National

US museum to return indigenous artefacts

By AAP Newswire

More than 40 sacred indigenous artefacts held by an American museum are to be returned to their traditional owners as part of a groundbreaking cultural heritage repatriation project.

The artefacts will be returned to the Bardi Jawi people of Western Australia and the Aranda people from central Australia after 10 months of talks between the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Illinois State Museum.

The artefacts are a mix of sacred and secular pieces, including boomerangs, shields, spears, clap sticks, body ornaments and necklaces.

The Bardi Jawi are happy the items can now be given back to their rightful owners, but more needs to be done to return other items, senior Bardi lawman, Kevin George said.

"These items were taken a long time ago, but we're glad that the museum looked after them," he said.

A few of the items are secret artefacts that never should have left their Indigenous communities, Illinois Museum's Curator of Anthropology, Brooke Morgan said.

"Some of the stories we've heard is that the Bardi Jawi knew that these types of items were made in the past, but they haven't made them themselves or didn't know how," she said.

The Return of Cultural Heritage project is the first of its kind in Australia, with the federal government normally only seeking the unconditional return of Aboriginal remains, not objects, Deputy Director of AIATSIS Michael Ramalli said.

"It's the first time we're going out to international institutions and letting it be known that the return of cultural heritage material is important to us," he said.

Most of the artefacts being returned were collected by linguistic anthropologist Gerhardt Laves in northern and Western Australia between 1929 and 1931.

But the Illinois State Museum has no records of how Laves acquired them, only that he took the objects back to Chicago University, who gave them to Illinois State Museum for an exhibit on Indigenous cultures in 1942.

Ramalli hopes this first batch of returns could pave the way for the repatriation of more sacred Aboriginal artefacts held in museums around the world.

"I think there is a growing sense of understanding amongst international institutions around the repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts," he said.

AIATSIS hopes the project can keep on running past its two year pilot period and is developing a business case to propose to government.