Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, March 2007.
NATIONAL: Hypocrisy still runs deep at the nation’s most schizophrenic broadsheet, writes Amy McQuire*
They say you shouldn’t mess with the dead. Unless you’re an undertaker or an anthropologist, you probably wouldn’t even bother.
After all, many people agree that every person has the right to rest in peace according to their respective religious or cultural beliefs.
In fact, I was under the impression that it was a basic human right.
What I didn’t know was that it’s not the case if your body has been dug up, sent to the other side of the world and stored in a dusty public museum for 170 years.
Then you’re just a “relic”.
So says everyone’s favourite right-wing small-sheet, The Australian who made this assertion on February 26 with a piece called “Relics not required”.
The editorial was a comment piece on the battle between the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and the Natural History Museum in London, and specifically whether the museum is legally allowed to interfere with the remains of 17 Aboriginal people before they are sent back to their ancestral home.
The Australian argued that the money spent taking the museum to court could be better spent on more practical solutions for Aboriginal people and that the information that could be obtained from forensic testing would be more helpful than giving skeletons, some dating back 170 years, a proper burial.
But perhaps it’s better to let The Australian advance its own argument.
“…the politics of symbols has failed Indigenous Australians. It is time to stop using the past as a surrogate for the present and argue about the issues that matter most – those that affect the living,” the editorial read.
“To study, and honour, the past does not require us all to reverence bone fragments or pottery shards but to learn about the people they came from.
“We best honour the sacrifice of those who have gone before when we understand how they lived and whether they died in vain.
“There is more to honouring the dead than reverencing relics.”
Obviously The Australian has changed its editorial position somewhere along the line, or at least slightly altered it to apply to blackfellas.
Just last year, The Oz was preaching an entirely different doctrine in April when Australia lost its first man to the Iraq war.
Private Jake Kovco died, not on the battlefield, but in his army barracks and not at the hands of an enemy weapon, but by his own 9mm Browning pistol.
Understandably, it drew a lot of media attention.
And before the media flame had even begun to fade it was fuelled again when defence personnel lost Private Kovco for the second time within the same month.
Private Kovco’s body was mixed-up with that of Bosnian Juso Sinanovic, resulting in the wrong man being sent to Melbourne for burial.
It’s fair to say it was the public relations disaster of the year for the Australian Defence Force (ADF), with various media outlets quick to label it a “debacle”.
The Australian was no exception.
In an editorial aptly entitled “No Rest, No Peace” on May 12 last year the newspaper rose in defence not only for Private Kovco’s family, but also that of Mr Sinanovic, whose body was held up from being returned to his home country.
“The Sinanovic family is understandably distressed and is threatening a lawsuit against the Australian Government to protest against what they call the ‘amazing callous way’ Mr Sinanovic’s body has been mishandled,” The Australian opined.
“Their injury is compounded by the fact that, as Muslims, the Sinanovics wanted to perform funeral rites with 24 hours of death.
That deadline passed 24 days ago.
“…in a case like this, it is not enough for bureaucrats and officials to wash their hands of the problem and say their responsibility ended at the factory door. Were it not for the bungling of Kovco’s body, Mr Sinanovic… would have since been buried in his home province of Tuzla.”
I agree with them.
I was disgusted that Private Kovco’s family had to wait 11 days for a proper burial. I was even more disgusted that Mr Sinanovic’s family had to wait nearly a month.
But Tasmanian Aboriginal people have had to wait for 170 years.
The Australian reasoned that the difference was “…that these bones were in London long before anybody now involved was born”.
It’s hardly the point. These “bones” were once people who had loved ones, just like Private Kovco and Mr Sinanovic. And Aboriginal people have a cultural responsibility to respect (and protect) their ancestors, something white Australia (and the right Australian) seem not to understand.
Returning remains back to Tasmania for proper burial is not “symbolism” as The Australian suggests. Otherwise why the stir when Private Kovco’s body was misdirected?
Regardless of the time it has taken, Aboriginal people don’t want the remains back to simply revere them. It’s about giving their ancestors the sort of burial they deserve according to their beliefs.
Prominent Aboriginal leader, Bob Weatherall told NIT recently that the return of remains is of huge spiritual significance to Aboriginal people.
“Museums and scientists see human remains and corpses. Aboriginal people see something different,” Mr Weatherall said. “We see them as still living, they’ve just gone into the life-death cycle. They’re living in the spirit land, the spirit world.
“If we don’t carry out our customary responsibilities to our ancestors, then we won’t be welcomed into that world when it’s our time to go.
“We’d be left wandering aimlessly, not in the spirit world, not back to our spirit place.”
This process will be disturbed if the Natural History Museum goes forth with its plans for testing the remains, which Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell maintains “involves crushing and destroying parts of the remains”. The Australian says that we must concentrate on “issues that matter most – those that affect the living”.
But in a state where the Indigenous population was reduced from about 5,000 to 300 in 30 years and whose Aboriginal people continue to fight to preserve their identity and culture in a now westernised landscape, the past is still relevant.
Another concern raised by The Australian is the amount of money being spent to fund the court case. It says the funds could be spent on something more practical.
But if saved, I doubt the federal government will direct that $1 million back into anything as practical as the fight for the stolen remains of Aboriginal people.
After all, this is the government who only allocated 1.5 percent of the federal budget this past year to a people who, as The Australian put it, “on just about every imaginable social statistic involving education, income and illness… are second class citizens”.
The Australian government acknowledged that it had done wrong by Private Kovco when both Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson and Prime Minister John Howard attended his funeral.
Now they are finally taking a step forward in helping Tasmanian Aboriginal people to carry on with their cultural practices by backing the TAC.
Who says this isn’t helping the living?
* Amy McQuire is a journalist with the National Indigenous Times. She is from Rockhampton in Queensland.