Indigenous ancestral remains to be returned to Australia after France changes legislation: NITV

The Musée de l’Homme in Paris holds France’s most extensive collection of Indigenous remains. Credit: Michel RENAUDEAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Indigenous ancestral remains, some of which have spent 150 years off Country, are now legally required to be returned to Australia from French institutions.

The remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestors in French institutions are now legally required to be returned back to their lands, after France’s parliament passed new repatriation laws this week.

Museums and universities in the European country are currently in possession of hundreds of Indigenous remains.

The new law allows for remains of people who passed after the year 1500 to be taken from museums and returned to their people for “funeral purposes”.

Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains were taken and put into European institutions to be studied or displayed.

According to the National Museum of Australia, the remains “were examined to determine brain size, shape, and so-called ‘primitive’ features on the Ancestral Remains themselves.”

Remains from Indigenous cultures were considered to be ‘less intelligent’, while the dominant western European cultures were deemed to be ‘advanced’.

The National Museum of Australia says that “this was used an excuse to impose Western control on Indigenous civilisations worldwide.”

The impact of repatriation

Repatriation goes beyond the return of ancestral remains, and is also the return of responsibility over what happens to the remains.

For the families and communities of the ancestral remains that are being returned home, it means that they are able to say goodbye, lay ancestors at a final resting place or keeping place and go through sorry business.

The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council said that returning ancestral remains is important in carrying out cultural protocols.

“For Traditional Owners, fulfilling responsibilities to Ancestors means we must look after the places where they are buried and we must return those who are not on Country as quickly and respectfully as possible,” reads a discussion paper.

According to the National Museum of Australia, almost all ancestral remains were collected unethically through methods such as grave-robbing and were acquired without consent from families and communities.

Repatriation has an integral role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s healing and justice.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples maintains the importance of repatriation in Indigenous communities.
In fact, signatory states are required to “seek to enable the access and repatriation of…Ancestral Remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with Indigenous peoples concerned.”

In Australia, we have recently seen the return of ancestral remains from English and German museums.

However, despite there being policies upheld by Australian museums around repatriation, there is little legislation to encourage it.