In an historic move, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield returned 42 cultural artifacts to Australian indigenous tribes Wednesday.
In the 1920s, linguistic anthropologist Gerhardt Laves from the University of Chicago took the artifacts from aboriginal communities. These included items like spears, shields, boomerangs and other ceremonial items.
Some items, according to Illinois State Museum Director Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, can only be handled and looked at by men from the tribes.
Catlin-Legutko said the plan to repatriate the items, in partnership with the Australian government’s Return of Cultural Heritage Project, is a way to make amends with history.
“Today was an expression of museums helping to right that wrong and returning materials to Australia,” she said. “Those are lost materials and to be able to return those is powerful, motivational, exciting – but we have to remember there is more work to do.”
Catlin-Legutko said she hopes the museum’s item repatriation sets an example for other institutions with indigenous artifacts from around the world.
Christopher Simpson, director of the Return of Cultural Heritage Project, thanked Catlin-Legutko and other museum and state officials for the 10-month collaboration. He said they were all “brave” for helping “in the decolonization of museums.”
The project, led by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, exists to return cultural heritage material, Simpson said.
“Another [outcome] is to forge relationships and partnerships with overseas institutions,” Simpson said.
The Aranda and Bardi Jawi tribes, from Central and Western Australia respectively, sent representatives to Springfield to pick up the items.
Russell Davey, from the Bardi Jawi tribe, took part in the event and used boomerangs from the collection to perform a spirit dance after the handover ceremony.
“For me to have that boomerang in my hand and to be able to use it, and not knowing whose boomerang it belongs to – if it’s my descendant’s or somebody else’s— but for that person to use it last and for me to be able to use it today, it’s really an honor,” he said.
Aranda tribe representative Braydon Kantjira said he’s in constant communication with tribal members. “We have a lot of folks back home texting us – ‘how is it like,' and 'we can’t wait to see the artifacts come home,’” he said.
The Illinois State Museum is the first institution to return artifacts to Australian indigenous communities.