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“Laying Ngarrindjeri spirits to rest” (The Guardian)

Here’s an excerpt from a recent article about the Ngarrindjeri of South Australia laying repatriated remains to rest and trying to reconcile this contemporary issue with their traditional beliefs.

But six years ago, the chance to restore their ancestral spirits to country, for the first time, faced the Ngarrindjeri with a conundrum.

The return of the remains of 300 people in 2003, the first repatriation of Ngarrindjeri ancestors, filled many with fear.

There were no rituals for returning old people to country, just a strict law forbidding all contact with them.

Indeed many stayed away from the Ngarrindjeri Land and Progress Association where the remains were housed.

“There was much confusion among our people. We elders had to make a decision and we are the ones, if anything happens, we are going to have to wear it,” says Trevorrow of the turmoil.

The part that is most telling about modern perception of indigenous cultural tradition comes from commenter Silverwhistle:

Erm… Spirits, & c… None of it’s real, you know. And while the persecution and exploitation of live Aboriginal people is and was wrong, I find it disturbing that sentimentality is resulting in scientific and archaeological organisations handing back and reburying remains. We are now able to learn so much about our ancestors and their lives from examining their remains: DNA, isotope analysis, & c.

To put it another way:
I think it’s far more important to build a world in which the Ngarrindjeri have a higher living standard and access to higher education to be their own archaeologists and scientists and examine their own history and ancestors; not to pander to magic thinking and superstition, thereby keeping them ghetto-ised in an intellectual time-warp.

The old scientific advancement argument familiar to those who know anything about Kennewick Man comes back to haunt us. And indeed, this seems to be the most widely accepted belief in contemporary society. Science is good! But think about it: would you want your grandparents chopped up and exhibited in the name of science? Maybe there is room for a little more “sentimentality” in this process.

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