‘They are everything’: Objects of Australia’s Dreamtime find their way home from Manchester

Alice Springs: It has taken a century, but they are back. Senior Arrernte lawmen welcomed home 19 sacred objects that were “yanked” from traditional owners and taken by collectors to Manchester in the United Kingdom.

We can’t show you what they are. Or even describe them. They weren’t on display at the men’s only ceremony held to mark their return to Alice Springs on Tuesday.

Michael Liddle welcomed the return of the sacred objects. But he warned that the knowledge of how they were used and where they belonged was dying out with elders. Credit:Rhett Wyman

But elders said these sacred objects, each particular to a discrete area of land and group of people, encapsulated native title, embodied the culture and connected Indigenous owners to their land.

Senior Arrernte man Peter Wallace Peltharre said the return of these objects to country would allow his people to maintain cultural practice. The objects would help teach the younger generation “our law, our way of living, and about your grandfathers who lived in those days”.

The Herald’s photographer, Rhett Wyman, a palawa man, attended the ceremony. He said elders were relieved to have the objects back but conscious of how much work was needed before they could find their true home.

The objects will be stored in Alice Spring’s Strehlow Research Centre at the Museum of Central Australia.

More than 105,000 Australian Indigenous sacred and secular cultural objects are held in 299 overseas institutions.

Michael Liddle, an Alyawerre man who works at Strehlow, said because of colonisation, “those things were removed, and understanding and knowledge about those objects has been lost”.

The number of objects coming back was “unbelievable” but it was a race against time to find out exactly where they came from and how they were used before the elders who held this information “were in the ground”.

“The knowledge base is shrinking, and it is going to be a full stop shortly, quicker than you think. And, before you know it, it will be gone,” he said. “This is wonderful stuff that is Aborigines’ native title ownership of country for thousands of years that has been passed from father to father to father by the skin name, skin name, skin name.”

A ceremony was held at The Museum of Central Australia for the return of Arrernte, Warlpiri and Warumungu cultural heritage material.Credit:Rhett Wyman

“The objects represent the existence of the Dreamtime, the mythological world of Aboriginal life. They are everything.”

Any repatriation of objects was good, he said. “But the flip side, and the disappointing thing, is we haven’t got the knowledge about those things on hand.”

Mr Liddle imagined the loss felt by traditional owners when they were taken away: “What have they done to my business? This comes from the mind of someone who looked at the stars, the trees, and formed his knowledge, and that was yanked away.”

At the ceremony, the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Craig Ritchie also announced another 17 sacred Indigenous objects from Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Virginia would be returned later this year.

The only museum outside of Australia dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, Kluge-Ruhe holds 2100 more paintings, ornaments and weapons and other items.

The Kluge-Ruhe’s director Dr Margo Smith, AM, said the museum believed these objects belong with their communities. Testimony by elders “about how these objects connected them to the old people is extremely moving”.

Mr Ritchie said it wouldn’t surprise him to find many more objects in museums and institutions around the world.

Not all would be returned. In some cases, Indigenous groups had chosen to leave them in place to educate the world on the beauty of their culture.

“There are Tiwi Pukamani poles [used in funerals] in the Vatican [Museums] and the Tiwi mob said actually we want our stuff to be seen alongside Bernini and Titian so they can see our culture is of equal [beauty],” said Mr Ritchie.

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