Four taonga taken from an Indigenous Australian group more than a century ago have been returned by Auckland Museum this week.
A range of ceremonies, led by mana whenua, were held in Tāmaki Makaurau to mark the return to the Warumungu people, from the Northern Territory near the town of Tennant Creek.
The four items are a palya/kupija (adze), a ngurrulumuru (axe), and two wartilykirri (hooked boomerang), understood to have been collected in the late 19th century by anthropologists Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen.
Auckland Museum director of collections David Reeves said it was not clear how the artefacts ended up in Auckland.
“They were first collected from Australia in the 1890s and the most recent of them arrived in 1937, and record keeping at the time was possibly a bit patchy – certainly not the thoroughness that we would achieve today,” he said.
“We had to do a bit of work to properly identify the items. Initially, they only asked for three but during our research we identified a fourth one.”
Reeves said there was little hesitation about returning the taonga as the role of museums and their collections evolved.
“We like to think in Aotearoa we are leading the edge in some ways. I think the first thing is an attitude towards openness, we can acknowledge that some of the collecting practices in the past aren’t what we would support these days. And that in some cases things were taken without permission or with perhaps tenuous permission.”
Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies chief executive Craig Ritchie said it had been intensive work for his organisation to secure the return.
“From discovering the items were here, and we then began engaging with the Warumungu people about what it is that they wanted to have happen. Did they want the material to come home? Were they happy for us to negotiate on their behalf with the museums over here?”
Similar to what is being seen here in Aotearoa, Ritchie said Indigenous communities were pushing hard for their taonga to be returned, and it had gained momentum with real attitude shifts in recent years.
“There’s a long history, I’ve got to say, of people trying to get their cultural material back. We established our programme just before 2020 on the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook allegedly discovering us.”
“The very first thing that happened when Captain Cook and his men came ashore in Botany Bay was that they fired weapons at the Aboriginal men that were resisting their landing, and then they took away from that place shields and spears.
“We argued that an appropriate marking of that passage of 250 years would be to put resources into a Commonwealth programme that would reverse that trend and start bringing stuff home. We’ve been involved in this at a national level for a relatively short time, but individual communities and first nations groups have been at this for years and years and years.”
Reeves hinted there could be plenty more to repatriate.
“We’ve got over 600 items of Aboriginal Australian origin, so we’re in this for the long game. We’ll just be working through those, but always in response and working with partners so we’re sensitive to the local needs and the local aspirations.”
Six other taonga kept at Otago Museum will also be returned to Warumungu this week.
Story Credit: rnz.co.nz