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‘It’s draining and it takes it out of you. But it makes you feel good that you’re doing it,’ says Kaurna elder Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner, who will take part in the ceremonial reburial of the remains of more than 100 Indigenous people in South Australia. Photograph: Kelly Barnes AllStar Photos/The Guardian.

Paul Daley, ‘It brings dignity to every one of them’: inside the reburial of Indigenous bones and restless spirits, The Guardian, 4 December 2021

Stolen, collected and traded Aboriginal remains will return to their country in South Australia. This is the story of how they were taken, and those who will bring them to rest.

For weeks Kaurna elders Aunty Madge Wanganeen and Uncle Major “Moogy” Sumner have been preparing the skeletal remains of their ancestors for reburial on the outskirts of Adelaide.

As the first step of what will likely be the world’s biggest mass internment of stolen and otherwise unearthed Indigenous ancestral skeletons, Wanganeen and Sumner carefully took the bones out of cardboard storage boxes at the South Australian Museum, where the remains of about 4,600 mostly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are kept.

They unwrapped the bones of each individual from the bubble wrap or tissue in which they have been stored – some for upwards of a century. They then secured each in brown paper and woollen twine before placing them into crates that will soon be transported to a specially designed site at Smithfield Memorial Park. There the remains will be enfolded in traditional paperbark ahead of what will be an emotional ceremonial reburial on Tuesday.

Wanganeen spoke softly to her ancestors as she worked, telling them precisely what she was doing. She assured them she was there to care for them. Soon, she told them, they will be at rest in Kaurna soil – Kaurna country – for all time.

More than 100 Kaurna people from the north of the Adelaide Plains will be buried – this time in perpetuity – at one of four burial mounds on the landscaped memorial park in land dedicated by the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority. The three other mounds are for the eventual reburial of the remains identified as coming from the south, east and west.

Wanganeen and Sumner are members of the Kaurna Smithfield reference group. For about the past two years, in anticipation of the reburial, they have been working through archival records to determine how and when the museum acquired the remains. More importantly, a combination of museum, state, police and newspaper records has made it possible to determine, in the overwhelming number of cases of the 800 or so old people who will eventually be reburied in the mounds, the precise part of Kaurna country from which each was initially unearthed.

“It’s been an overwhelming thing, a great thing, because it’s never ever happened before – to know the stories of each one of them is just a remarkable thing,” says Wanganeen, as she sits in the room with the boxes of remains shrouded with Aboriginal flags.

“Sometimes … people out there just think of them as bones and now they are being recognised as human beings. It’s just an overwhelming feeling because I’m in the process of actually wrapping them up and knowing where they came from and how they got here – it’s a great feeling for me.

Kaurna elder Madge Wanganeen at Smithfield Memorial Park. ‘Now is the time they are going to get laid to rest and not disturbed any more.’ Photograph: Brad Griffin.

She says wrapping the remains in brown paper and tying them with woollen string is appropriate for the ceremonial reburial. “Me and Uncle Moogy have sat down and spoken about it and this is the way we decided to do it. It brings dignity to every one of them.

“I get overwhelmed – I’m feeling it now actually – just talking about it. Now is the time they are going to get laid to rest and not disturbed any more. So it makes me feel proud of what I’m doing.”

Wanganeen explains how she reassures the ancestors as she prepares them for reburial.

“Yes, I do speak to them. I tell them I’m here for them and I get very emotional. I sit in this room by myself sometimes and I just tell them that, you know, I’ve got your back … and that this is such an important time for all of us.”

Sumner says he’s been repatriating people from all over the world for decades and has returned people to the country of his father (Ngarrindjeri) and now his mother (Kaurna).

“It’s draining and it takes it out of you. But it makes you feel good that you’re doing it,” he says. “What really got me was we were sitting down there and then you will get one of the old people’s remains – and we are not just talking about old people. These are little children. Little babies. Their remains.

“Why did they die – how did they die? They’d never seen life yet … we don’t know why. But it makes you feel very, very sad for them – for their spirit. It affects me because I’ve got a lot of grandchildren and I’d hate that to happen to my grandchildren.”

The burial ground at Smithfield Memorial Park has been landscaped with native plants and a ceremonial grassed area shaped like a Kaurna shield. Photograph: Brad Griffin.

Reburial in the first of the four Smithfield mounds will liberate these Indigenous remains from the cardboard boxes many have been kept in for decades or longer. It will also allow their spirits to finally rest, in perpetuity. Traditional belief has it that the spirit remains restless until the body is permanently returned to its country.

Accordingly, the Kaurna-led reference group overseeing development of the Smithfield resting place ensured that soil from all parts of the Adelaide Plains was scattered across the memorial park. Kaurna wanted ancestors from across the region to find home in this new place – to be buried in their own soil with the smells of their own country. The place, called Wangayarta, is a new kind of country that deals with the question of how to bury Indigenous people from different regions in one place.

But what was behind the necessity of building a memorial park to rebury the skeletal remains of Indigenous people whose bodies came to form part of the collection of one of Australia’s oldest museums?

Kept as curios

Tuesday’s reburial of the first 100 or so Kaurna people from the northern part of Adelaide at the Wangayarta Kaurna site (“wanga” meaning grave and “yarta” meaning earth, soil or country) represents the start of a closing chapter for some of the 4,600 mostly Indigenous people, whose remains the South Australian Museum collected. Behind that collection is a sordid, shameful history of Indigenous dispossession and the disturbance of ceremonial burial grounds as the city expanded, with the institutional theft of remains by some of the city’s most historically respected figures.

From the mid-1800s until well into the 20th century, Adelaide’s government, medical, bureaucratic, academic and museological leaders routinely stole and swapped the remains of thousands of mostly Indigenous individuals. Some were pillaged from traditional burial grounds while others were stolen when the life had scarcely left them – from the morgue, the hospital and the old “insane asylum”. Thousands of bodies were stolen, collected and traded locally, nationally and internationally – many to satisfy the curiosity of medical scientists who fallaciously regarded Indigenous Australians as a rung on Darwin’s ladder of human evolution – somewhere between primates and modern man. The scientific truth was quite contrary; the Indigenes of this continent have been proven to be the world’s most enduring modern humans – homo sapiens.

Other Indigenous people in the South Australian Museum collection were snatched upon request by frontier workers and police who either came across the dead or killed the living to render them collectibles. Some of the skulls in the collection bear bullet holes.

Others who died on the streets, in institutions – the asylum, hospital and hospices for elderly people – were “anatomised” (a euphemism for defleshed), and their intact heads, skulls and skeletons were turned into collectibles.

The remains of about 4,600 mostly Indigenous people are kept at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. Photograph: Kelly Barnes AllStar Photos/The Guardian.

Some of Adelaide’s most esteemed civic, medical and cultural pioneers – including Sir Edward StirlingDr William Lennox ClelandDr William Ramsay Smith and Archibald Watson obsessively collected, traded and exported Indigenous remains. The horror underwriting the story of the museum’s remains collection is at odds with Adelaide’s cultivated myth of some benign settlement devoid of convict stain. The truth is that not only was Adelaide established, in part, courtesy of the proceeds of slavery, the Kaurna in life and death were often treated as chattels.

The city’s archives are replete with stories of Indigenous remains being accidentally dug up. When this happened in the 1850s, the bones were often reburied. But as the city grew along with the misguided sentiment that the colony – like all the others in Australia – was witnessing “the passing of the race”, more and more remains were kept as curios.

‘We always cried silently inside’

It is with the onerous weight of such dark history – with the descendants’ terrible burden of knowing the remains of the old people have sat in boxes for too long while they were powerless to rebury them – that the first reinterments will take place. The Kaurna will establish a sorry camp – part of the process of finally farewelling the ancestors – at Smithfield Memorial Park this weekend before the bodies, so tenderly readied by Wanganeen and Sumner, arrive.

“We always cried silently inside, you know? The tears were inside us. That pain and that anger that we carry with us about it always,” says Uncle Jeffrey Newchurch, chair of the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation. He has been integral to Kaurna Indigenous repatriation for decades and is pivotal to the establishment of Wangayarta.

“Aboriginal people have not had proper access to those ancestors. I call it the brick walls … with trapdoors of rules and regulations … that meant we may or may not get in.

“There is that dark side, you know, where the Ramsay Smiths of this world and others have used [the remains] for bargaining power or sent them overseas to England and all that.”

He says the weekend camp will be about “sitting by the campfire, to heal, to share in that sorrow and that grief”.

“Now we can deal with that anger and frustration … and camping on country – sorry camp – we’ve forgotten those old ways,” he says. “Reigniting that [tradition] allows positive energy to come into it all so you can deal with that negativity.”

The development of the Smithfield site evolved after an initial conversation between Newchurch and the Adelaide Cemetery Authority’s Robert Pitt several years ago.

“Having done some sums, and made some high-level assumptions, I estimate Kaurna country covers about 800,000 hectares of country. I reckon there’s a hectare or two amongst these 800,000 for the Kaurna people to rebury their ancestors,” Pitt says.

On behalf of the authority, he offered the Kaurna two distinct one-hectare plots – one in which to rebury the ancestors from the museum, the nearby second to bury contemporary descendants.

Pitt says he approached that initial conversation with a sense that “the whole thing isn’t right” and “just had to be fixed”.

“I said we have got some land down at Smithfield and we would be willing to work with you to develop a reburial ground,” he says.

“It also seemed to make sense that if you’ve got your ancestors and old people buried in the reburial ground … that you would have a burial ground adjacent to that for contemporary Kaurna burials.”

Kaurna elder Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner (centre) with the South Australian Museum’s head of humanities John Carty (left) and Aboriginal heritage manager Anna Russo (right). Photograph: Kelly Barnes AllStar Photos/The Guardian.

Pitt and the cemetery authority later met with the museum’s head of humanities John Carty and Aboriginal heritage manager Anna Russo. He confirmed the offer of the Smithfield land, the site of a relatively new general cemetery.

On taking up his position six years ago, Carty’s priority was to investigate the museum’s historical and current position on the collection of human remains – and to prioritise returning to country as many as possible.

He and Russo were acutely mindful of the fraught cultural and practical sensitivities of returning and reburying so many sets of Aboriginal remains.

“It all had to be done with such deep sensitivity to the pressures Kaurna face in making these huge decisions. Each step has had to be slow. It took a few years, but that’s nothing compared to the generations of trauma that preceded this day, the trauma that people have had to work through in order to bring their own ancestors to peace,” Carty says.

“We always said this is a Kaurna-led project, not a museum project. The Kaurna rebury their ancestors. The museum does not rebury people. It is being done by the community for the community. Our role is to support that ambition, and to advocate for it at all levels of government.

“There is so much risk involved in it for the [Kaurna] people leading the process. People never reburied hundreds of ancestors, let alone built a burial ground to make that happen. It’s not a burden that should ever have been placed on this generation, or any generation.

“But the Kaurna leadership were resolute that they weren’t going to pass this burden on to their grandkids. Proceeding came with some fear of getting it wrong. But ultimately everyone came to the view that nothing could be more wrong than your ancestors sitting in a box in a museum.”

The Kaurna people will establish a sorry camp at the reburial site this weekend. Photograph: Brad Griffin.

Russo, who has worked alone for years with the remains in the museum’s collection, tracing provenance and trying to establish individual identities, says that working on the Kaurna Smithfield project has helped her see her city differently.

“I can see and hear the old families playing in the sandhills near the beach, walking across Country in the hot sun, finding places to shelter from the rain. There are roads and houses there now, but the curves of the landscape are still there. The burial sites have introduced me to the Old People of Adelaide who carefully buried the people they loved,” she says.

“I’m warmed by the small objects people were buried with – their shells and small stone tools … Even though Kaurna Smithfield has been the most challenging project I have ever worked on, I think to myself how lucky am I to be with Kaurna people today … The Kaurna people, past and present, have taught me more than I could have ever imagined.”

The Kaurna people, in partnership with the museum, won support from the Liberal state government, which has paid for the elaborately landscaped burial ground comprising the mounds, a water feature, native plantings and a large ceremonial grassed area (shaped like a traditional Kaurna shield).

The ancestors will be reburied in perpetuity, thanks to likely amendments to the state’s Burial and Cremation Act, which did not guarantee permanent burial. This renders the land at Smithfield one of the few – or perhaps only – parts of Australia permanently guaranteed to Indigenous people, such is the enduring legacy of widespread dispossession.

Besides Kaurna, the reference group behind the Smithfield project comprises representatives of the River Murray and Mallee people and the Ngarrindjeri, whose ancestors (500 and 1,200 respectively) are in the museum collection. They are learning from the Kaurna mass reburial while considering how to meet the daunting prospect of reinterring their own dead. The 2,000-plus other people in the museum collection include 800 sets of unprovenanced remains, other more distant South Australian people, and skeletons from the Northern Territory and other states.

The reburial on Tuesday represents a prescient landmark in the repatriation and reburial of stolen Australian Indigenous remains. It is also a rare gesture of dignity in this tawdry historic episode for the stolen dead and their descendants who share the pain of the restless spirits.

Sumner reflects on the poignant reburial day as it nears. “I’ll be carrying them from the smoking ceremony to the burial place,” he says.

“Then I will be down there in the mound and other people will be passing me the old people and I’ll be placing them in different parts of that reburial site.”