A visit to the Gudang Aborigines

13.11.2013 - Article

On a diplomatic mission: When invited to attend an Aboriginal funeral ceremony, our colleague Lars Olberg (Canberra) was without more ado made an honorary member of the tribe.

Australia’s Aborigines have an extremely close bond with the land of their ancestors, which is central to their religion and culture. To be buried in their ancestral lands is something they believe is very important. For our colleague Lars Olberg from the economic affairs section of our Embassy in Canberra the opportunity to attend such a funeral ceremony meant he was without more ado made an honorary member of the Gudang Aborigines.

The Far North of Down Under
The Far North of Down Under© AA/Olberg

After a turbulent flight in a small propeller plane I landed in the northernmost tip of the country, over 3000 km from Canberra, Australia’s capital. When I left the aircraft it felt like walking straight into a wall: the heat and humidity were overpowering. Canberra’s climate is positively bracing, by comparison. From the airport a jeep drove me through the jungle until we reached the tribal lands of the Gudang.

A rather different kind of business trip

The reason for this unusual business trip has to do with a German anthropologist, Otto Finsch, who 130 years ago explored Northern Australiaand the Torres Strait Islands situated between Australia and Papua New Guinea. From these travels he brought back to Germany a number of Aboriginal mortal remains, on which various investigations were carried out before they were handed over to the museum of Berlin’s Charité Hospital, as it was then called.

At the time this was by no means a unique occurrence. Many museums around the world have Aboriginal mortal remains in their collections. For some years now Aboriginal tribes have been pushing together with the Australian Government for the mortal remains of their ancestors to be repatriated to Australia. What is difficult, however, is to identify the bones correctly and make sure they are returned to the right tribe.

Charité in Berlin keen to cooperate

The mortal remains from the Charité were the first to be repatriated to Australia from Germany. In April two members of the Gudang tribe took possession in a solemn ceremony of the mortal remains of their ancestors and performed the required rites to prepare their souls for the coming journey. The funeral was to take place in the tribal lands of the Gudang at Somerset, Cape York, the northernmost tip of Australia.

The Embassy was invited to attend the funeral ceremony. This was clearly going to be a rather different kind of business trip. Understandably, many of my colleagues holding the fort in Canberra envied me my luck.

Uncomplicated “naturalization”

The Gudang elders Ted and Uncle Shorty
The Gudang elders Ted and Uncle Shorty© AA/Ohlberg

Normally you need a special pass to enter Aboriginal tribal areas. Even a diplomatic passport won’t get you in. So before I set off I inquired from Ted, one of the Gudang elders, where I could get this special pass. He told me I didn’t need one, as I had been invited by the tribe and would be travelling with some of its members. So for the weekend I would be an honorary member of the Gudang tribe. It was an amazingly fast naturalization – in Germany it takes a good deal longer!

At the airport a large crowd of Gudang Aborigines were already waiting to welcome their ancestors. They arrived in a big wooden crate labelled “air freight – external dimensions 245 cm x 180 cm”, which was then loaded into a delivery van and driven through the rainforest to the site of the funeral ceremony.

The following day some 80 Gudang from far and near gathered for the funeral. Uncle Shorty, one of the tribal elders organizing the ceremony, dashed around greeting everybody.

The ceremony itself, however, was very different from what my romantic European notions of Aboriginal life had led me to expect. Instead of the hoped‑for traditional dances and costumes, white‑painted faces and sonorous tones of the didgeridoo, it was a surprisingly Western-style funeral. After the grave had been dug by mechanical excavator, a Christian funeral service complete with sermon was held. Many people had tears in their eyes and told me afterwards what a moving ceremony it had been.

Brandenburg Gate in the Australian sand

The youngest members of the tribe building the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate in sand
The youngest members of the tribe building the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate in sand© AA/Ohlberg

In due course my stereotypical expectations were fulfilled, after all. Traditional delicacies were served on the beach while the children played happily under palm trees.

The black‑red‑gold moulds I’d brought along for sand play had them puzzled, however. The red mould in the shape of the Brandenburg Gate was a sofa, they decided.

Repatriation after more than 130 years

During the meal the adults talked of old times, swapped tribal stories and spoke of their delight that after more than 130 years their ancestors were at last back home. Many people told me how much they appreciated it that we had made this possible. The Charité, too, was praised for not treating their ancestors’ bones as mere objects for research but as mortal remains to which respect is due. Afterwards I heard that not all countries have been so cooperative.

Other tribes are still waiting for their ancestors to come home. When you see how much this means especially to older members of the tribe, you can only hope they won’t have to wait much longer.

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