NOTE TO EDITORS: It is offensive to Aboriginal cultural and religious beliefs that any images of skulls or other body parts be shown. According to Aboriginal beliefs an image of a dead Aboriginal, whether skeletal or otherwise, can capture the spirit of the dead and cause trauma to the spirit and the Aboriginal people generally. Please do not use images of the dead to accompany media stories.
PRESS RELEASE: SCOTLAND and ENGLAND AGREE TO REPATRIATE ABORIGINAL DEAD
Aborigines are ecstatic to be finally bringing home a skull and jawbone of Aboriginals taken more than 150 years ago.
“We are so happy to be finally collecting the remains,” one of the delegates Sara Maynard said today. “Caroline Spotswood and I leave Hobart on flight QF1012 at 4.50pm Saturday 12th. We arrive in Scotland on Tuesday to collect one of our dead. On Wednesday we will collect the other from the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
“The National Museums Scotland does not have any information about how our dead finished up in Scotland. That usually means the remains were grave-robbed. In such cases the grave robber rarely provided detailed documentation about where the remains were dug up from, or were found on sand blown burial sites. We do know that some of our people were murdered just so the prized skulls of what settlers hypocritically called savages could be donated to scientists.
The jawbone coming back from the Royal College of Surgeons was taken in the 1830s from sick and dying Aborigines by George Augustus Robinson, self styled “Protector of Aborigines”. These bones, usually of close relatives, were wrapped with sinew and were worn as amulets to ward off pain and sickness. Five others were returned by the Royal College in 2002; this one was only recently located.
There was a massive trade in Tasmanian Aboriginal remains in the mid 1880’s. Many of the dead were donated to “old mother England” (and Scotland) by settlers wanting to ingratiate themselves back home.
While this is a victory of over 20 years effort, other institutions in Britain are playing games to hold onto their collections of Aboriginal dead. The laws in Britain now allow institutions to hand over Aboriginal dead, but they are not compelled to. Many refuse to cooperate directly with Aborigines, hiding behind long and complicated processes that delay repatriations and exhaust the limited resources of Aboriginal groups. The Wellcome Trust told us this week that we could not collect our dead from them because we have not even begun their process - although both we and the Australian Government were first in touch with them back in 2007!
Oxford and Cambridge are the hard heads who refuse to talk to us. Unless the Australian Prime Minister gets involved we will never get the remains back that those institutions hold. Oxford has the skulls of five people, and hair from five other people. Cambridge will not yet even confirm what they do have; it could be four skulls and two jawbones.
Prime Minister Rudd must ask the British Prime Minister to change the law so that all Aboriginal dead are returned to Australia. While his predecessor Mr Howard had been active in getting laws changed in Britain to help with repatriation, Mr Rudd has not been at all interested.
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11 September 2009