“We are the heart, you are the brain”. Report from a seminar on repatriation to indigenous communities

On April 28, 2021, Professor Helene Martinsson Wallin (Uppsala University) and Dr. Olaug Andreassen (National Museum of Oslo) organised a webinar on the topic of repatriation of human remains to indigenous communities.

While the main focus of the seminar was on Rapa Nui, the heritage of Nordic colonialism was present as an important backdrop to the discussion, a reminder to Swedish scholars working with repatriation that there is no “Nordic exceptionalism” when it comes to colonial history, and the Nordic countries were a part of these global processses in all their various forms. Ulrika Persson-Fischier (Uppsala University) used her study of the crania collected by Nordenskiöld’s Vega Expedition to discuss the challenges of working with old colonial records when trying to establish “provenience.” She pointed out the paradox that despite good intentions, we risk reproducing colonial ideologies through the practice of repatriation if we use old records and categorisations. Mikael Jacobsson from the Lycksele Museum of Forestry shared his experiences of the repatriation and reburial of crania collected in from an old cemetery in Sápmi in the 1950s and returned for reburial in 2019. He showed moving images of the ceremony and discussed the difficulty in getting museums to really understand that human remains are not just archaeological and historical artefacts. Finally, the agreement to repatriate thousands of objects and human remains from the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo, collected by Thor Heyerdahl and his team during his travels in the Pacific in the 1950s and 1980s, provided an immediate connection to the main focus of the webinar – the experiences of the repatriation of human remains to Rapa Nui.

A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui, c. 1775-1776 by William Hodges.
Public Domain

Rapa Nui constitutes an interesting example to discuss repatriation. It is caught in complex layers of colonialism and relationships to the state of Chile. Known more widely by the name “Easter Island,” a name given by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeween who accidentally “discovered” the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, the island is wrapped up in colonial history. In the decades that followed Roggeween’s short visit, several other expeditions landed on its shores, marking the beginning of a deep and painful colonial history including disease, structural violence, black birding, slave trade, and exploitation. The island was annexed to Chile in 1888. It holds the status of special territory since 2007, but the relationship to the Chilean state has not been without conflict.

From a cultural heritage point of view Rapa Nui is renowned for its monumental Moai, the sculptural heads that line its shores as “the living faces of deified ancestors.” But beyond these striking sculptures, the island is the home of an impressive cultural and archaeological heritage of monumental architecture, petroglyphs, and wood carvings that all can be traced back to the indigenous Rapa Nui. Given its painful history with colonialism, it is not surprising that calls for repatriation of both cultural objects and human remains play an important role in current debates, with the most highlighted example being the call to repatriate the Moai called Hoa Hakananai (lost or stolen friend) from the British Museum. In the process Chile has become a powerful player. Under Chilean law, the Moai are not regarded simply as art or artefacts, but deemed an “integral part of the land”, and in 2017 the control over them, along with other archaeological sites, was symbolically handed over, from the Chilean National Forest Corporation to the Rapa Nui by President Michelle Bachelet.

At the webinar, we would hear several voices engaged in the movement for the recognition of the right of Rapa Nui to gain control of their heritage including the human remains of their ancestors deposited in museums all over the world. Biological Anthropologist Associate Professor Felipe Martinez (Pontifica Universidad de Católica de Chile) discussed the importance of viewing human remains, not only as biological specimens but also as a part of cultural heritage, and stressed the need for a developed legal framework that recognises the rights of indigenous people in this context. Dr Jacinta Arthur (Pontificia Universidad de Católica de Chile), who has worked as the coordinator for the repatriation program in Rapa Nui, introduced the concept of patrimonialization of indigenous culture to the discussion, and discussed how legal instruments can protect cultural heritage for the nation without considering the needs of the indigenous communities to which it belongs.

This becomes especially interesting when unpacking the complexities of international repatriations of indigenous human remains and heritage. Who does this belong to? To where should it be repatriated? Who decides on the future of these remains? Here the relationship between the descending community, be it a majority population, a minority population, or an indigenous population, becomes central. As nation states come to agreements, the opportunities for descending communities may look very different depending on their relationship to the nation state that may or may not recognise their right to control their cultural heritage. Here the issues raised by both Dr Jacinta Arthur and Ulrika Persson-Fishcier (albeit in a different context) come back into focus.

“We are the heart, you are the brain”

These issues are without a doubt complex and difficult. What is the way forward? Curator Sr. Mario Tuki (Museo Antropologico Padre Sebastian Englert MAPSE Rapa Nui Repatriation Program Ka Haka Hoki Mai te Mana Tupuna and Hare Tapu Tu’u Ivi) offered a pathway. In his presentation and in the discussion, he stressed not only the importance of collaboration between scientists and indigenous communities, but also the importance of academic actors to recognise the emotional dimension of the process. Indigenous communities, with a lived experience of trauma from a violent colonial history, will bring a consideration for this emotional dimension. This should not be seen as a complication, but as an asset in the work toward mutual learning and understanding. Academics, on the other hand, will bring a problematizing and intellectual approach to the situation. We need both. “We are the heart, you are the brain,” he declared, proposing a wonderful metaphor for all of us who are seeking a productive way forward. Recognising that both the heart and the brain are vital organs, and that they sustain each other, Mario Tuki’s words leave me inspired and humbled.

image credit banner: Tukuturi, Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA3.0

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