This article was published by The Age on November 2, 2013.
It also appeared in print (click here to see this and similar print articles)
Neatly packaged in barcoded cardboard boxes at the Melbourne Museum's Malarri Gardens are the remains of 49 Aborigines from the Wadawurrung community, which stretches from Ballarat to Geelong.
It is believed the remains were removed from the area almost a century ago. But with help from Museum Victoria, they will soon be returned to Wadawurrung country.
According to Aboriginal tradition, an individual's soul must be laid to rest in his native country in order to be at peace.
style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; font-size: 12px; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; color: rgb(0, 0, 0); line-height: 17px;">On Friday, Museum Victoria hosted representatives of the Wadawurrung people in a traditional smoking ceremony at Melbourne Museum to begin the repatriation process. Elders dressed in traditional possum-skin cloaks and others with full body paint welcomed their ancestors' remains back to the community, taking them to be buried at secret locations in Wadawurrung country.
''This is our first repatriation ceremony, so it's very important to us,'' said Wadawurrung man Sean Fagan, who addressed the small crowd in native language during the ceremony. ''There'll be plenty more after this. It's very important to start the healing.''
Museum Victoria's repatriation program, which works to identify lost Aboriginal remains and return them to their communities, is providing the long-anticipated solace of a ''return to country''.
style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; font-size: 12px; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline; color: rgb(0, 0, 0); line-height: 17px;">Under Victorian and Commonwealth legislation, the museum acts as a custodian of all Aboriginal ancestral remains until they can be returned to their communities. It works with coroners, freemason groups and the universities (including the University of Melbourne) to locate the remains. Museum officials then work with communities to facilitate the repatriation.
Museum Victoria chief executive Patrick Greene said the event was one of mixed emotions. ''It's sad because it's necessary, but it's happy because it's happening.''
In addition to returning the remains, a formal apology was offered to the Wadawurrung people. ''We apologise for the ongoing distress their removal has caused your community, and can only hope that the return of your people can in some way repair the damage that their mistreatment has caused,'' Dr Greene said.
The museum estimates it has repatriated more than 1300 people since the program started about 35 years ago. Its current collection holds about 1600 people, including 374 who belong to boriginal communities in Victoria.
The program receives funding from the Commonwealth government's Indigenous Repatriation Program.
Museum Victoria's director of collections, research and exhibitions, Robin Hirst, said the process to repatriate the 49 Wadawurrung people had taken 10 years.
Four people were returning ''home'' after the ceremony on Friday, while the museum would continue to hold the remaining 45 whose burial places were yet to be determined.