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bringing his old people home

June 28, 2009

Around 40 locals gather, and Major Sumner begins the ritual. Stripped to the waist, his body painted, with a kangaroo bone through flared nostrils and a crown of emu feathers, he invokes the ancestors. Next to him, Tom Trevorrow thanks the Australian Commonwealth and British government for their support. His voice deepens. “This is part of the reconciliation process that must take place to heal the pain and suffering. Why have we got droughts? Problems with our land?” He pauses. “As Ngarrindjeri people, we believe that when one of our elders dies they’ve got to go back to the land. If they are disturbed [we’ll] be punished. We believe terrible things are happening today because their spirits aren’t at rest.” (The Ngarrindjeri are witnessing the collapse of their environment as the Coorong silts up and the entire Murray river system is devastated by drought.)

Trevorrow motions to members of the Ngarrindjeri delegation to place three black boxes next to the fire. Inside, the two skulls from Exeter sit in eggshell-blue boxes; the tiny piece of stirrup bone, which once belonged to an Aboriginal woman, is in a plastic container. Out of respect, all are hidden from view.

They have been on a long journey – leaving on a steamship and coming back on a Boeing 747. As the boxes are prised open – to allow smoke to cleanse the contents – a sudden wind whistles through the clump of she-oak trees, and smoke billows in crazy gusts. A murmur ripples through the crowd. The boxes are carried to a nearby room where, since 2003, 16 large cardboard crates have been stored. They bear labels: “Human skeletal remains.” “Dry bones only.” “Age 100 yrs.” Whorls of smoke drift in and, lit up by sunbeams, hang curiously suspended between ceiling and floor. For Tom Trevorrow this part “tears him to pieces”. After getting his “old people” home he doesn’t have the resources to rebury them. “Culturally and spiritually it’s wrong. But we decided as a committee that they’re better off in our possession.” (read)

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