“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

Ethics take center stage at conference on the Archaeology of Death in the Digital Age

This year’s edition of the University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference on the Archaeology of Death, DigiDeath 2021, on January 27-28 (for a complete program as well as links to several of the presentations, please see entry on professor Howard Williams blog Archaeodeath), was dedicated to the public archaeology of digital mortality. The event was clearly framed by the global pandemic. The ever looming themes of death and mortality are not new to the yearly conference devoted specifically to these topics, but the changes in how we die and how we mourn in the time of Covid-19 probably brought the themes of mortality, mourning and commemoration even closer to home this year. In addition, the closure of museums and universities, and the cancellation of conferences, workshops, and other meeting spaces for academic exchange and learning, brought digital tools and social media into focus, and of course, the event took place online.

The papers were presented by students as well as researchers in a range of formats, from live papers presented digitally, to twitter papers and video recordings, all engaging new forms for communication and archiving of academic production.

When summing up the many presentations, several themes around public archaeology and digital tools come into focus, all relating in explicit and implicit ways to broader considerations of ethics – professional and personal.

“Sharing is not always caring”

Several papers on different aspects of public archaeology raised interesting questions about accessibility, education and multi-vocality. While images of archaeological remains and virtual tours of exhibitions serve the important goal of opening up museums, collections, and even the archaeological research process to all, they also pose new questions. Where do we draw the line regarding what to share and how? “Sharing is not always caring” – as stated by Erin Munro in her paper on virtual exhibition tours and mortuary heritage. But how can we tell when we cross the line? Does the showing of human remains become less respectful when it leaves the museum context and moves out on the web – in a virtual exhibit or an instagram post – and if so, why? By asking ourselves these questions we get the opportunity to examine our culturally shaped understanding of museum spaces, and in that process we must also realise that what may be a respectful place in our eyes may be perceived very differently by others

New technologies bring new possibilities – and ethical challenges. The reproduction of 3D models of human remains (paper by Campanacho and Alves Cardoso) invites us to reflect over post mortem privacy and integrity in new ways. This is a growing and unregulated field that has not yet found its ethical footing.

Other ethical issues that were raised related to the ways in which engagement with the public also entails sharing the power over the narrative. Powerful narratives of the past that are presented in the press, in movies, TV series and video games, often take great liberty with the creative license, focusing on the spectacular or gory, highlighting male elites at the expense of others, and reproducing stereotypes about the past. The digital era and its many and various tools intensifies this engagement through online communities, comment sections, an approach to lived experiences through gaming, and so on. What is more important, we may ask: that the past is represented in a “correct” way, or that people engage with it at all? The consequences of misrepresentation might be even higher in the ways in which the press and social media often present archaeology and anthropology, reproducing colonial and ethically questionable images of treasure hunters and grave openers. While these images appear to still attract a part of the public, they are offensive and disrespectful to others and threaten to undermine the work of making archaeology a more respectful and inclusive practice.

In our contemporary digital era, images play a central role in how we communicate with each other and how we draw attention to our work. Online presences on blogs and social media pose new questions about both personal and professional ethics. It is important at this moment to not be satisfied with easy formulaic answers to our ethical dilemmas, but to view our task ahead as one of constant questioning and examining of the ethics of the discipline – and most importantly, of ourselves in our roles as archaeologists and fellow human beings.