Early one morning, in the winter of 1985, Neil Murray of the Warumpi Band was on a coach travelling to Sydney. He had just spent a week on an island in East Arnhem Land: Galiwin’ku, the home of the band’s singer George Burarrwanga.
Sitting on the coach, Murray began to feel, he says, an “exceptional longing” to return to Galiwin’ku.
“In my head I could hear singing: ‘My island home, my island home, my island home is waiting for me…’. I held on to the tune till I got to Sydney and pulled my guitar out of the luggage to find the chords.”
Almost twenty years before Murray wrote these words for Burarrwanga to sing, an outbreak of typhoid had occurred on Galiwin’ku, known as Elcho Island.
As part of the medical response, the Northern Territory Health Department collected blood samples from the entire Indigenous community.
The 1,200 samples they collected were then sent to The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, to be included in a genetic study at the University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research.
There is no record of consent being sought, or given, by the Galiwin’ku community for the use of their samples in the study.
For the past 50 years, these samples have been stored at ANU together with approximately 6,000 others collected from 35 Indigenous communities around Australia.
Now, in November 2019, the samples from the Galiwin’ku people are being returned to their island home in Arnhem Land.
In the years since it was written, My Island Home has become almost an unofficial Australian national anthem. Neil Murray has said the song is about a simple, but fundamental idea: belonging.
“If you really belong to a place, that place knows you and waits for you,” he said.
“And that is an Indigenous idea as well, that the country knows its own children, those that really belong, and will wait for them to come back, like any loving parent would.”
Photo: Professors Brian Schmidt and Graham Mann pass the remains to Galiwin'ku traditional owners David Yangaririny Munyarryun, Ross Mandi and Shane Dhawa Bukulatjpi.
The journey back to Galiwin’ku has occupied two years of Azure Hermes’ life.
In her role with the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) at ANU, Mrs Hermes is responsible for consulting with the communities whose samples are held in the University’s collection. She facilitates their decision on what should happen to the samples: whether they should be destroyed or incorporated, with permission, into the NCIG’s Indigenous genomics biobank for future research.
Galiwin’ku is the fourth community she has worked with, after the Tiwi Islands, Titjikala and Yarrabah, her own community. She says the consultation process takes a long time and is extremely emotional.
“My family is in the collection at ANU, so I get it, why people are upset when they find out. When I started looking at the list and saw my aunties and uncles were on it, I felt the same way.
“The simple fact is that as an Aboriginal woman, I can't do anything about what happened in 1968, when these samples were collected. So I just let people go through their process and I let them be angry. It’s an uncomfortable and upsetting conversation, but I know that the anger is justified, and that it’s not directed at me.”
On Galiwin’ku, these conversations took place at 20 different barbecues hosted by Mrs Hermes (“I never want to see another sausage again!” she says), held under mango trees or on the beach, where family members shared their concerns, and their wishes for the future.
Photo: Azure Hermes preparing the garden in Galiwin'ku ahead of the repatriation ceremony.
“Galiwin’ku is a really traditional community, where cultural beliefs are practiced every single day,” Mrs Hermes explains.
“And so when I began talking about blood samples belonging to people who have passed away, automatically the community started to ask, ‘What does this mean? Does this mean that my family hasn't moved on to the next world? Or is this why we're having so much bad luck? Is this why we're so sick? Are we being punished because these samples are in Canberra?’
“So initially, the answer was that they wanted the samples disposed of.
“But as we began to have really long discussions about genetics and DNA and why it’s important, and the good things that come out of it, and the bad things that come out of it, people in the community started to think it sounded like something that they actually should be a part of, as a legacy for future generations.
“Then the conversation was about how to marry up their traditional beliefs with modern science: ‘How do we contribute to the research, as well as doing the right thing by our deceased ancestors?’”
The community, Mrs Hermes, and scientists at NCIG worked together to find a solution: a small amount of each blood sample belonging to a deceased person would be used for DNA sequencing. Once this data was collected, the remains would be returned to Galiwin’ku.
Photo: Galiwin'ku traditional owner Rosemary Gundjurranbuy collecting paperbark ahead of the repatriation ceremony.
“For the community to manage their cultural responsibilities to their ancestors, while also trying to think about their community’s future, that was a really difficult process,” Mrs Hermes says. “They were really hard decisions to make and they did it so well.”
It’s a difficulty which she understands herself.
“With every community I go to, the weight of the responsibility that I have to both the community and to our samples gets heavier and heavier and heavier. I feel the pressure to make sure that things are being done right.
“I’m proud that here, and with the other communities, we have done something right. I’m honoured and humbled to have been let into this community and to be trusted with bringing the samples home.”
Photo: Galiwin’ku based artist Peter Datjing Burarrwanga painting a hollow log to be displayed at ANU.
Mrs Hermes has flown with the samples to Galinwin’ku this week, accompanied by Galiwin'ku traditional owners Rosemary Gundjarranbuy, David Yangaririny Munyarryun, Ross Mandi and Shane Dhawa Bukulatjpi, as well as an ANU delegation.
There, the ancestral remains will be honoured in a private, traditional ceremony and later, buried.
“It’s sad, and it’s a time of mourning,” Mrs Hermes says. “But it’s also a celebration. It’s to welcome them back and to say: ‘You can rest now. You’re home’.”