Returning ngarritjbal (bones) to Arnhem Land
(University of Queensland)
Paper short abstract:
Crania painted with madayin minytji (sacred designs) from eastern Arnhem Land are held by public and university museums in Australia and overseas. This paper discusses complexities relating to returning these individuals to country and concerns of senior clan leaders in relation to their future.
Paper long abstract:
Painting liya or skulls (lit. head) with madayin minytji (sacred clan designs) was a customary secondary burial practice unique to eastern Arnhem Land. The 1930s to 1960s saw the Methodist Overseas Mission staff at Milingimbi and, to a lesser extent, Yirrkala and in Darwin, target collecting institutions to secure examples of these. Anthropologists, artists and others visiting Milingimbi particularly, as well as Australian servicemen stationed there in WW2, also collected these. Research for the ARC Linkage project, The Legacy of Fifty Years Collecting at Milingimbi Mission, uncovered more than 80 liya madayin minytji (painted skulls) in museum collections from all these sources. At the 2016 forum, Makarrata: Bringing the Past into the Future (part of the ARC project) brought together representatives of twenty museums, galleries and archives worldwide, and senior Yolngu men asked about Ancestral Remains held in museums. A nationally co-ordinated project was initiated and data collated that has been the subject of consultation at Milingimbi. I discuss here the way museums engaged with the project and responses from Yolngu. The key consideration for consultation has been to build profiles or biographies of each individual as much as is possible-both in life and in death- based on available information. I discuss the way Yolngu have responded, including reassessing and reflecting on customary practices for the disposal of a person's bones in the past, and how this might inform decisions in the present.
Enlivening the dead: anthropology and heritage