After almost 200 years, the remains of five Aboriginal people, held in the archives of Leiden University, are to be laid to rest. They will be returned today to the elders of Australia's indigenous Bundjalung tribe during a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.
Listen to a Newsline interview with one of the elders, Gwen Hickling:
The remains, including a skull, have been held by Leiden University’s anatomical department since the early 19th century. The skull had been donated to the university in 1819 by the renowned British botanist Joseph Banks. The material was used for scientific research.
The remains will now return to Australia after a pledge from the country’s federal government to the Dutch authorities earlier this year.
They will be handed over to two elders from the Bundjalung tribe, Gwen Hickling and John Morrissey. “This is what Aboriginals’ life has been like”, Ms Hickling says. “Everything was taken away from us. In the 19th century, we lost everything as the result of invasions and so on. So today marks the start of hopefully many returns to what we call our lodging place”.
The remains will be handed over during a traditional ceremony where the spirits are cleansed first by using smoke. After that, they will be taken back to Australia where they will receive a ceremonial welcome. They will then be laid to rest.
Their return is highly significant to the indigenous people in Australia, Ms Hicking says. “It’s a very spiritual thing. As Aboriginals, we live in the dreaming. This is a part of the dreaming that’s coming home now”, referring to the Aboriginal belief that spirits live eternally in what they call the dreamtime, even before and after one exists as a human being.
Leiden University is not the only scientific institute where remains of Aboriginals – or other indigenous people – are held. Many of these remains were collected by universities around the world in the 18th and 19th century, as scientists felt they needed them to study life’s origins. “There are quite a few around the world and we would like to see those remains returned to Australia”, Ms Hickling says. “This is a first major step”.
She regards the return as a form of reconciliation with the past as well. “It’s showing that the people in the Netherlands are prepared to give back to us a part of what has been taken from us”.
Photo: kevinzim at Flickr. Major Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder, in a smoking ceremony, as part of the repatriation of Old People remains.