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The Vermillion Accord and the significance of the history of the scientific procurement and use of Indigenous Australian bodily remains


Turnbull, PG, The Vermillion Accord and the significance of the history of the scientific procurement and use of Indigenous Australian bodily remains, The Long Way Home: The Meaning and Values of Repatriation, Berghahn Books, Paul Turnbull, Michael Pickering, Mary Bouquet, Howard Morphy (ed), United Kingdom, pp. 117-134. ISBN 9781845459581 (2010) [Research Book Chapter]

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Copyright 2010 Berghahn Books

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Henry Atkinson, a senior lawman of the Yorta Yorta people. speaks eloquently in this volume of the bewilderment and anguish caused by the desecration of ancestral burial places. However distressing it has proved, his obligation under customary law has been to secure the repatriation of Yorta Yorta remains lying in collections within various museums and medical schools in Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom. In recalling his experiences in campaigning for remains to be brought back to country, Henry Atkinson reminded us that repatriation has its origins in 'Indigenous people ... demanding control, accountability and recognition of their ownership of the past. It was not something conceptualised by scholars for the good of Indigenous people: (Pardoe 1991: 16) As Indigenous Australian efforts to rescue the dead gained momentum through the 1980s many researchers in disciplines such as archaeology, anatomy and physical anthropology were genuinely perplexed as to why Indigenous people should demand the return of skeletal remains and soft tissue that, in many instances, had lain in museum and medical school collections for a century or more. A number of prominent researchers questioned publicly whether repatriation could be anything other than a political stunt, orchestrated by a handful of urban Aboriginal radicals seeking to give new emotive force to longstanding political demands in respect of land rights and the overcoming of social inequalities. In the Australian press, conservative commentators dismissed leading campaigners such as Michael Mansell, Bob Weatherall and Henry Atkinson as men with little or no connection to the life-ways and culture of the people whose remains they sought. What was new about the repatriation campaigns witnessed in the 1980s was not the motivation of leading campaigners, but their ability to be heard in the public sphere and, moreover, to secure widespread non-Indigenous support for their cause. The desire to see the dead reunited with ancestral country long predates the 1980s. Indeed. the history of Indigenous Australian people's efforts to secure the return of remains from scientific collections can be traced in archival sources back to the late nineteenth century. Evidence of Aboriginal efforts to prevent scientific theft from ancestral burial places can be found in a wealth of historical sources dating from the earliest years of European invasion, Soon after the establishment of the Port Jackson penal settlement in 1788. European colonial officials. convicts and settlers came to be familiar with Aboriginal mortuary ceremonies and cultural obligations to the dead. So much so that, by the late 1830s, the British Crown had formally recognised Aboriginal customary rights to land given over to burial and remembrance of the dead in accordance with time-honoured custom (Turnbull 2002: 63-86). Considered within the context of this extensive history. the adoption of the Vermillion Accord on Human Remains by the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 1989 can be seen as marking an important shift in how repatriation was understood within scientific circles. The accord implicitly recognised that demands by Indigenous peoples for the return of remains reflected the survival and continuing vitality of their cultures and systems of customary law. As such, it was a long overdue attempt to create a framework for negotiations between scientific researchers and communities respecting the legitimacy of both scientific and Indigenous customary interests in the fate of remains.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Research Division:Philosophy and Religious Studies
Research Group:History and philosophy of specific fields
Research Field:History and philosophy of science
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in human society
UTAS Author:Turnbull, PG (Professor Paul Turnbull)
ID Code:92925
Year Published:2010
Deposited By:School of Humanities
Deposited On:2014-07-01
Last Modified:2015-02-10

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