Repatriation: bringing home the manggu* samples

*Manggu is a Yolgnu word meaning blood.

The John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) houses a collection of 7,000 human blood samples collected from Indigenous Australians.  For the most part, these were collected during the 1960s and 1970s.  The Collection is now under the custodianship of the Indigenous-majority Governance Board of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG), established by the ANU in 2013.   The Board’s custodianship is underpinned by statute.

The 1,200 Galiwin’ku samples are the largest set in the NCIG Collection from a single community, and have the most detailed information retained about the study participants. 

In 2018, NCIG sought agreement from the people of Galiwin’ku to open a consultation about the future of the samples.  Working with Yalu Marnggithinyaraw Indigenous Corporation (Yalu), a representative community body, a joint plan for the future management and use of the samples has been developed.

Samples of those still living

Most people whose samples are in the Collection chose to provide consent for the use of their samples in NCIG’s genomic research.  NCIG will sequence the DNA from the samples and dispose of the residual material.  The DNA information will be added to the NCIG genome resource and will contribute to Indigenous health and medical research.

Samples of those who have passed away

Deciding what to do with the samples of people who are deceased was foremost a cultural matter.   People regard the material in the samples as the embodiment of family members.  The culturally right process is for the remains of those who pass away to be buried near their home for their families to watch over.  The samples held at ANU are in one sense dislocated from home, but a countervailing view emerged that ANU had become their home:  the samples had rested in Canberra for 50 years.

It was a difficult matter to resolve on its own terms, and in the end external factors played their role.  The Traditional Ngunnawal Owners on whose land the ANU campus is situated advised that it was not culturally right from their perspective to have the samples buried in Canberra.  Repatriation was the natural conclusion.

Culture and tradition are respected, but the people of Galiwin’ku are also participants in modern life.  In considering the blood samples in the NCIG Collection, they have been ingenious in their navigation between the traditional and the contemporary.  The samples of those who have passed away will be sequenced and repatriated.  The samples will contribute to Indigenous medical research and discovery that aims to benefit current and future generations, and they will be returned to Country, reconciling the physical and spiritual dislocation.

A small amount of each sample will be consumed by the DNA extraction process in the laboratory.  The remaining material will be dried.  The dried material will be combined with other material from people from the same clan (family).  The material from each family group will be stored in timber boxes hand-made by artists at the ANU School of Art.

The repatriation

Each clan (family) belongs to one of two moieties:  Yirritja and Dhuwa.  The material will be escorted from Canberra to Galiwin’ku by Yirritja and Dhuwa representatives.  Yalu has established a formal memorial site in the town centre, marked by two burial poles made in the traditional style, decorated by an artist from each of the two moieties.  On 19 November ceremonial words, prayer, song and dance by the clan (family) groups of the island and senior representatives of ANU, will welcome home the manggu samples.  The community will then stage a celebratory Bunggal (dance) and a Night Market.  The burial location of the samples will be decided in due course by the clan (family) groups.  They may, for example, decide to bury the material in the poles at the memorial site in the traditional way, hence the term ‘burial poles’, or take it to more private Country.

The ANU is honoured by the trust and friendship that has been extended by the people of Galiwin’ku through a long and careful consultation.  Many emotions were stirred.  Many options were explored.  The people of Galiwin’ku expressed surprise and shock, and sometimes distress and anger, when they first learned of the existence of the samples in Canberra.  There was no clear, easy or ideal answer about what should happen to the samples.   Ultimately each party had nothing so effective as respect to offer.  The Galiwin’ku people wished to show respect to their deceased ones.  ANU wished to show respect for the wishes of those faced with difficult choices.  The final solution – sequencing and repatriation – is a significant gift from each to the other.

It is hard to imagine a more powerful symbol of reconciliation.

Updated:  30 March 2020/Responsible Officer:  Director, NCIG/Page Contact:  Web Admin, NCIG