Politics of the Dead: A Comparative Analysis of Legislative Options for the Reburial of Repatriated Indigenous Human Remains in Southeastern Australia

01st December 2009


BArch(Hons), Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, November 2007

This thesis examines current options for reburial of Indigenous remains in legislation and the administrative policies of collecting institutions and government departments in mainland southeastern Australia. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (South Australia), Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Victoria) and National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (New South Wales) are examined in combination with the ‘Policy and Procedures for Aboriginal Heritage Unit and Related Unit’ (Australian Museum, NSW), ‘Policy on Human Skeletal Remains Collection 1987’ (South Australian Museum), ‘Repatriation of Aboriginal Cultural Material Policy: Principles and Direction for Repatriation’ (draft document, Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division, SA) and ‘Repatriation of Aboriginal Cultural Material Policy’ (Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, NSW).

The past collection of Indigenous skeletal remains for scientific research by various parties has resulted in the current ‘reburial issue’. With the successful repatriation of remains, deciding whether, where, how and when remains will be reburied is a complex process confronting Indigenous communities. Utilising a qualitative research methodology, this study explores the reburial options for remains within public policy and state heritage legislation. This research contributes to the sparse discourse regarding this complex contemporary issue, discussing several key issues confronting Indigenous communities, notably the access to useable land for reburial; provisions for resources (both financial and logistical) within legislation and policy; and the future protection of these remains.

Owing to the independent development of legislation and policy of each state in the study region, the study explores the effectiveness of each state model in providing provisions for the reburial of remains. In doing so, the study illustrates the present deficiency in South Australian legislation and policy in comparison with those of its counterparts, New South Wales and Victoria. The research concludes that although some significant steps have been made towards establishing an effective response to this complex issue, in general the collecting institutions and government departments in southeastern Australia have been ‘slow’ in creating ‘real’ assistance to Indigenous communities in the complex process of deciding how, when, where and whether to rebury their Old People.

Image caption: Uncle Major ‘Moogie’ Sumner at a Ngarrindjeri reburial ceremony (photograph courtesy of Lynley Wallis).
Tamarind Meara
December 2009
Thesis Abstracts
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