Culture, heritage, history and repatriation research

Return, reconcile, renew: understanding the history, effects and opportunities of repatriation and building an evidence base for the future

The repatriation of Ancestral Remains is of great significance for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and many other Indigenous peoples worldwide. An extraordinary Indigenous achievement, repatriation has been the single most important agent of change in the relationship between Indigenous peoples, museums and the academy over the past 40 years. Its importance is enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Repatriation has revealed subaltern histories, enabled new narratives and continues to provide rich opportunity for understanding cross-cultural relations, reconciliation approaches and the work of Indigenous organisations and nations to achieve social goals. It has challenged orthodoxies, prompted radical shifts in policy, driven legislative change, and engaged politicians and diplomats at the highest level.

Since 2013, the 'Return, Reconcile, Renew' project has illuminated over forty years of the repatriation of Indigenous human remains. It has brought together Indigenous community organisations, government, cultural institutions, and universities in Australia and overseas. It has assisted repatriation practice, undertaken new research into the removal and return of Ancestral Remains, conducted 50 interviews in the Kimberley, Torres Strait, and Ngarrindjeri country, and developed the first stage of the RRR Digital Archive of repatriation information – best conceptualised as an online repatriation encyclopaedia. The project website and public area of the digital archive will shortly go live at

Major outputs include: the team convened 8 sessions on repatriation at the 8th World Archaeological Congress in Kyoto, Japan (2016), and co-convened the day symposium ‘The Long Journey Home’ with the National Museum of Australia and the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific in May 2018. A major scholarly volume containing 56 chapters on repatriation matters from around the world is shortly to be submitted to Routledge. A book of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in repatriation will be published in 2020 by Magabala books.

The team also developed a 5 day intensive course that is an accredited ANU Master course (MUSC8019) and is also available as Professional Development. Each year it is hosted by one of the project’s Indigenous Partner Organisations on their traditional country. Participants learn from traditional owners and Indigenous and non-Indigenous repatriation expertise from Australia, New Zealand and the USA. More information available here:

Partners on the project were: The University of Melbourne, University of Tasmania, Flinders University, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Ministry for the Arts (Department of Communication and the Arts), the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA), National Museum of Australia, University of Otago, Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council.

The project frequently takes interns who assist with various elements of research and project management. If you would like to be an intern on this project, please contact: Thank you to all the interns who have helped so far: Lucie Aitken, Louise Hermitage, Amos Washington, Caitlyn Goldney, and Alex Rouse.

We acknowledge and thank all those who have shared their knowledge and contributed to the RRR project and digital archive.

NCIS project personnel: A/Prof Cressida Fforde, Mr Craig Greene, Dr Gareth Knapman.

Restoring Dignity: Networked Knowledge for Repatriation Communities

This project is funded through the Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure Equipment Facilities scheme (LE170100017) and partner organisation cash and in-kind contributions.

Restoring Dignity builds upon the foundational work undertaken in Return Reconcile Renew, to build a facility that raises awareness of repatriation and assists repatriation practice and research. The Return Reconcile Renew research group works to build this research infrastructure with Indigenous-led protocols for its access and use. It will have public, restricted, and private sections

The archive infrastructure and content is curated by the eScholarship Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. The rest of the project team members build the archive content and contribute to development of access and Governance protocols.

We acknowledge and thank all those who have shared their knowledge and contributed to the RRR project and digital archive.

NCIS project personnel: A/Prof Cressida Fforde, Mr Craig Greene, Dr Gareth Knapman.

Serving Our Country: a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia

This major new research project traces the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia, and provides authoritative accounts of their contributions to the nation. It is a four-year research project that follows on from a 12-month pilot project – Defence Service History.

This research project is funded through the Australian Research Council Linkage Project scheme and is led by Professor Mick Dodson from NCIS. Partnership organisations are the Department of Defence, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the National Archives of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Community Yarnups

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the project research team will conduct Community Yarnups throughout Australia to meet with Indigenous service members and their families. The team will record oral and video histories, research archival papers and other sources to create a more inclusive understanding of Australia's defence history.

We would love to hear from you!

Key NCIS researchers: Professor Mick Dodson, Mr Craig Greene, Ms Kate Macfarlane.

Project timeline: mid-2012 – current.

» read more about this project

Defence Service History

Stella Bowen, ‘Private, Gowrie House’, oil on hardboard, 11 June 1945 AWM, ART26277.

This 12-month pilot project conducted research on the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's involvement in Australia's defence services, across the major conflicts and in peacetime operations. Funded by the Department of Veterans' Affairs in collaboration with NCIS and the Australian Centre for Indigenous History, ANU, the project was designed to develop a larger project with major national institutions.

The project drew upon resources such as biographies, autobiographies of wartime service, oral histories, photographs, letters and archival sources, to provide a comprehensive overview of existing material on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's contribution to defence services. It also began to explore the potential of family collections and memories to further understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's perspectives on defence services participation and the impacts it had on their lives and communities. The project laid the foundation for a larger, five-year Australian Research Council-funded research project entitled 'Serving Our Country Project: a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia'.

Key NCIS researchers: Professor Mick Dodson.

Project timeline: February 2011 – February 2012.

Creating comprehensive, relevant records of Wägilak manikay: the ancestral records of Andy Peters and Benjamin Wilfred

Researchers created integrated records of Wägilak manikay and its associated dances, stories, texts and relations to sites on country. Funded by a 12-month grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the research employed new recording technologies such as portable multi-track recording equipment to make comprehensive, relevant records of Wägilak manikay for the future, thereby addressing concerns for the safeguarding of manikay song and its ceremonial practice by the Wägilak clan in Ngukurr, Northern Territory.

Alongside comprehensive archival material including audio, video, images, recorded narratives and song texts, a story book and CD of the Wagilak song narratives was created by the researchers and distributed to children of the families involved in the project, as well as the Ngukurr Language Centre. The story book included professional photographs of Benjamin and Daniel Wilfred by Tobias Titz, introductory instructions and narratives recorded at Ngilipidji (ancestral homeland) by elder Andy Peters, images of Ngilipidji, and illustrations of the basic and public narrative of the manikay series. The story book follows the songs and corresponding tracks on the (abridged) recording created as a part of this project.

Research material from this project was incorporated into the Australian Art Orchestra's Crossing Roper Bar, a musical collaboration with Daniel and Benjam Wilfred.

Key NCIS researchers: Mr Samuel Curkpatrick.

Project timeline: 2012.

Canning Stock Route

Rock art, Canning stock route.

In partnership with the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council, the Canning Stock Route project sought to identify Indigenous uses of the 1700km Canning stock route, including locating and recording rock art and contemporary sites of Aboriginal significance adjacent to the track, with an ultimate aim to protect restricted sites and cultural artefacts through regional management strategies.

The research team included representatives from ANU, the Federal Department of Water, Heritage & Arts, Landgate (Western Australian Land Information Authority), the Western Australian Department of Environment & Conservation, the Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs, and Aboriginal representative bodies.

Key NCIS researchers: Professor Mick Dodson.

Project timeline: 2007 – 2010.

Updated:  3 July 2019/ Responsible Officer:  NCIS Project Coordinator/ Page Contact:  NCIS Administrative Officer