A documentary film by researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) is set to shine a light on the cultural and emotional damage caused to Aboriginal communities by ’bone theft’ - the removal of human remains from their resting places for scientific purposes.
Etched in Bone tells the story of Aboriginal bones taken during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. The bones were then taken to the Smithsonian Institution in the United States before eventually being repatriated to Arnhem Land more than 60 years later.
The film was made and directed by historian Dr Martin Thomas and Dr Béatrice Bijon (Co-Director) from the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. Dr Thomas explained that the film explores why human remains are important within Indigenous culture.
"The Spirits of the ancestors are attached to the bones, so removing them creates disharmony within the spirit world," Dr Thomas said.
"There is a fundamental conflict between scientific values and Indigenous beliefs."
The film uses original footage of the 1948 scientific expedition and tells the story from the perspective of Jacob Nayinggul, an Indigenous Elder from the Gunbalanya region in Arnhem Land who passed away before the film could be released.
Dr Bijon said that even after the Australian Government officially contacted the Smithsonian in the late 1990s to ask for the bones to be returned, it was a long and stressful process.
"The Smithsonian Institution has an absolutely huge physical anthropology collection and curators that are rather attached to it, they feel it has enormous scientific value," Dr Bijon said.
"The repatriation claim dragged on for ten years. Eventually they said ’you can have some of them’ and returned two-thirds of the remains in 2009.
"This only caused more distress because it actually involved dividing up the bodies."
Dr Thomas said the film is the result of more than ten years of work, and he hopes its release can give a new perspective to the ongoing debate around repatriation.
"My greatest desire is to have the film seen by scientists and museum curators so they can get a perspective of the damage that has been done to Indigenous cultures," he said.
Etched in Bone will be launched on the evening of 4 October 2018 at the National Film and Sound Archive, a date that marks the seventieth anniversary of the expedition. Key people from Arnhem Land featured in the film will be visiting for the occasion.
On 5 October there will be a public symposium at ANU titled ’Repatriation Revisited’ where the filmmakers, the Arnhem Landers and researchers will discuss the issues involved with repatriation.