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‘This is what we need’: Indigenous remains finally laid to rest in historic Adelaide ceremony

·4-min read

Wangayarta is not a typical cemetery. It has been carefully designed to permanently house the ancestral remains of the Kaurna nation, the traditional owners of the Adelaide plains.

Instead of having rows of headstones, its lawns have been shaped to resemble from above a Kaurna shield, surrounded by more than 5,000 newly planted saplings of acacia, paperbark, kangaroo grass and other species native to the area.

Related: ‘It brings dignity to every one of them’: inside the reburial of Indigenous bones and restless spirits

The large mounds that encircle the grass include soil collected from every corner of Kaurna country, which stretches from Crystal Brook in the state’s mid-north to Cape Jervis on the Fleurieu Peninsula.

The remains of more than 100 Indigenous ancestors were finally laid to rest at Wangayarta in Adelaide’s north on Tuesday in a long-awaited repatriation ceremony.

Before the ceremony, the remains were carefully prepared by Kaurna people and transported from the South Australian Museum’s storage facilities in Netley, which has for many years housed the remains of 4,500 Aboriginal people from around Australia.

Kaurna elder Uncle Major “Moogy” Sumner described the significance of Wangayarta and the ceremony. “I’ve been involved in repatriation for about 40 years, travelling all over the world, bringing our old people home,” he said.

“And I’ve never seen anything like this. This is what we all need in our community, a special place where we can take our old people, where they’ll never be dug up again, never be put into boxes, shipped across the other side of the world.”

Sumner, along with Kaurna elder Aunty Madge Wanganeen and South Australian premier Steven Marshall, descended into the burial site to lay to rest the first ancestor, regarded to be among the first Kaurna remains taken into the museum’s custody in the 19th century.

A procession of Kaurna, young and old, then began the long and careful process of placing parcel after parcel into the red earth of their new – and final – resting place.

Marshall, whose state government committed $300,000 to the pilot project, said the work at Wangayarta seeks to address a dark legacy that belongs to the whole state.

“Repatriation is the responsibility of all South Australians as a result of activities and attitudes of the past,” he said.

“Our lives here as South Australians are built on the historic disturbance of Aboriginal country. Those activities destroyed Aboriginal burial sites across the greater Adelaide area to create houses and infrastructure that we now use.

“Aboriginal ancestral remains found their ways into museums and collecting institutions in the past because of attitudes that today we find abhorrent and impossible to comprehend. But we all have a responsibility to understand our history and to take the appropriate action in response to it.”

John Carty, head of humanities at the South Australian Museum, delivered an apology on behalf of the museum, the University of Adelaide and the wider community.

“I’m sorry that our forebears did not treat your ancestors as brothers and sisters,” he said.

How the remains ended up in the museum’s custodianship is a long and painful story. Many were disturbed by a century of land-clearing, construction and excavation works, with a recently completed University of Adelaide report documenting at least 300 Kaurna burial sites across the Adelaide plains.

Others came to the museum through more macabre circumstances. For many years, members of South Australia’s medical and scientific fraternities took part in an international trade in Indigenous remains that is still being unravelled today.

Addressing an issue of such scale and injustice has long been a complex question for Kaurna and the Museum. A breakthrough finally came in 2019, when the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority offered Kaurna leaders a permanent burial site on land adjacent to its Smithfield Memorial Park.

The old people laid to rest at Wangayarta represent an important step in repatriating the many hundreds of Kaurna ancestors held by the museum. They account for only a portion of the 4,500 at its Netley keeping place.

For the rest, it is hoped that Wangayarta will offer not only a permanent resting place for Kaurna people, but a model for First Nations and non-Indigenous communities around the country.

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