by Nance Haxton

A representative body for Australian South Sea Islanders is calling for the repatriation of more than 1000 ancestral human remains which are stored in museums and institutions around Australia.

Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson chair Waskam Emelda Davis is also appealing to museums around Australia that are holding human remains of Pacific Islanders to be more proactive in returning them to their islands of origin.

More than 60,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia from countries such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands from the late 19th century to work in brutal conditions establishing sugar cane and cotton farms, in a practice now known as blackbirding.

Many were brought against their will – and never saw their homelands again.

Ms Davis, who is also a City of Sydney Councillor, says they estimate more than one thousand human remains of their forebears are displaced in major institutions across the country including the Australian Museum.

She says as an advisor to the Australian Museum for four years she has raised the issue of human remains still held inappropriately in “colonial institutions”, but she feels negotiations have stalled.

“When you attend the resting place for our ancestral relics as a part of the Australian museum at Rydalmere, they’ve got a bunker, a warehouse where they are storing a lot of those relics that have been moved,” Ms Davis says.

“You can feel the energy when we do those tours and we ask for peace, love, and that we come to observe, but we’ve never actually been allowed to go into the vault and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway.

“But just in terms of the enormity of the collection with Pacific relics and then knowing that the human remains are there, it’s sad really to think that in 2024 we are still trying to advocate for their recognition and freedom.”

The Australian Museum First Nations Team has issued a statement saying it acknowledges the importance of repatriating First Nations’ ancestral remains and sacred objects, and that it will continue to facilitate sensitive discussions with appropriate Pacific Government authorities in each country about the correct protocols and processes around returning ancestors to their places of origin.

The Australian Museum also acknowledged the importance of ensuring the self-determination of this process for Indigenous peoples, with the statement saying that Indigenous managers and staff lead the repatriation program, helping to identify and apply appropriate cultural protocols and processes.

But Ms Davis says ancestral remains should be returned to the islands from which they came, by taking part in respectful conversations with each country.

She says state and federal governments also need to do more work towards recognising the thousands of unmarked graves of South Sea Islanders around the country, with many South Sea Islanders buried where they fell on the farms where they worked.

“Sure it’s complex, but nothing’s impossible, right?” she said.

“When we are talking about ancestral relics, we need to be culturally specific and deal with those countries respectfully with their own cultural governance and how those things are managed.

“We know that when people pass, there’s ceremony that’s required in order to rest in peace.

“There’s traditional people on islands that actually still practise deep seated culture, knowledge, lived experiences and what that looks like for those that were stolen from their homeland.

“Everyone seems to have the solution top down about how everything needs to be done for the Pacific and not empowering the Pacific to make their own decisions. And we’ve got to be mindful that here in Australia we don’t adopt that same kind of thinking.

“The conversation has to happen respectfully, and that’s what I’m finding these colonial institutions aren’t respectfully engaging.”