interesting to the younger generation. I couldn’t help but looking at that clip that you played at the end and trying to draw like what it is that we have, we could use, you know, to assist us.
And some of your end comments about the issues that Maori face. And I was really shocked at some of the evidence that you’re using for — and I shouldn’t have been, because one of the things that I do to put food on the table for my family, I’ve got to work for the government and a lot of the times I don’t like what I do.
But in doing that I learn a lot about what the actual issues are in the Torres Strait and trying to work out ways to address it. The biggest issue in the Straits right now is obviously health. Because of where we are we’re probably the only part of Australia that borders another sovereign nation and have a treaty where people, you know, from our northern neighbours, have free access and trade and interaction.
With a lot of good comes a lot of bad. One of the things that haunt us today is the high incidence of STIs and we’re trying really hard to curb that, control it. I saw that clip and I saw, you know, here’s an opportunity that we could, or here’s a medium or a way we could use to assist us in getting the message out. Not only just about that, but about something that we’re doing in this space.
And I wondered is that something that has helped? You know, to create that awareness, to make what we do have its place where it should be, really important, you know, front and center? If you want to heal things that have been done to us a long time ago. And this massive sort of gap between what happened then all those generations up until now. I think I probably answered my own question.
PAUL TAPSELL: I knew you were a Maori. We problematise, then we provide our own solution. One thing that does give me heart is that the new generation that are coming through that are digital natives, like my daughter and others, they’re making their own songs, their own clips that they’re sharing them with each other and they’re actually raising a lot of these issues that we kind of step back from.
But they get right into it. Like the big one they talk about now, suicide. Maori suicide, youth suicide’s just out of control. But it’s now been spoken about by the kids. At the ages of 11, 12, 13. But in the space of like, ‘We’re better than that’, as opposed to, ‘Oh, God. Everything’s doom and gloom.’
You know, there are major issues around violence, and especially sexual, within a lot of our families. And it’s all come back again because of the socio-economic situation we find ourselves. The majority of Maori live in cities. They can barely afford the state homes they’re living in.
I think last count we had over 30,000 living out of cars in South Auckland, near McDonald’s and using the bathrooms, and taking their kids to school, working nights. They just can’t afford to pay the high cost of living anymore. And this is on top of the 200,000 plus who are living in homes but are really struggling.
Then it’s like down in Wellington around Amherst and Porirua, and there’s eastern suburbs of Christchurch, South Dunedin. It’s something that is affecting us. The schools are starting now, with the new government, to actually look at addressing it directly in the schools.
They realise that Maori know that inherent subtle racism that’s occurring. Some of you might have seen ‘Tighter, whiter teeth’ clip recently, basically saying racism is still part of New Zealand. We are still subject to it. Our kids are being subject to it. We need to knock it on their head.
But how do we knock on the head? By giving our kids the ability to stand up and confront it, so that it doesn’t carry on. And to have that mana, that dignity, that realisation, ‘We’re not gonna be pushed around anymore.’
That’s what’s exciting me. I’m seeing a new generation coming through that are so global in their thinking and seeing through the digital age. They are the new generation that aren’t being seduced by the internet. They’re actually using it as a tool to communicate and to reach out and understand what the world’s really doing. And they really care about the planet.
So this, for me, is a turning of the tide, I believe. It’s just starting to happen, 2018. And this next to our people. So, fingers crossed, it’s happening right across the world, too.
NEIL CARTER: NEIL CARTER: Yes, Paul. I like the way you put it that you don’t really like that word ‘repatriation’. It’s more ‘restoring’ and, to me, that makes more sense. It’s restoring dignity.
We had our dignity taken away when our ancestor remains were removed and put into museums and our gravesites were devastated and robbed. It filters down, I mean, all the way through to our young people.
They mightn’t consciously recognise, but there’s been damage done way back over there with all the things that happened to our people. It’s still the affecting, unconsciously a lot of time.
Little town, Fitzroy Crossing, where I’m from. We had more suicides there than anywhere else in the world in a couple of years. And, you see, even now, I mean, there’s no dignity. The dignity has been taken away.
I’ve been working all this year on the cemetery project where our ancestor remains, from the late 50s up to the 80s, where Aboriginal people were brought in from the bush and just kept in Fitzroy Crossing because it was just a big mission and they didn’t have any rights. They couldn’t go back to their homelands, or they couldn’t even go to another town, you know? They were buried there and without any say.
Then the river, over the years, started washing our ancestral remains away, down river. And we took 70 remains out of the old cemetery and they’re sitting in C containers in Fitzroy Crossing. And I’m working on the reburial at the new cemetery.
But it’s about restoring that dignity that’s going to make us move forward. And we shouldn’t be begging these museums to give back our ancestral remains. It should be just a pure human dignity respect that should be known by these people that are holding our ancestral remains.
This has got to be [inaudible] to our kids to say that we are restoring our dignity through work that we do. You know, I do my work as a repatriation officer. I’m an artist. I can sit down and paint a $2,000 painting in one week. But I do this work because I have been asked by the elders to do it.
I do it because I feel, with the elders that I work with, they’re the ones that are driving me. A lot of our elders up in Kimberley can’t even speak English. English is their second or third language, you know. But they want that dignity back and they want those things that happen to us to be corrected.
And, like you say, no animosity. I mean, if a little kid goes and lights a fire and burns down half of the countryside, you know, you don’t punish that kid for the rest of his life. You know, you just say, ‘No, you done the wrong thing.’
This is what happened to us, too. And this is how the elders feel. You come and took our remains, but you didn’t know that you broke our dignity here. Bad boy, you shouldn’t do that again, you know. And we don’t want that to happen again. Now you know, don’t do that anymore. That’s what we want. And that’s what dignity is all about.
PAUL TAPSELL: Thanks Neil. I can’t agree more and I think the Ainu people summarise it best in that we are our ancestors, we are our bones. If we can’t transfer that to our children, we can’t transfer the dignity that our ancestors once used to represent.
If they’re stored in museums, those museums are the cemeteries. And now those cemeteries are right there amongst those kids, living away from away their home. How confusing is that? Both of them are separated from country in a way that just cuts to the very bone itself. [Maori language]
PAUL TURNBULL: Thank you Paul. I think that’s a great note to actually kind of broaden up onto a wider discussion, but before doing so, I just like to thank you again for a really great talk. Thank you.
MICHAEL PICKERING: So now we’ll open the floor to a, sort of, more general discussion. But I think as Paul Turnbulll said, that was a great point from Neil to go into the discussion.
I have a query. The issue of respect and, sort of, forgiveness for the collectors was raised by Paul Tapsell, and the issue of dignity, giving people back their dignity. I think there’s also an issue of giving back dignity to, maybe, the families of collectors, through the act of repatriation people.
I’d like to ask Neil, if you would mind, Neil. What happened with the Mjöberg remains and the visit by the niece or great-niece?
NEIL CARTER: Eric Mjöberg led a group of scientists over from Stockholm to Australia. Jumped off the boat in Derby. He was an anthropologist and he had other guys with him — entomologists and botanists. They set up camp downriver from Fitzroy Crossing and they were collecting animal specimens and plants and all that. And Eric Mjöberg started collecting ancestral remains, our ancestral remains.
Our people were put up in trees, wrapped in paper bark. He’d take them down from up there and sit in his tent at night and clean the hair and the skin off the skulls and get the brain matter out of the thing so he could have a perfect skull to take back to Sweden.
His party didn’t like what he was doing. So they split up. Then the Aboriginal people found out that he was doing all this and they wanted to kill him. So he took off and went back to Sweden and went through Fremantle with the ancestral remains and was passed by the quarantine people down there and ended up in Sweden.
He went mad and all he could see was Aboriginal people coming for him. They sent him to all the different doctors in those days and nobody could find out what was wrong with him. He eventually died, but he died a madman.
His brother’s granddaughter knew the story. Back in 2001 she made the effort to come all the way from Stockholm to Fitzroy Crossing. She wanted to come and say sorry and meet with the elders.
She came to KALACC, to the Kimberley Aboriginal Culture Centre, and the elders were all sitting at the back and was waiting for her. She walked in and she just couldn’t stop crying. She was saying sorry for what her grandfather’s brother did.
The elders told her, you know, ‘You’re all right. It’s not you and we have no bad feelings or animosity against you.’
Anyway, when our delegation went over to Sweden to pick up the remains, she was there. She helped the elders put the remains in the boxes and helped, using the electric drill, to screw the lids on the boxes of remains.
We had a smoking ceremony. I wasn’t there, but the elders who went over had a smoking ceremony. She went through the smoking ceremony and she felt cleansed and she felt like a whole weight has been lifted off of her shoulders. The elders said, ‘Look, our good spirits, our feelings are still with you. And we will look after you and we will care for you. You have nothing to worry about.’
That was one complete repatriation that I think we did. And it’s not the — There’s a documentary called Dark Science. If you watch that it tells the whole story about it.
At the end of it I say, from the elders, all they want is to have those remains brought back put back in the country so their spirits can rest. And once that’s done, there’s no animosity after that.
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Date published: 14 November 2019