Nyamal elder Uncle Tony Taylor signs the official handover certificate. (ABC Pilbara: Rebecca Parish)
Indigenous artefacts and ceremonial objects collected generations ago and housed in overseas museums have been returned to their rightful owners in the north-west and Kimberley regions of Western Australia.
- Two WA communities welcome the return of artefacts, some more than 125 years old, that have been in overseas museums
- The Aboriginal men were overwhelmed with joy and pride to have the items returned to country
- The University of Manchester has agreed to return 43 items belonging to four language groups across Australia
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) negotiated with the University of Manchester’s Museum in the United Kingdom and the Illinois State Museum in the United States to bring the items home.
Among the precious items that have been returned this week were six ceremonial objects collected 125 years ago from the Nyamal people of the Pilbara.
The body ornaments worn in the hair, on the arm and through the nose during cultural ceremonies were collected in the 1890s by Dr Emile Clement and deposited into the Salford Museum and Art Gallery collection, then later transferred to the Manchester Museum.
Elder Uncle Tony Taylor was thrilled to receive the objects back to Nyamal country.
“We are very proud to have got them back.
An ancient emu feather ceremonial object repatriated to Nyamal people (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)
“Some of the old people wore these, in the hair and on the back,” Mr Taylor said.
“In the early days human hair was cut with a stone and used to tie the emu feathers.”
Mr Taylor said the cultural items would be put back on country at Warralong and “woken up” to be used again in future Nyamal mens’ ceremonies.
Bustard feather ceremonial object repatriated to the Nyamal people. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)
Men ‘overwhelmed’ by return of artefacts
Meanwhile in the Kimberley, there was silence in the room when the first box of artefacts was opened.
The treasures had been transported from the Museum of Illinois in the US to the tiny, isolated community of Ardyaloon on the northern tip of the Dampier Peninsula, 200 kilometres north of Broome.
A group of Bardi Jawi men gathered for the arrival of the objects which included spears, boomerangs, shields and shell necklaces.
“We were actually overwhelmed by their appearance, by the state they were in,” Bardi man Philip McCarthy said.
“Especially the spears, they were quite amazing.
“There’s a sense of joy and pride in seeing these things being well looked after and in such good condition.”
Bardi Jawi rangers celebrate the return of spears they say may have been used for traditional punishment and hunting. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)
Artefacts collected in 1930s
The artefacts were originally collected by an American linguist, Gerhardt Laves, who spent several weeks in the community in early 1930s while studying for a PHD.
Director of the Return of Cultural Heritage Project, Chris Simpson, said the artefacts were originally housed in a museum in Chicago before being transferred to Illinois.
“He [Laves] spent a few months in the community and I guess there was a relationship that was forged within the community,” Mr Simpson said.
“From what we can understand, Gerhardt asked for these items and the community just gave them to him.
“It doesn’t seem like there was anything untoward about the collecting of these items.”
This shell necklace would have been used for Bardi Jawi ceremonies. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)
‘We can’t lose it now’
Although the artefacts were collected in the 1930s, the Bardi Jawi people believe the age of the items could be much older and may have passed down through the generations.
Elder Frank Davey said the artefacts would be put on display at Ardyaloon.
“We are very strong with our culture here, we still practise our culture here,” Mr Davey said.
“But it does give us, strengthen us more and for the young people to look at these things and say hang on … we can’t lose it now, we’ve just got to carry on.”
Mr Davey said the community still made shell necklaces and boomerangs for ceremonies similar to those that had been returned from Illinois, but he said it would have been much harder for his ancestors without the modern tools of today.
“Looking at the boomerangs … my God, these guys really did work hard to actually make these.”
Mr Davey says the artefacts will be used to further strengthen his peoples’ culture. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)
How the repatriation unfolded
Neither the Nyamal or Bardi Jawi people knew about the existence of the artefacts until they were contacted by the federally-funded AIATSIS program a few months ago.
Mr Simpson said the communities had been excited by the return of the objects.
“It is a great opportunity to promote reconciliation and truth telling story,” Mr Simpson said.
The project has so far identified 105,000 Aboriginal objects held by 220 collecting institutions overseas.
“We’ve written to over 160 of those and we’re getting a lot of good conversations out of them.
“More than a 100 of those collecting institutions want to share their items … want to tell us what they hold in their collecting institutions.”
These spears were collected from the Bardi Jawi in the 1930s but are believed to be much older. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)
The University of Manchester has agreed to the unconditional repatriation of 43 objects to four language groups across Australia.
Aranda, Nyamal, Gangalidda Garawa and Yawuru and Bardi Jawi people have all had objects returned to them under the AIATSIS project.
The Nyamal items are the earliest documented material to be returned from the university.
Mr Simpson said his work on the repatriation project gave him strength to contribute back to Indigenous culture.
AIATSIS project director Chris Simpson presents Uncle Tony Taylor with the official handover certificate. (ABC Pilbara: Rebecca Parish)
“As a proud Waka Waka Aboriginal man this is quite grounding,” he said.
“It’s great to be able to listen and share culture with senior elders of community.”
The Ardyaloon community sits at the northernmost tip of the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)
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