Cultural custodians repatriate ancestral remains to cave

Undalup Association traditional custodian Wayne Webb, Iszacc Webb, Shannon Clohessy and Toni Webb at the repatriation ceremony. Image by Seabird Flims director Andrew McGregor.
Undalup Association traditional custodian Wayne Webb, Iszacc Webb, Shannon Clohessy and Toni Webb at the repatriation ceremony. Image by Seabird Flims director Andrew McGregor.

The skull of a Noongar woman was repatriated to a cave in the southwest by traditional owners of Wadandi Pibulmun after her remains were returned to Western Australia from the USA.

While it is largely unknown when the remains were removed, it is believed an American speleologist took the skull from the cave in the 1960's.

On Saturday, a repatriation ceremony was held at the cave with traditional custodians of Wadandi Pibulmun country and a group of speleologist volunteers.

Undalup Association cultural custodian Iszaac Webb said most of the cave systems in the Capes region had burials in them which contained bodies.

"The caves are our burial chambers that link up to our cultural beliefs of going out to the spirit world - Cowaramup - out to the ocean" he said.

The remains were returned to WA after the speleologist passed away and his son did not want the skull.

A request was made to the South West Land and Sea Council and a representative from the community Tahn Donavon travelled to the USA to collect the skull and brought it back to WA.

Cultural custodian Shannon Clohessy took part in a repartriation ceremony where the remains of a Noongar women were returned to country. Image by Seabird Flims.

Cultural custodian Shannon Clohessy took part in a repartriation ceremony where the remains of a Noongar women were returned to country. Image by Seabird Flims.

"Repatriation was left up to us," Mr Webb said.

On Friday a group of cultural custodians travelled to Perth where the body was returned to them by WA Musuem Anthropology and Archaeology Department curator Ross Chadwick.

"We did a little ceremony up in Perth before we left the warehouse," Mr Webb said.

The skull was taken to a Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions - Parks and Wildlife Service office in Margaret River where it was held overnight.

On Saturday volunteers from a speleologist group came down from Perth to join the cultural custodians in a ceremony to repatriate the remains back into country.

Cultural custodian Shannon Clohessy said the remains belonged to one of their ancestral grandmothers.

"It was such an honour to be able to restore family back to where they should be, it was such a privilege to be part of that experience and process," she said.

"It was incredible, we prepared the body and placed her back, it is so important to be able to do something like that."

In 2017, members from the Undalup Association repatriated 15 bodies to the cave and will repatriate even more as remains come back to country.

"It happened a lot, caves were like playgrounds for people to climb down, they did not understand how significant they were," Mr Webb said.

"It was overwhelming to return the skull to the cave, we were overjoyed but it is mixed emotions.

"She should not have been removed in the first place, as we all know, it was a hard thing because we were saddened she was removed in the first place and that people would just take remains.

Image by Seabird Films director Andrew McGregor.

Image by Seabird Films director Andrew McGregor.

"It is great to have her back into country, but it is a hard thing because we would have preferred for her not to have gone.

"We need to have a deeper understanding of country, the layers and depth of cultural heritage that sits under there.

"We love it because it is getting our people back to country which is the end goal, but the actions of of what people have done when they do remove these types of things such as bodies or artifacts, we are put in a position where we are culturally compromised.

"It is like occupational health and safety, we have cultural health safety.

"Even though we are doing repatriation, there are no ceremonies for repatriation because never did our people envisage that someone would be sadistic enough to remove remains out of a resting place.

"They were grave robbers basically.

"We are looking forward to repatriating more of our people back into country instead of sitting in holding museums or boxes."

Seabird Films director Andrew McGregor documented the repatriation ceremony and said it was a great privilege to help on such a special day.

"In spite of these shocking events we hear of in the news, and of recent atrocities committed to sites in the northwest, it feels reassuring to know that we as a community are taking small steps together towards reconciliation with the oldest living culture on the planet, from whom we still have so much to learn," he said.