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Aborigines Welcome Ancestors' Bones Home

A spiritual ceremony welcomes the bones to Australia from Britain. Researchers look for origins for burial on proper tribal land.

May 11, 2003|Peter O'Connor | Associated Press Writer

CANBERRA, Australia — After years of research and negotiations, Bob Weatherall stood trembling with fear and emotion outside a vault beneath London's Royal College of Surgeons.

Behind the dusty steel door lay the remains of dozens of aborigines, most likely stolen from their graves and shipped to Europe to satisfy the curiosity of 19th-century anthropologists, doctors and scientists.

Weatherall had come to take his people home.

"I was frightened. I was scared," he said. "When you go into secret and sacred places, you are not to disturb the spirit. It's a slow introduction and you want to communicate, to say we are now going to take you home, we are now going to set you free."

Weatherall, of the Kamilaroi tribe of eastern Australian aborigines, went to London in early April with Henry Atkinson from the Yorta Yorta tribe and Major Sumner of the Ngaranjerri to reclaim the remains of 60 aborigines. Most of the remains came from the three tribes.

Upon arrival in Australia's capital, the remains were given a private ceremony in which aborigines burned eucalyptus leaves to welcome the spirits. Because of cultural taboos, the aborigines and museums wouldn't allow photographs.

The remains are again being stored in a museum in Canberra while researchers check academic papers dating to the early 1800s trying to find mention of their origin so that they can be buried on proper tribal land.

Aborigines, a minority of about 400,000 in this country of 19 million, believe that they must be buried in ancestral lands to continue the journey into the afterlife.

"We don't see them as being dead. We see them as being on their journey into the spirit world. That is not a dead world; that is a world where all people go, where the spirit and souls go," Weatherall said.

Any remains that can't be traced will be kept at the museum, although a proposal is being considered to build a memorial for unidentified remains.

The remains of about 8,000 aborigines are still in limbo in museums and other institutions abroad.

Weatherall has spent 20 years tracking them down. So far, he has returned 750 to Australia, and just a fraction of those have been buried in ancestral lands.

Most were stolen by grave robbers, but some were murdered by traders who sold their bodies to scientists eager to study the aborigine race, which was discovered in Australia by Europeans only 200 years ago.

Weatherall, Atkinson and Sumner said most of the remains brought back in April were not complete. Kept in cardboard boxes, drawers, cupboards, plastic sacks, paper bags and bottles, there were skulls, individual bones and some skeletons, plus organs like brains, kidneys, penises and wombs.

Choking back tears, Atkinson said recovering the remains had been a deeply emotional moment -- both joyous and painful.

And there is anger.

The three men said they were told on a visit to London's Natural History Museum that it was holding on to the remains of an estimated 450 aborigines because dental researchers wanted to make further studies.

"They are still experimenting -- experimenting on my people, writing a thesis and making money. But what good does it do for the aboriginal people?" Atkinson said.

Officials at the museum confirmed that they met with the aboriginal delegation but declined to comment on the talks.

Australia's indigenous affairs minister, Philip Ruddock, who has lobbied the British government to assist the return of remains, calls experimenting on aborigines obscene. But he says such work is now rare.

Geoff Clark, who heads the government-financed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, disagrees.

"When you make approaches to these institutions, the rationale for saying no is usually ongoing scientific experimentation," he said.

Weatherall said smaller medical schools and colleges have been the most cooperative in returning remains. The problem, he said, is the big institutions that have huge holdings of human remains and antiquities scoured from around the globe at the height of the British Empire.

"The big fellas think they will lose the Elgin Marbles to the Greeks, the mummies will go back to Egypt and things will go back to Turkey. They fear setting precedents that will lose them their treasures," he said.

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