Victoria government logo
aboriginalheritagecouncil.vic.gov.au

Returning our Ancestors

Uncle Jim Berg

I can feel me Ancestors coming around me.

Our People were dug up and placed in boxes, steel cabinets.

Dr Patrick Greene

Not only was this hurtful to communities but it actually didn’t produce much in the way of scientific results.

Jo Bell

Amateur collectors, they would collect Ancestral Remains, parts of People.

Sean Fagan

Multiple babies’ skulls sitting in a box. The work needs to be done properly to find where those People came from.

Annette Xiberras

We believe that when you die, you go back to the land, you go back to where you came from. And until we do, our Spirits will never rest, they’ll work the land.

Uncle Colin Walker

We don’t want ’em in boxes. Bring ’em back to their land, back to their Country. Free, the Spirits are free then.

Darren Perry

Once you finally get the job done, you feel at rest yourself because you know that your Ancestors are at rest.

Sissy Pettit Havea

We can’t rest wherever our Old People Can’t rest.

Annabelle Sharman

If we do this right, it has the capacity to heal our Community.

Tim Kanoa

I understand how important it is now to repatriate our Ancestors. To bring back our Ancestors to their rightful place, to lay our Ancestors to rest, I’m excited about that.

Uncle Jim Berg

People talk about history, how long we’ve been here, my mob’s been here for tens of thousands of years. And to just pull a figure out of the air is pretty meaningless. So, I’m just gonna demonstrate what it means to belong to the oldest, longest Culture in existence.

And if we just move along to here, that’s just over two inches there, that’s when Europeans landed here, just over two hundred years ago. And if we just move along to here, two feet, that’s Christianity, not much is it? I wanna show you our Culture, how long we’ve been here. Here we go, 60 feet, 60,000 years. And that’s a history that hasn’t been told. And that little two inches represents the destruction of Culture, Heritage, Language, dignity and pride.

Jo Bell

Prior to the 1860s, we had amateur collectors, and they would collect things. Shields, sacred objects, it didn’t matter, there was a market for it. Aboriginal People were the flavour of the month and they just ransacked whole Aboriginal places of the Cultural Heritage items and sent them overseas.

Unfortunately, they also collected Ancestral Remains. Collectors didn’t provenance anything. They just took what they wanted, when they wanted. There was no thought to the People that they were leaving behind, the descendants of the Old People or the owners, the guardians of the Cultural Heritage that they were removing.

Darren Perry

This sand has seen many thousands of generations of Aboriginal People walk across it. It’s a powerful place, places like this, it really is. Literally hundreds of People, right through here, right thought the entire length of this sand dune. It’s seen our People born, live and die on it.

And this is the resting place of a lot of those People. And places such as this, is why they hold so much importance to us. They help us to tell the story of the extended period of time that we’ve lived on this Country, and the connection that we still hold with it today. And that hopefully our future generations will still hold because through the efforts that we make today, this will still be here for them in the future.

Dr Patrick Greene

Today we would never go out and remove skeletal remains from sites anywhere in Australia, or indeed other parts of the world. But that wasn’t true in the past. In the past, people did that. And they did It for sort of scientific reasons. I think they thought they were being scientific. Today we would look back and say, none of those reasons is now valid and we are committed to returning every single last remain to Country.

Nicole Cassar

I would have been ten years old. And I remember coming into the city, going to the museum, which is now the state library, and being part of the start of what was gonna be one of the most significant marches that I’ll ever participate in in my life. A significant memory from the day was of Uncle Jim Berg. He was the person who sort of took control of what was going to happen and made sure that it was a peaceful march.

The bones were being brought up from the basement. They were given to selected people to hold and carry. We started the march straight up Swanston Street. It was a march of respect, people not chanting, and people just doing what was asked of them. The whole day was about respect. We ended up at the park just down from the bottom of the hill. Aunty Marge was sitting there waiting. Some of the older men were in the ground at the time and the bones were being laid one by one, very carefully. They once again could finally rest in peace.

Uncle Bevan Nicholls

This day where our Ancestors are laid to rest, the future now lays in the hands of the young.

Sean Fagan

When I first got involved in working with Ancestral Remains I was approached by the Museum of Victoria, and a physical anthropologist that was working with the Museum of Victoria, to come along and be there while we sorted through hundred of People’s bones that were unprovenanced around Victoria.

The main thing that sparked me was seeing a cardboard box and then opening up that cardboard box and there being several People in it and seeing babies’ skulls in there. That, to me, just having a young child of my own, I just thought well, that’s not right. How can People get away with this? Why did this happen? And all these questions. The work needs to be done properly to find where those People come from.

And so then I followed and started the journey of finding where my Ancestors come from. Where they were dug up and why they were taken. From there it sort of started a journey of me learning my Country. So, I had to go out and camp in places and try and find where these People were taken from. I’m still doing the work and still trying to find out and eventually get all those People home. In fact, there’s still People coming in.

Sort of try and educate people about it, that it’s not right, this sort of stuff. I don’t think any place in the world does this sort of thing. It’s a responsibility that us, as Traditional Owners, now have but it’s not a traditional one, it’s something that we’ve inherited but it’s something that we have to do.

Annette Xiberras

My dreamtime story is about a creator called Bunjil who created the universe. From the universe he created the world. From the world he created nations. And from those nations he created People. That’s why Aboriginal People say our land, our mother, our Country, it’s an affiliation with the land that no one can ever take away from us.

And we believe that when you die, you go back to the land, you go back to your mother. And that fulfils the cycle of life. Once you go back to your mother, you go back to the Country then you become a mother yourself and give life to the animals, the trees and the birds and everything that takes from the land to survive. That’s why it’s so important to our People that we go back to the land, go back to where we came from. And until we do our Spirits will never rest, they’ll walk the land.

Tim Kanoa

This is my Country and there’s no doubt about that. This is where I was brought up. This is where I learned everything about who I am as a Gunditjmara person. And there’s absolutely no doubt that my Spirit belongs here. There’s no doubt that I belong here. My clan is the Kerrupmara People. My clan’s totem is Willan the yellow tailed black cockatoo and my skin name is Yulkitj which is the crimson rosella.

I’m living proof that my Ancestors; resistance was effective ‘cause I remain connected to my land, and my waters, and my spiritual existence in the 21st century. I’m living proof that the brutal attempt to eradicate and dispossess, colonise, and assimilate my People has failed.

This place is the Enchanted Forest. It’s where I have many childhood memories. It’s where I spent time laughing. It’s where I spent time crying. It’s where I spent time learning about the environment, and about what it means to feel connected to the earth.  This place taught me so many things about who I am as a person who comes from here. I want my body and my Spirit to be brought here. If I died in another place in the world, no matter where it is, I would want for my family and my community, but more importantly for my family, to bring me back here and rest me here.

You have the feeling like it’s your responsibility to bring back your People. And I’m slowly but surely starting to understand that. I understand how important it is now to repatriate our Ancestors.

Uncle Jim Berg

We are very similar in some ways. When an Australian citizen passes away overseas, their families bring ‘em back. And they are buried in their own Country, where they were born. We want nothing less than that but there’s one difference, our People were dug up, used for scientific exhibitions. 

Institutions, universities, forensic, historical societies, we want ‘em back. We wanna return ‘em back to the Country. Gunditjmara Country, Gunai Kurnai, Yorta Yorta, Mati Mati and all the rest of the 38 clans here in Victoria. It’s not asking too much is it?

Tim Kanoa

It’s not asking too much, no, but people need to be educated on how important that is to us. And until people are educated on the importance of it and understand the importance of it, then maybe we are asking too much.

Uncle Jim Berg

This is our cemetery, and these are our Ancestors. They died in their Country and they was buried in their own Country. Along the bottom row here, some Ancestors that were actually returned via a dairy inspector. He took me aside and he said “Jim, I’ve got something for you.” And under the hessian bags he showed me the remains of three of my Ancestors he found just over the ridge here, in Mortlake. And he said, “this is your family, these are your family.” And they probably were because my great-great-grandmother came from that area. They’ve been returned to the Country of their birth.

You may know somebody who has bones, skeletons, under the bed or in the sheds. We need them so we can find peace and we can have closure. And they can have peace of mind.

Danny Moon

I’m a construction manager, project manager. I’ve worked on a number of projects where we’ve actually come across Ancestral Remains. The excavator operator actually notified the monitors of a bone that he founds digging away.  To me, that shows really good signs that it’s starting to get through our industry that people are going to stop and make these things known. Whereas, I guess, in the past there was a lot of damage to a lot of Cultural Heritage.

Cultural Heritage, whether it be from 100 years ago or 62,000 years ago, it’s everyone’s heritage. And it’s a very important piece of everyone’s history. Not just different races or religions, it’s everyone’s history.

Dr Patrick Greene

The museum took on this task to return People to Country not only People who the museum collected in the past, but also the hundreds, literally hundreds of People who ended up at the university. And step by step, person by person, People are going back to Country.

Sissy Pettit Havea

Knight’s Bend is on the Murray River as you can see. We’ve recently done a repatriation in the area. You can imagine the pain, and the hurt, and the frustration, and the disbelief, and all these other things that race through your head. When they’re brought to the forefront then that’s a lot to deal with for Aboriginal People.

Especially women, we carry the hurt and the pain, and we have the responsibility of healing and the ceremonies for mourning. So, we carry a lot of that mourning around with us. Form the beginning until the very end, even when it’s finished we still carry that with us. We can’t rest while all our Old People can’t rest. We thought that was something very special, to lay our Ancestors to rest.

Damien Jackson

This is what we call a cemetery dune. So, there’s multiple bodies in here.  There could be anywhere up to 1,000 bodies or more.  You think about say 40-50,000 years is that amount of time they’ve been burying People in this area.

Darren Perry

You can see that it’s been deflated over time, the ground cover’s been removed from it and the wind’s got in and blown all the sand away. And what was exposed was hundred of People right through here, right through the entire length of this sand dune. So, we’ve had to do some repair works here.

Damien Jackson

From north to south it’s probably about 500 meters in length and about 100 meters in width. We’ve laid out rows of logs across the sand dune to act as wind breaks and trap some of the sand. What we’re trying to do is catch all the sand coming from that direction, over this way, in on the site, because underneath those logs you’ll see that there’s lots of human remains there. And eventually it’ll be covered in ground cover such as the salt bush again, that’ll stabilise the dune for a longer period.

Darren Perry

I’d just like to say to other Traditional Owners around Victorian that sometimes it’s a bit daunting dealing with human remains, the Ancestors, but it’s something that we need to do. There’s plenty of People out there to support you. Once you finally get the job done you feel at rest yourself because you know that your Ancestors are at rest.

Uncle Colin Walker

I’d like to welcome you to our Country. You’re at the Barmah Lakes now, one of our very significant sites. George Black, he was paid to come along the Murray and they call it the Black collection. He dug up quite a lot of the Murray River and took skeletons, and he was getting, I believe, fifty thou or five bob a skull at the time. So that was the biggest repatriation in Australia, I believe. We had a lot to do with that. All our Elders from the Cummeragunga Land Councils, we buried a lot of that stuff at our local cemetery because we had nowhere else to do the reburial.

We don’t want ‘em in boxes in museums. They studied us long enough. Why? Been over 200 years or more since they’ve been taken. So free ‘em, free ‘em back to their land, back to their Country, while they’ve still got Elders there to talk to the young ones and explain why, and how emotional it gets.

Sissy Pettit Havea

For those People that will be repatriating in the future, it’s very important to look after yourself, look after your wellbeing mentally as well as physically. Get in contact with someone in your community that can provide healing spaces for you. Whether it’s in your family group or talking to other Elders. For me, it’s been a personal healing journey but also a healing journey of some of our women in the community.

 

Annabelle Sharman

Healing is different for everyone but for us particularly we have to look at healing in a holistic way. If we do this right, it has a capacity to heal our community.  It’s really hard but I think you’ve got to go through that. You have to go through that to gain the strength.

Sissy Pettit Havea

The important message for women out there, especially Aboriginal women is, we always believed it was men’s business but really it wasn’t any Aboriginal business. It’s something that’s been imposed upon us.

Annette Xiberras

I had to bring my People home, my family home. Everybody’s got a right to be buried. Everybody has a right to a grave. And I didn’t want my People denied that right.

Sissy Pettit Havea

Imagine if that was your grandparents today and People took them away from their resting places.

Tim Kanoa

It’s so sad and we need to make sure that we bring our Ancestors back to their Country, to their Spiritual place of being so that they can feel what I feel right now. And that’s being home.

Sean Fagan

Aboriginal People probably never healed from some of the damage that’s been done but, returning our Ancestor back to Country, I think that’s a huge bit of closure for People.

Annette Xiberras

One day, no one will have to do repatriations. Everybody will be home where they belong.

Dr Patrick Greene

I apologise for the way in which the ancestral remains of People throughout Victoria were acquired by the museum in the past. On behalf of the museum, I say to communities across Victoria, sorry.

Uncle Jim Berg

For the general public, I seek your assistance in our efforts to bring back our People. And you can help us do that. Here lies my People, some have been returned from being dug up elsewhere. And they have been returned home so they can drift off into the dreamtime and find peace within themselves, as we will, when you assist us in the return of our Ancestors back home.

 

All copyright is retained by the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, 2020

Contact

Alexandra Hill

Senior Manager Policy & Operations  I  Office of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council

Phone: 03 7004 7205  I  Mobile: 0429 670 820  I  Email: alexandra.hill@dpc.vic.gov.au

Reviewed 09 February 2022