Indigenous Australia

Bringing home ancestral remains to an Australia rife with racism

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Australia has a history of racism and cruelty to its Indigenous ancestors, which sadly still remains (Image by Dan Jensen)

The remains of 42 Indigenous ancestors are soon returning to their homeland, but it is not the Australia they once dreamed of, writes Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos.

NEXT WEEK, alongside several Elders from across our continent, I am travelling to Germany to bring home and repatriate to their homelands 42 ancestors, who fetish and racism turned into museum pieces. It is the largest repatriation but, sadly, hundreds of our ancestors remain effectively interred in museums, for gawking, for macabre fascination.

On 28 November, in Germany's State of Saxony, at Leipzig, there will be a handover of ancestral remains. Six of the 42 are of Noongar Mineng ancestors, who in 1880 were disinterred from burial grounds in what is now known sadly as King George's Sound (in Albany).

The remains of Mineng ancestors were taken to Italy by a so-called Professor of zoology and presumptive expert in comparative anatomy, Dr Enrico Giglioli. The imputation is clear — that Mineng people were treated as if less than human.

That was racism, an original sin that led to the apartheid First Nations people endured. The suffering that many First Nations people endure today originates in the reprehensible sins and inhumanity dished to First Nations people when strangers landed and viciously dispossessed peoples tens of thousands years incumbent, hounding and tormenting thereafter.

The diminution of any peoples is abhorrent and for this continent's First Nations peoples, the individuated and collective wounds and miseries have been felt ever since. We work daily with the individual wounds of marginalised, impoverished, incarcerated and suicidal people whose harrowing circumstances and seeming immutable trauma are directly borne of the original sins against First Nations peoples.

The repatriation and the journey alongside steadfast stalwarts to bring home ancestors is a step to collective healing, trauma recovery which does reach right down to every First Nations individual but resident collective wounds remain.

Every day we work alongside the grieving who have lost loved ones to suicide or other unnatural deaths, who lived harrowing poverty and trauma, both of an intergenerational tragedy borne of the original sin of racism. Every day we work to keep alive people wracked with suicidality.

Mineng ancestors, in 1880, were disinterred from burial grounds where today King George’s Sound is visited for its sweep of natural beauty. Zoologist and anthropologist Giglioli journeyed to Italy the remains of ancestors who could be great grandparents to hundreds of Mineng people today. In 1888, Giglioli sold the remains to a museum in Leipzig.

The wounds are deep and the suffering contemporaneously festers gangrenous for affected peoples marginalised and disempowered.

But the 42 who are being brought home, six to Mineng Country, must forefront the urgent bringing home of all First Nations ancestors who were removed for reprehensible fetish and fascination and to falsely justify racism, eugenics, apartheid and abominations. There still remain 643 of First Nations ancestors in British institutions, 65 in Germany, 58 in America, 53 in France, 19 in Austria, 15 in Czech, 13 in Switzerland, eight in Russia, eight in Holland and seven in Sweden.

The Wagyl Kaip Noongar Mineng peoples have bestowed the urgency on Elder Stuart Hansen and me to bring home ancestors, after 139 years.

We were made unequal and debased by the colonialist invaders, the pillagers who not only massacred and drove the remainder of our peoples from their lands but debased and tormented them generation after generation. The wounds are intergenerational, horrific and hence the epigenetic trauma. Those of us now with agency must lead with unrelenting fervour in lifting up our wounded.

Repatriation of our people's remains shows both cultural dignity and spiritualism, but repatriation of all our people is a signification to Australia of no more racism, never again. The White Australia policy will haunt this nation till a time when we finally walk together as sisters and brothers, with a love of one another that does away with the present diminutions of people that muddle the minds of many, who argue and judge people on the basis of presumed “race” and “creed”.

I am harrowed, solemn and morose with the bringing home of my ancestors. Their spirits without peace, at more unrest returning to the earth from where they were kidnapped. They return to a nation where most certainly their children and grandchildren suffered cruelly, where presently many of their great-grandchildren remain unequal, live miserably, who have been jailed, who suicide.

They return to the horror of a nation that continues to torment their people, their descendants. A nation where one in six First Nations people still living has been incarcerated. A nation where one in 18 deaths of First Nations people is a suicide. A nation where one in two First Nations people live below the poverty line. A nation where nearly 100 per cent of deaths of individuals killed by police are of First Nations persons.

The original sin of racism remains; how else the fact that the state of Western Australia, which subsumes my Mineng Country, that from a racialised lens, incarcerates its First Nations people at the world’s highest rate? One in 13 of Western Australia’s First Nations adult males is presently gaoled; the world’s most abysmal gaoling statistic. The spirits of our ancestors will weep as they are reburied in earth that will at long last soak up their bones, at racism unresolved, at suffering so painful that children take their lives.

Australia remains hostage to the original sin of racism, an aberration that did not exist before the ruthless invader. Ask First Nations people and ask migrant born sisters and brothers of the racism that they endure in a nation still hostile in its denials to its racism.

Megan Krakouer, LLB, is the Project Director of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. Megan has a long history working alongside the most vulnerable and also contributed to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, visiting 27 prisons.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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