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Four Warumungu cultural items returning home from Auckland museum after handover events

A ceremony today in Auckland saw the formal return of material of significant cultural interest to the Warumungu community, the traditional custodians of land in and around the township of Tennant Creek in northern Australia, from Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Now on their way back to Australia, the four items — a palya/kupija (adze), a ngurrulumuru (axe/pick), and two wartilykirri (hooked boomerang) — were collected perhaps a century ago by anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer, who worked with Warumungu people alongside Francis Gillen in the early 1900s, and James Field, the telegraph operator at Tennant Creek. 

Spencer and Gillen amassed a collection of over 6000 items from Central Australia. These are dispersed in institutions across the globe.

This morning the iwi of Tāmaki Makaurau (local people of Auckland) greeted the Warumungu delegation with a pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony) to initiate handing back responsibility of these treasures to their original owners. 

Representatives from Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum then completed the formalities. 

Warumungu man, Jimmy Frank, spoke of the significance of the occasion.

‘These objects left our country 120 years ago,’ he said. ‘In those artefacts there is signatures that are Warumungu. When I look at that I find that it’s important ‘cause the signatures – that artefact that I’m seeing today 120 years later – the similarity is there. My grandparents made this out of rock, today I’m using a steel axe and a grinder. But the significant shape, the signatures are still the same today. Even though we are living in two different era. But it’s still there. 

‘And that goes for our culture. We might live in different worlds today but we still the same people. 

‘Today’s a very unique day, a unique and historical moment. This object could have been anywhere in the world but it’s with the Māori people. And the Māori people, their cultural practice and their beliefs are very similar to us.

And the Māori people, I believe, they take a lead in repatriation and also in a treaty. That’s First Nations people taking control of their country and their culture.’

Matua Bobby Newson, representing the Tāmaki Makaurau iwi, said:

Ko te tapu o te tangata,
ka tūtaki ki te tapu o te tangata,
ki te tapu o te whenua,
o ngā taonga ki raro i te tapu o te Atua!

'Today was an important meeting of cultures. People meeting people, people meeting land, and people meeting the taonga (treasures) of their ancestors under the guidance of tikanga customs and protocols.

'We've looked after these taonga like they are our own and we are proud to be returning them to the Warumungu people on this momentous day.'

Museum CEO Dr David Gaimster said that today’s handover is a clear demonstration of the values of his institution.

‘Auckland Museum seeks to reconnect descendants with their taonga,’ Dr Gaimster said. ‘These items of cultural significance are being unconditionally repatriated to the communities who created them and will be returned to their Country and stored in their keeping places indefinitely. 

‘Our team at Auckland Museum, working alongside tangata whenua, are honoured to be involved in returning these items to the Warumungu community.’

AIATSIS leads the Australian Government’s Return of Cultural Heritage program that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in exercising sovereignty over cultural heritage material held in collections abroad and facilitates its return.

AIATSIS has been working with the Warumungu community since 2019 and in March 2021 began talks on the future of these four items between senior Warumungu men and the Tumu Here Iwi Relationships Manager and curatorial staff at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. In June 2022 the Museum’s Trust Board endorsed a repatriation request and the agreement on the return was announced publicly in September.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Linda Burney MP, spoke about the importance of this type of engagement.

‘It’s wonderful to see the return of these items of cultural significance to the Warumungu people,’ Minister Burney said.

‘Taken away around 100 years ago, they will now be carefully carried back to their rightful place, on Country.

‘The repatriations of these precious materials from international institutions are critically important for the processes of truth-telling and reconciliation. It’s also vitally important for our communities giving future generations an insight into our rich histories.

‘I commend AIATSIS for the work it has undertaken with the Auckland War Memorial Museum to negotiate the return of these important objects.’

At this morning’s event Dhunghutti man and AIATSIS CEO, Craig Ritchie, observed that the four Warumungu items will help to tell the story of the First Nations peoples of Australia.

‘AIATSIS is Australia’s only national institution focused exclusively on the diverse history, cultures, and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,’ he said.

‘By helping to identify our First Nations cultural materials in collections held outside the country we empower communities to decide what should happen with their cultural heritage. In the course of that work, we aim for respectful and productive relationships with both the communities whose material is held in collecting institutions overseas and with the museums and other collectors who hold those materials.

‘We have experienced great respect and cooperation in our engagements with the mana whenua of Tāmaki Makaurau and with Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. 

‘We thank both for the respect and care they provided while these treasures were in their care.’

The Warumungu community has indicated that a selection of the returned material will be displayed eventually at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in Tennant Creek.

The handover continues at the museum tomorrow morning with songs and a farewell blessing.

Please contact AIATSIS for images and video from today's event.

AIATSIS media enquiries: or +61 476 843 522

Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum media enquiries:
Kylie Leggoe, or +6422 643 4439


Last updated: 16 November 2022