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Field Museum Returns Human Remains to Their Descendants After Decades

 The Field Museum's great hall and entryway.
The Field Museum's great hall and entryway.
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Flickr/Edsel Little

MUSEUM CAMPUS — Human remains of three Tasmanian Aboriginal community members in the Field Museum's collection since the 1950s will be returned to their descendants in a ceremony Wednesday.

Delegates from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre will be at the museum to "ensure the respectful return of the Tasmanian ancestors to their homeland," the museum announced in a release Monday.

The museum acquired the human remains in 1958 as part of a collection of artifacts gathered in the late 19th century from the island state off the coast of Australia.

They were included among 7,000 Pacific materials bought from Captain A.W.F. Fuller, an English historian who sourced his collection from individuals, auction houses and other institutions, according to the museum.

The museum was unable find any identifying information about the three Tasmanian individuals whose remains are in its archives, so they connected with the TAC to establish "a productive and mutually beneficial relationship" that includes repatriating their remains, Field Museum President and CEO Richard Lariviere said in a statement.

"We are honored to have been chosen by our community to bring our old people back to their final resting place on home country," said Annette Peardon, one of the Aboriginal delegates traveling to Chicago this week to reclaim the remains.

"We thank the Field Museum for their gracious welcome, and for the ease with which this repatriation has been arranged."

The Field Museum's acquisition of the remains mirrored an international trend following the colonization of Tasmania in the mid- to late-1800s.

One account of the scene on the island nation written in 1831 described "along the whole line of coast, the bones of the murdered aboriginies are strewed over the face of the earth," according to the museum.

Ceremonial burial grounds and graveyards were ransacked en masse during that era to feed demand for Aboriginal body parts and artifacts that were later sold to museums around the world.

Peardon's organization was created in the early 1970s to facilitate the return of Tasmanian Aboriginal remains from museums in Australia, England, Scotland, Sweden and the U.S. so they can be buried according to her culture's practices.

A U.S. law passed in 1990 called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires museums that receive federal funds to repatriate human remains and cultural objects to U.S. Indian tribes. No laws require similar measures be taken for international repatriations, but the Field Museum has made an independent effort to extend that consideration since 2002.

"It is a wonderful feeling to be part of an event like this, where we each do what we can to repair the damage done in the past," Peardon said of the ceremony the museum will host Wednesday to return the remains to the TAC.

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