A beacon of conscience in Australia's capital
August 6, 2014 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Featured in the Australian literary journal Meanjin, Restless Indigenous Remains is a Paul Daley essay on how the Australian government's National Museum handles the remains of Indigenous people accumulated during Australia's colonial period. An engaging, thoughtful and sobering piece, it covers the history of 'remains collection' in Australia, as well as the current debate concerning whether the Indigenous defenders against colonial expansion should be recognized by the Australian War Memorial.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (6 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Holy fuck, Korah Halcomb Wills was a genteel horror serial killer.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:01 PM on August 6, 2014

Nice to see that native people, living and dead, were treated no better in Australia than they were in the Americas. /sarcasm

I couldn't tell from the entry whether there's an organized national program for repatriation in Australia. In the US, a federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, requires that every federal agency and every institution that receives federal funds (which would include almost every major museum, private or public, in the country) inventory all the Native American remains in their collections and, if possible, make them available to the appropriate tribe for repatriation.

It's also illegal in the US to sell or use Native American remains for any commercial purpose--at one point roadside stands in the west would allow you to see an "Indian Head" for $1, or whatever. That horrible practice is now ended, but people are still robbing graves for artifacts to sell on the black market.
posted by suelac at 3:59 PM on August 6, 2014

I couldn't tell from the entry whether there's an organized national program for repatriation in Australia.

You can read the current Australian Government Indigenous Repatriation Policy here.

From the article:
Pickering and Kaus painstakingly trawl through records that may accompany bones (or writing in ink on the actual remains) that are repatriated from overseas institutions or found in Australia, for clues to provenance and identity. Kaus explains:

‘For example there were two skulls from the Northern Territory that were acquired from a bloke called MAH Cullack and it (the documentation) just said ‘Tanami’. Now that we’ve got Trove I did a search and found out that they were collected 100 miles north of Tanami, so that is more specific provenance and may be sufficient for a community to take them. There’s a place called Tanami and a desert called Tanami.’
Trove is a beautiful thing. This is likely the article in question. (It appears the man's name was actually Cutlack, if The Argus is to be believed.)
posted by zamboni at 5:48 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Poking through Trove, it seems the story of the skulls found north of Tanami is pretty well documented.

Cutlack found the unburied skulls, or possibly skeletons, on a prospecting trip, and handed them over to Alice Springs police. The doctor engaged by the police examined the skulls, and
"could not say whether one of two skulls found by Mr. M. Cutlack in the interior is that of an aborigine. Mr. Cutlack, who left by plane for Adelaide to-day, said that he had asked that the skulls should be sent to Canberra for further investigation, and this is likely to be done."
And that's how they ended up at the National Museum. This is of course assuming Cutlack's account of finding the skulls is accurate.

Morley Aubrey Herman Cutlack appears to have been a prospector and chancer given to grandiose plans and claims. He spent a great deal of time (and possibly other people's money) trying to find Lasseter's Reef, the great mythical treasure of the Australian Outback. He gave an elaborate account of an Indigenous attack on one of his expeditions, which his pilot called exaggerated and "founded on hearsay". He was done for trespassing on an Aboriginal reserve in 1937. Despite early claims of success, he made at least eleven attempts at finding the lost reef, all to no avail.
posted by zamboni at 9:30 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have done some volunteer NAGPRA research in the past and it's pretty sobering-- stories that are a little insane in their inhumanity, or stories that tell you the where and the when but in such a way that you could never ascertain the tribe or time involved, or worse, no stories at all. Collection odds and ends swept up in boxes, collections left out on loading docks or in moldy basements for decades. It's often really, really hard research, both emotionally and in terms of difficulty, and my kudos to them for undertaking it. Events like this: "I dumped all the incomplete skeletons except long bones into the creek—back bones, feet, hands, ribs, hips etc as you appear to only require complete skeletons" are not uncommon, as far as I can tell, for collectors in that time period (or contemporary archaeologists) even though we find them appalling today. This was a great essay on a really hard subject. Thank you.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:42 AM on August 7, 2014

I don't have any real interest in this topic, but just today this happened.

Which was interesting.
posted by Mezentian at 10:13 AM on August 8, 2014

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