Old bones of contention

March 13, 1998

The reburial of Native American and Aboriginal skeletons held by museums and universities is the culmination of a long battle, reports Robert Layton

In 1833 Yagan, leader of the Noongar people of Southwest Australia, was shot by a white friend. Yagan's resistance to the confiscation of his community's land had made him an enemy of settlers and his head was sent, as a trophy, to Liverpool Museum in England. The head was buried in Everton cemetery in 1964. When Yagan's descendants sought its return, permission was refused on the grounds that the bodies of stillborn babies buried above him could not be disturbed. After a ten-year campaign, the skull was finally exhumed last August, and taken back to Australia by Ken Colbung, Yagan's relative.

Yagan's return is the latest example of a movement that started in the 1970s when native Americans and Australians began to demand the return and reburial of indigenous skeletons on display in museums and academic departments. Their demands emphasised not only the spiritual necessity of according their ancestors appropriate funeral rites but the unethical manner in which the remains were collected. At first academics resisted such demands on the grounds that they were motivated by political extremism and justified by religious dogma. But by the late 1980s many realised their opposition was a political act. Those still sceptical found legislation had bypassed them by transferring control of existing remains to indigenous people.

One of the worst offenders in Australia was Murray Black. During the 1920s to 1940s, Black carried out amateur excavations of indigenous burial mounds along the Murray River on the border between New South Wales and Victoria. He unearthed many skeletons, some 12-15,000 years old. In 1987 a clause was inserted in an Australian federal government act. The clause acknowledged that "the Aboriginal people of Victoria are the rightful owners of their heritage and should be given responsibility for its future control and management". Under this provision the Murray Black collection, which was held in various museums and universities, was returned to Aboriginal communities living in Victoria and New South Wales. The bones were reburied at six different locations.

In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 declared that "the ownership and control of Native American cultural items on federal or tribal lands is with the tribe recognised as occupying the land originally". Every federal agency and museum holding native remains and funerary and sacred items is required to compile an inventory of holdings and to accede to any request from its tribal owners for the materials' return.

Academics opposed to reburial continue to emphasise how much information can be obtained from studying skeletons. As one senior Australian archaeologist protested, the peopling of Australia was part of the global expansion of humankind. Should a small group of people be allowed to block study of this process? Colin Pardoe, at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, who has worked with the Black collection, points out that it is the oldest material that is most symbolic of indigenous rights. He reminds us that indigenous Australians were granted citizenship only in 1967; the experience of being wards of their white guardians, is within living memory. Being told how to manage the remains of one's own ancestors smacks of a continuing paternalism.

During the mid-1970s, when I began fieldwork in central Australia, the region was rocked by controversies as indigenous communities began to discover what anthropologists had published about them. It was not academic interpretations that caused offence, but the publication of secret property such as body paintings and sacred objects. These had been revealed in confidence but published by anthropologists who never suspected the people would one day become literate. Some anthropologists were threatened with the violent reprisals that would have been meted out to any indigenous person who revealed ritual knowledge. It has since become common academic practice to check the publication of material with the host community.

US archaeologists fought a constant battle through the 19th century and into the 20th to defend scientific knowledge against narrowly defined readings of Biblical time and racial origins. They used native American burial remains to combat the colonial ideology that claimed the native peoples of the New World were degenerate or recent arrivals. It came as a shock to discover not only that native Americans were opposed to archaeological research, but that their opposition was couched in religious terms. It was indigenous people who forced academics to realise that they had used native bones and artefacts to further their careers and the standing of their institutions.

Colin Pardoe was present at the reburial of part of the Black collection. He took with him the scientific monograph that had been written about the material to be reburied. Those present "were captivated by the information on cranial deformation, size increase, violence and so on. But they had never heard of any of those issues. Ever. That is bad manners," he subsequently acknowledged. Pardoe reluctantly accepts reburial, but now makes a point of returning a plain English report to the indigenous community, describing what he has learnt from his research.


European museums and universities which have retained indigenous human remains: the Natural History Museum, London; Cambridge University; Royal College of Surgeons, London; Museo l'Homme, Paris; Natural History Museum, Vienna

Robert Layton is professor of anthropology, the University of Durham.

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