Indigenous International Repatriation: Returning Ancestral Remains Home

Date/Location: Thursday, May 23, 2013; 1:15-2:15; United States Mission to the United Nations, 45th Street & 1st Ave

Speakers: Ms. Honor Keeler; Mr. Kim Beazley (Australian Ambassador to the U.S.); Mr. Neil Carter; Mr. Phil Gordon; Ms. Jackie Swift (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian); Ms. Nancy Kenet Vickery;

Written by: Marli Kasdan

indigenous-people-pngThe United States Permanent Mission to the United Nations held a meeting in May to discuss international repatriation. International repatriation of indigenous ancestral remains, and cultural and spiritual items is a human right, and is addressed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Ms. Keeler began the discussion with an explanation of international repatriation. International repatriation is the return of indigenous human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to the indigenous communities to which they rightfully belong. Indigenous spiritual and cultural objects and ancestral remains were taken from indigenous communities during the period of colonization. In the past 520 years, 1 million ancestral remains and cultural items were taken from indigenous communities and now exist outside of the tribes to which they belong.

Currently, there are no international laws for repatriation so each claim has to be submitted to each museum individually in order for indigenous peoples to get their items back. International repatriation is the result of an on going human rights violation; free, prior, and informed consent was not given to the indigenous communities when museums and colonizers collected these sacred items.

After this introduction, Mr. Beazley gave a statement from the government of Australia explaining how important repatriation is to the Aboriginal people of Australia. It allows their ancestors to return home to their rightful place, and helps promote healing and reconciliation. A joint declaration was established in 2004 between Great Britain and Australia to manage the return of indigenous remains and items to Aboriginal Australians.

This agreement has led to the return of 1400 ancestral remains and 1400 sacred objects to Aboriginal Australians. The ambassador also addressed the importance of getting indigenous leaders involved in the decision making process about repatriation to ensure that indigenous peoples have a voice in this important process.

Next, Mr. Carter and Mr. Gordon gave statements on current repatriation today. A connection is broken when ancestral remains are taken from their land and repatriation is a way to restore this connection. The first repatriation of ancestral remains happened about 35 years ago with no policy in place. Repatriation first started from aboriginal activism. However, there are many challenges to repatriation.

In many countries indigenous peoples are displaced and do not have their own lands with which to re-bury their ancestral remains that are recovered. It’s also had for many indigenous to reincorporate their ancestors back into their community because there is no process in place for reincorporation since the ancestors should never have been taken from the indigenous communities in the first place.

Ms. Swift, from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, then talked about the 2 repatriation laws that are present in the U.S. These include the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the National Museum of American Indians Act (NMAI). Her organization conducts international repatriations based on the belief that every ancestral remain deserves a proper reburial as a human right. They have repatriated over 31,00 objects back to their communities of origin in Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Chile, and elsewhere.

Ms. Vickery then followed up with an example of two highly successful repatriation missions in northern Chile in 2007. She stated that repatriation missions are most successful when they are built upon mutual understanding between museums, governments, and the affected indigenous communities.

Edited By; Wayne  Dean Doyle

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