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London's Natural History Museum Returns Remains of Indigenous Australians After 100 Years


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long been discriminated against. They have witnessed generations of neglect, social and economic exclusion, unemployment, and inadequate housing, sanitation, and education. Indigenous Australians have a right to determine what happens to the remains of their ancestors. Global Citizen campaigns on reducing poverty and inequality, as well as ensuring the well-being of all people. Take action here.

The remains of 37 Indigenous Australians will be returned to Australia this week after spending more than a century at London’s Natural History Museum. 

The remains were officially handed over to elders by the director of the Natural History Museum, Michael Dixon, during a ceremony in London. Professor Peter Buckskin and elder Douglas Milera from South Australia’s Narungga community were in attendance for the first step in the long-awaited repatriation process.

"The healing can now start," Milera told ABC News.

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One set of remains will be directly returned to the Narungga people. Seven will be temporarily housed at the South Australian Museum while the remaining 29 will be cared for at the National Museum of Australia. All remains will then be buried in reburial ceremonies by elders from the Ngarrindjeri, Far West Coast, Kaurna, and Flinders Ranges communities.

This recent return is the latest in Australia’s Indigenous Repatriation Program. Over the past 25 years, the project has seen 1,480 Indigenous remains rightly returned home. 

Until the late 1940s, Indigenous ancestral remains were forcibly taken from their communities and exported worldwide. Many remains were mutilated, used as objects of study, and presented for public display. 

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Myles Russell Cook, lecturer in Indigenous Studies and Aboriginal Man, told the Conversation that stolen ancestral remains and Indigenous artifacts do not belong in museums. They belong with their families, Cook stated, because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe the spirits of the deceased cannot rest unless they are buried at home.

“The collection of Indigenous materials from all over the world are the spoils of conquests in which Indigenous peoples were dehumanized and oppressed; these museums are part of a rationalized, operationalized dispossession,” he stated.

In 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration affirms that Indigenous people have a right to the “use and control of their ceremonial objects and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.”

Read More: Australia's String of Indigenous Youth Suicides Has Been Linked to 'Crushing' Poverty

Alongside the Repatriation Program, Australia launched the Close the Gap initiative in 2008 to deliver better "health, education, and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people." The initiative similarly seeks to eliminate the significant poverty rate gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.