On Friday 10 November 2023, Senior Warlpiri Men and AIATSIS staff gathered at the South Australian Museum to welcome home a collection of sacred objects from the USA. The return of this material was a collaboration between AIATSIS and the Warlpiri Project, a Warlpiri created and led project which works to help Warlpiri repatriate ancestors and objects.
Warlpiri Elders and emerging leaders said:
'We’re not talking about repatriation we’re doing it. Senior Men are working hand in hand with younger generations to teach our Tjukurpa. We’ve opened the doors to create a stronger pathway for us to transfer knowledge to our younger Warlpiri. The Warlpiri Project is about learning and sharing culture on the job, younger people are learning when they are sitting next to Elders, singing along with us and walking with us. Hopefully we inspire other tribes – its significant.'
These objects were collected by the late Professor Nancy Munn (1931-2020), Emerita Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, during her PhD field work at Yuendumu between 1956 and 1958. In her PhD thesis (1960), Professor Munn explains that her research could not have been possible without the support of the Warlpiri community, she writes:
'My most immediate debt is to the Warlpiri themselves. They were my friends and patient teachers, and knowing them has immeasurably enriched my own experience.'
The Hon Linda Burney MP, Minister for Indigenous Australians, said, "I commend AIATSIS and the Warlpiri Project for their work towards the return of these sacred objects – taken so far away for more than 60 years. This is a significant moment for the Warlpiri Nation and so important for future generations to have these precious materials returned to their rightful place."
The return of these objects is part of a larger undertaking led by the Warlpiri Project and Warlpiri men, Karl Japaltjarri Hampton and Jamie Jungarrayi Hampton with the South Australian Museum, to return Professor Munn’s entire collection of archival material relating to their people and culture.
Ngemba man and interim AIATSIS CEO, Mr Leonard Hill said, “AIATSIS is very happy to support the return of these sacred objects. Reuniting custodians with their sacred material is a vital part of AIATSIS’s global mission to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Custodians to make decisions about their cultural heritage. This repatriation further demonstrates how AIATSIS’s collaborative approach to returning material builds trusting relationships between partners, supports cultural informed decision making and achieves fantastic outcomes.”
The return of the objects was facilitated by AIATSIS, the Warlpiri Project and Professor Françoise Dussart, Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut, a close friend and colleague of Professor Munn’s. Professor Dussart has been working with the Warlpiri community at Yuendumu since the 1980s and as Professor Munn’s literary executor for her Australian material she recently prepared Professor Munn’s personal research materials for archival deposit and return to the Warlpiri community.
AIATSIS has previously worked with the Warlpiri Project to return material from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collections, University of Virginia, USA.
AIATSIS leads the Australian Government’s Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program that facilitates the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material to Australia and supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in exercising sovereignty over cultural heritage material held in overseas collections.
The Senior Warlpiri Men will return these treasures to their keeping place at Yuendumu in due course.
The AIATSIS RoCH program and the Warlpiri Project are funded by the National Indigenous Australia Agency. The Warlpiri Project is also supported by Marion Scrymgour MP and The Granites Mine Affected Area Aboriginal Corporation (GMAAAC).