Thoughts on the Gweagal Spears Repatriation

My blog post about the repatriation and cultural property

Cambridge University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has refused to repatriate the Gweagal spears request of  Rodney Kelly,descendant of the Gweagal warrior Cooman

Doing so, contradicts parts of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was/ is supported by the United Kingdom. Particularly Article 31 which states “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect
and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional
cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their
sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic
resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna
and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional
games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to
maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property
over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional
cultural expressions.”

Two of the reasons given to why the request was denied were that repatriation would affect the integrity of their Cook-Sandwich collection and the cultural heritage items’ conservation​ and that there was no clear proposal for the housing and preserving of the spears once returned.

In regards to the integrity of the collection, the case could be argued that keeping the collection whole and professionally preserved would be for the greater good. But who benefits from this greater good? Researchers? As Dudgeon (2008) notes, research using Western frameworks have consistently denigrated First Nations culture and people and enforced colonisation as well as excluded First Nations people from discussions about their own culture. Along with these spears being stolen, what research on these spears achieves is the theft of the narrative that surrounds the spears and the claiming of ownership of First Nations knowledge.

In response to the inherit colonial biases of previous First Nations research and its exclusion of First Nations input, many organisations and institutions have made guidelines to ethnically conduct research. For example, AIATSIS’ Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies. Guidelines like this promote the idea of collaboration between researchers and the First Nations community whose people or culture  are being researched. Therefore, if collaboration is necessary for ethnical First Nations research, then it can argued that any future research on the Gweagal spears will be unethical as it won’t have the consent of Rodney Kelly, never mind his collaboration.

Turning to repatriation, fears of the effects of repatriation on the integrity of collections and research that takes place with collection items is not new. In America, when The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was introduced, many researchers were worried about the effect that would have on the provenance of material as well as it’s conservation. As Smith (2010) states, this a very Western viewpoint on conservation which obsesses that collection objects must always stay the same not realising that this process is unnatural and not recognising that much of First Nations tangible heritage was created to not live forever. As a community organisation representative once said to me “some stories run their course” If you truly believe First Nations should control their heritage and narratives, this means they have choice in what gets preserved and how.

In addition to this, the integrity of the Cook collection is not of importance to many First Nations people as he is a symbol of invasion and colonisation. Having these spears continue to be part of his collection, centres a white man in a story of First Nations cultural heritage.

As for the second reason used to refuse the repatriation of the Gweagal spears, the lack of  information pertaining to the housing and preserving of the spears once returned. I believe that, if First Nations people truly should control their own cultural heritage and manifestations of their cultural heritage, then Rodney Kelly should be able to do whatever he wants with the spears, this includes not preserving them. I know as a museum worker the idea saddens me and I hope if Rodney Kelly ever did get the spears to return home he will choose to appropriately house them by museum standards. However, that should be up to him and Gweagal people. If returning the stolen items home would be only under certain stipulations then support for Indigenous intellectual property rights is shallow and disregards the ideals of First Nations self determination.

By Nathan Sentance

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