Keeping place for stolen Indigenous remains should take priority over Anzac centre


It’s time to scrap plans for the Sir John Monash Centre and reallocate money earmarked for Anzac commemorations towards a proper Indigenous memorial The federal government should ditch its plans for the $100m-plus Anzac Sir John Monash “interpretive centre” on the western front in Europe and redirect the money to a much-needed national keeping place for the stolen remains of Indigenous Australians.

Countless tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed on the Australian frontier after the European invasion in 1788 as a direct result of British colonisation.

The remains of thousands of them – and those of many others who died of natural causes and were removed from sacred ancestral burial sites – were stolen for the collections of museums and medical institutions in Britain, continental Europe and the US.


More than a thousand remain in Australian collecting institutions, including the National Museum of Australia, where body parts belonging to about 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still in special storage. They have been repatriated from overseas but can’t be returned because their provenance is unclear.


While the repatriation of Indigenous remains from overseas continues, there is no central keeping place in Australia for those remains that cannot – and are unlikely to ever – be connected to specific people or country. Late last year the federal government’s advisory committee for Indigenous repatriation recommended that the government invest in a keeping place in Canberra for the stolen remains that cannot, for various reasons, be returned to their people.


Leading Indigenous figures, including Shane Mortimer, an elder of the Ngambri – upon whose land the national capital stands – have consistently argued that any keeping place should double as a centre for scholarship and a memorial to the tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians who were killed in frontier war conflicts and massacres across the continent until well into the 20th century.


Mortimer has suggested the ideal place for such a centre would be in the parliamentary triangle, close to the present Aboriginal embassy.


One of the advisory committee’s co-chairs, Ned David, says: “The continual, ongoing repatriation of the bodies of Indigenous people who were stolen is critical for our people. And the establishment of a national keeping place for those who are returned goes hand in hand with that. Such a keeping place would stand as a beacon of conscience in Australia – a reminder to everyone that while some things have changed, we still need to understand the terrible things that happened in the past.”


It is understood that this year the Abbott government informally advised members of the committee that the “fiscal situation” rendered it impossible to spend the millions of dollars that such a keeping place and monument would cost to establish.


Last April Tony Abbott, while visiting the Villers-Bretonneux memorial to the 46,000 Australians killed (including about 18,000 never identified or found) on the western front in the second world war, announced $100m would be spent on a nearby commemorative “interpretative” centre.


There have been considerable tensions behind the scenes among some researchers, historians and officials associated with the centre, plans for which are being overseen by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Construction work is due to begin next year.


Several people associated with the centre have questioned spending $100m at a time when Australia (including federal, state and territory governments and corporations) is committed to spending more than $500m on Anzac commemorations until the centenary of armistice in late 2018.


There has also been internal controversy about precisely which stories the centre would tell and to whom.


One figure associated with the project, echoing the concerns of others, said: “Will the centre tell the stories of the scourge of sexually transmitted disease among Australian troops who frequented the brothels on the front; of the men whose lives and whose families’ lives were ruined by the war experience? Will it tell the stories of the men who were maimed and disfigured for life, of the many episodes of cowardice that war always illustrates? No. I doubt it.”


On dusty back roads, behind schools and community halls, on the edges of creeks and at the top of deep precipices, stand dozens and dozens of informal memorials to this continent’s murdered Indigenous people.


Yet have a look around Canberra – a place whose functions, through its memorials and public institutions, include the provision of national memory and conscience – and you’ll find but one official monument to the Indigenous warriors and bystanders killed en masse defending their country.


The Aboriginal Memorial stands in the forecourt of the National Gallery of Australia. Comprising 200 log coffins (or “burial poles”) from central Arnhem Land, each pole signifies a year of European continental occupation to 1988, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander warriors and bystanders who were killed during resistance.


It is a beautiful, evocative memorial that serves the memory of those who died well.


But it is not enough.


A keeping place for the remains with no provenance that couples as a memorial to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people killed in frontier conflict – an interpretative centre, if you like, to the little-told story of continental occupation and frontier war – is an essential part of any reckoning between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.


More than enough public money has been spent on Anzac commemorations. Scrap the Sir John Monash Centre and reallocate the money to an Indigenous keeping place and memorial, somewhere in Canberra, home to the national memory.


Let us properly remember the war that is the real bedrock of Australian nationhood and not just that which has become central to our foundation myth.