Artefacts welcomed back to Anindilyakwa community from Manchester Museum in Groote Eylandt ceremony: ABC

Four Aboriginal men, some with their bodies painted, perform a cultural dance

The Anindilyakwa people celebrated the return of the artefacts at a special ceremony.

By Jane Bardon – 22/11/23
Click here to read the original article on ABC website

Key points:

  • Spears and water baskets are among more than 2,000 items returned to Indigenous communities
  • The return from Manchester Museum to Anindilyakwa took almost three years
  • The British High Commissioner says the return of items supports reconciliation

For the Anindilyakwa people, the return of 174 artefacts, collected from Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria 70 years ago, was a proud moment.

To celebrate, the community gathered on the beach at Umbakumba in Anindilyakwa for a special ceremony, marking the occasion with singing, dancing and music.

Excited community members inspected and interacted with the artefacts, many of whom recognised items made by their forbearers.

“It is a very special day for us Anindilyakwa people because our objects have been repatriated from Manchester Museum,” community leader Noeleen Lalara said.

The federal government’s Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) helped negotiate the return of items collected by a British anthropologist Peter Worsley on the island in the 1950s, and then donated them to the Manchester Museum.

A group of two adults and two children carry green bags along a dirt road in a remote community

The artefacts were bought and traded from Anindilyakwa people on remote Groote Eylandt in the 1950s.

AIATSIS acting chief executive and Ngemba man Leonard Hill said it was an “important collection for the community”.

“Those items include shell dolls, spears, woven armbands, baskets,” he said.

“The return of these materials from Manchester Museum has been a long process, almost three years with the Anindilyakwa community.”

The artefacts are among more than 2,000 the AIATSIS has helped to recover from museums around the world.

They include stone axes returned from Israel to Victoria, boomerangs from New Zealand to Tennant Creek and secret men’s objects from the United States to Alice Springs.

“The work around returning cultural heritage items from collections is difficult though, [as] all institutions are at different stages in terms of decolonising their archives,” Mr Hill said.

Six spears from Groote Eylant sit against a white background

Spears were among the artefacts returned to Groote Eylandt.

‘Part of our reconciliation journey’

The United Kingdom’s top diplomat to Australia, British high commissioner Vicky Treadell, said she wanted to see more items returned.

“For Britain today, this is part of our reconciliation journey, supporting this kind of work,” she said.

“It is important for Britain to have that modern, relevant relationship with the first nations — one of recognition, mutual respect, one of understanding.

“Whatever our history, it’s about what we forge together for the future.”

A woman wearing a white hat stands smiling against a green and bushy background

Vicky Treadell says artefacts return is an important part of reconciliation.

For Groote Eylandters, getting back items made by their forefathers which they still produced — such as fishing spears and canoes — was an affirmation colonisation hadn’t ended their culture.

Elder and artist Elvis Bara said he was very proud a bark painting by his father had been returned.

“I saw my dad’s stuff come back to Groote Eylandt and I’m really happy to see everything and the boat he drew on the bark,” he said.

An Aboriginal man wearing a cap holds a small painting

Elvis Bara was proud to have one of his father’s artworks returned.

The return has also reinvigorated cultural traditions.

The negotiations to bring back 70 ochre painted shell dolls, which children used to learn their community kinship responsibilities, prompted artists to start making them again.

Wanindilyakwa elder Edith Mamarika was one of the many children who played with the dolls.

“I remember playing with these dolls, which we call dadikwakwa-kwa, with my grandmother,” she said.

“We used to collect a lot of shells, and we used to put a bit of material around them to make them into a girl or a woman.”

The Institute’s return program, costing $2.5 million a year, has federal funding until June 2024.

Leonard Hill said he hoped it would get more.

“With the amount of material that is held overseas, we estimate about 115,000 cultural heritage items held in collections around the world,” he said.

“That’s decades of work returning material back to community.”