The repatriation of Aboriginal material culture matter is always going to be a sensitive issue in Australia and overseas, and rightly so. Tempered with goodwill and sound knowledge it should not however prove to be disastrous.
The argument for the repatriation of duplicate items of material culture (storage draws full of 100s of boomerang, shield, club, lime spatula examples, arrows etc.) from major Museums both here and overseas to local Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups is overwhelming. It needs to be a straightforward process of de accession with some safe guards in place e.g. items gifted cannot be sold on or displayed inappropriately. New local Aboriginal Culture Centres & Museums such as the Cape York Museum at Kowanyama and East Arnhem Land & Halls Creek Kimberley would be worthy recipients of such repatriations.
Likewise, the return of human remains is an act of decency which should only require simple protocols to be implemented and agreed upon. Repatriation of Sensitive Aboriginal ritual ceremonial material of a Traditional dangerous/sacred/secret nature is entirely another matter of some serious gravity. It is a process which demands and needs to be conducted after much consultation. Otherwise well meaning, well intentioned but not well informed or helpful repatriation can lead to disastrous consequences. Recent history shows us that poorly conducted hand over of such sensitive material is usually catastrophic in Traditional Communities.
The first questions asked when the officials leave is; who amongst them, which local traditional Custodians and Stewards, or their relatives, are responsible for allowing this material get into uninitiated hands. The period of loss while these artifacts were removed from the Community is often linked by powerful interest groups and individuals to negative events experienced during this time. Then begin the serious sanctions and unforgiving repercussions which lead to deaths & violent unrest over protracted periods in the recipient Remote Communities.
By contrast, in 1978 as the young Head of Land Claims Northern Land Council NT, I was a participant in the hand back to the Senior traditional men of Peppimenarti Daly River Aboriginal Reserve, of extremely sensitive important secret/sacred/dangerous ritual ceremonial paraphernalia held by Prof.WEH Stanner since the 1930s. Some of the older Aboriginal men had been present at the original ceremony held before the War during which Bill Stanner had been entrusted with the safe keeping of these sacred objects.
Arthur Beau Palmer & Prof. WEH (Bill) Stanner at close of major ceremonies Peppimenarti NT after repatriation of secret sacred traditional Aboriginal ritual paraphernalia 1978.
The entire process was one of trust, respect and fulfillment of obligation; and from an Aboriginal perspective a reverence for Stanner’s senior ritual status as a man of High degree who had represented Aboriginal interests for his entire life at the highest level of Government. The hand over was conducted in full traditional ceremonial context and the result acted, as was intended, to strengthen and support the current ritual renaissance for Communities in the entire Daly River – Victoria River East Kimberley region for both men and women.
I had learnt much of how an institution can engineer meaningful repatriation while assistant to the Senior Curator of Anthropology & Archaeology Queensland Museum, Michael Quinnell, as he skilfully put together post 1975 Papua New Guinea independence, the return of significant large sections from the important Sir William MacGregor Melanesian collection. A cautious process of consultation, ownership of the procedure as well as the objects, by both parties is key here. Few young ethnographers could be so fortunate as to have a mentor who virtually single handed dragged an Edwardian Queensland Public Museum into the late twenty century for the good of all.
Institutional repatriation of Aboriginal material culture needs to be a carefully handled return of strength, pride and goodwill not a Trojan horse of guilt, shame and blame.
Queensland Museum MacGregor Melanesian Collection Massim lime spatulas, betel nut mortars & axes part of repatriation to Papua New Guinea National Museum 1977.
Arthur Beau Palmer
Expanded paper originally published Sydney Morning Herald September 2011.