Illinois State Museum gives cultural artifacts back to Australian Aboriginal peoples

Illinois State Museum gives cultural artifacts back to Australian Aboriginal peoples
Photo by Dannyl Dolder
Russell Davey showing details of the boomerangs. L-R: George Godfrey (Potawatomi), Travis Booth, Brooke Morgan, Russell Davey (Bardi Jawi), and Terrance Martin.

For over 75 years, cultural items handcrafted by Australian Aboriginal peoples rested quietly at the Illinois State Museum (ISM), cared for by museum curators.  Last Wednesday marked the beginning of their journey home. They will play a dynamic role in revitalizing Aboriginal traditions and culture.  Many of the objects were made with simple tools 100 years ago. Some are no longer being made, and many young people have never seen these objects that represent their heritage. ISM is the first institution in the world to repatriate artifacts to Aboriginal peoples in response to Australia’s Return of Cultural Heritage Project (“Illinois State Museum returns artifacts to Australia,” Oct. 17).
Museum officials and an Australian delegation convened for a handoff ceremony at the ISM Research and Collections Center on Oct. 23. After formal remarks and signing paperwork, two boomerangs were placed in the hands of Bardi Jawi representative Russell Davey. For the first time in nearly 100 years, they were used in the traditional way. Davey sang while deftly tapping the boomerangs together to create the magical sounds and rhythms of a spirit dance. His cousin Robert Wiggan danced.  It was a powerful and emotional moment – the ISM relinquished its long role as steward of these objects, and Davey brought them back to life.
Davey explained that boomerangs are used for singing, dancing and fighting. He pointed out paint made by chewing the inner bark from a tree.  Davey said the spirit dance is about their elder relative who passed away, all the spirits that died before him and a welcome to a new home. His dance represented “the good spirit today” and a welcome home.

Illinois State Museum gives cultural artifacts back to Australian Aboriginal peoples
Photo by Amanda Bryden
Robert Wiggan (Bardi Jawi) performing the Spirit Dance to celebrate the artifacts returning home.
Australian Consulate-General David Bushby said returning cultural heritage material to its traditional country is profoundly important as it promotes healing and reconciliation as well as revitalization and maintenance of the world’s oldest and continuing cultures. “It helps right the wrongs of the past and build positive relationships between collecting institutions, indigenous peoples and government.”
Several factors contributed to the ISM being the first to repatriate after being contacted by the Australian institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). The ISM has experience consulting with Native American tribes in response to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, has a formal deaccessioning policy and was not afraid of repatriation, said anthropology research assistant Claire Martin.
Elders of the Aboriginal communities designated representatives to travel to Illinois and bring the objects home. Davey is from northwest Australia, a two-day drive from Canberra. Braydon Kantjira, who speaks six languages, is an Aranda ceremonial leader from the hot and dry central desert area of Australia. A few hundred people live in his community, which is about 80 miles from Alice Springs. Kantjira says his home is a stark contrast to Springfield.  “It is nice and quiet there, where you can think for miles and hear a long way away.” He said people here are very different, although quite friendly. While the Central Illinois weather was unseasonably warm during the representatives’ visit, Kantjira commented that he felt as if he had walked into a freezer.
Returning these objects means much more than sending them home. They will empower communities, explained Christopher Simpson, director of the Return of Cultural Heritage Project. Some traditions have been lost over time as ceremonial objects left the country. Now the objects will be used to revitalize cultural traditions. For example, senior elder women will use the tusk shell necklace (depicted in Oct. 17 IT) to teach young women of their communities how to make those necklaces.
Some of the objects are considered sacred and only used by men for ceremonial purposes at certain times of the year.  It is forbidden for children, women and non-indigenous people to view and hold these objects. This presented challenges for female staff members, and male volunteers were asked to help.
The ceremony was meaningful to the participants in many different ways. Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, noted that everyone was standing on the shoulders of the people who came before. Davey described it as a very special day and “a good story for our people and our country.”  

Museum curators found it exciting and unusual to see objects they carefully protected being used for the intended purpose. Brooke Morgan, ISM curator of anthropology, described getting goosebumps while watching the spirit dance.

For descendents of linguistic anthropologist Gerhardt Laves, who collected the objects and worked with Aboriginal communities around 1930, it was a way to honor their father and grandfather. For the Australian government, it was an extremely positive precedent and catalyst for other collecting institutions.  

Dr. Lorin Nevling, chair of the ISM board, spent decades with responsibility for collections, as a former director of the Field Museum and chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey. He also had a memorable trip to Australia, not far from where the Aranda people live. Nevling said it was a high point of his career to see the boomerangs used in the spirit dance.

Brooke Morgan led the ISM team throughout the process. She says ISM staff members are honored to have been part of such groundbreaking work.  “At times, it was emotionally challenging for all parties as we reflected on the significance of the event,” she said. “One of the things that will stick with me most is how the local community has been affected. As guests were leaving the public lecture, someone said this made her proud to be from Illinois.” 

ISM director Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko said, "We will look back on this moment as the beginning of a new era at ISM, a time when we committed to becoming a more inclusive museum, sharing the stories of all Illinoisans and the world around us, with special attention on telling stories of historically excluded and underrepresented people and communities."

Karen Ackerman Witter is a freelance writer and former associate director of the Illinois State Museum.

About The Author

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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