In western Arnhem Land (a region of northern Australia), the Aboriginal custodians believe that the landscape is inhabited by spirits of ancestors whose bones were traditionally interred in crevices or caves. With the incursion of white people into the area, these mortuary sites were sometimes raided by archaeologists who collected human bones and put them in museums.
Jacob Nayinggul, the film’s central interviewee, is a charismatic elder and lawman who lives in the settlement of Gunbalanya, close to his traditional country. In interviews with historian Martin Thomas, he introduces us to his land near the East Alligator River and describes his obligations to the ancestor spirits with whom he communicates, especially in times of need. Jacob has decided to speak publicly about the relationship between bones and spirits because human remains from the Gunbalanya area are being returned from Washington DC where they were held for more than sixty years in the National Museum of Natural History, a division of the Smithsonian Institution. Jacob is concerned about what happened to the spirits when the bones were taken. He assumes that they travelled to America and is fearful that they became lost while overseas.
Using original colour footage from National Geographic, Etched in Bone goes back in time to reveal how the bones were stolen. The man responsible was Frank Setzler, Head Curator of Anthropology at the Smithsonian, who visited Australia in 1948 as a member of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (an initiative of the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian and the Australian Government). Setzler’s own diary reveals that he waited until his Aboriginal assistants went to sleep before he plundered burial caves on Injalak, a sacred plateau on the edge of Gunbalanya.
Narration explains how lobbying by the Australian Government eventually convinced the Smithsonian to release the human remains from Arnhem Land. This leads us to Washington where Joe Gumbula, a ceremonial singer, scholar and rock musician is leading a delegation of fellow Arnhem Landers who have travelled to the US to collect their ancestors. As the visitors debate their responsibilities to the spirits of kinsmen taken by Setzler, we meet American historian Samuel Redman who describes the shady origins of the Smithsonian’s bone collection. The scene then shifts to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian where the Indigenous staff provide space for the Arnhem Landers to hold a smoking ceremony that will release the ancestor spirits from the Smithsonian and lead them back to Australia.
When the bones return to Gunbalanya, they are stored in a shed for a year while the community prepares for their interment. Under Jacob’s leadership, it is agreed they should be buried in the ground as part of a large, public ceremony. Firstly, however, they must be ritually prepared for their return to the land. This involves the revitalisation of old rites that have not been practised for decades. In moving footage, local men and women remove the ancestors from the museum boxes and carefully rub them with a solution of red ochre before wrapping them in paperbark. Jacob’s health is failing, so he oversees the process from a wheelchair, giving orders and talking to the spirits in local languages. The next day they are buried before a large audience of locals and visitors to whom Jacob declares: ‘Stealing people’s bones and taking them away to study, well it’s no bloody good!’ Despite his anger at the theft, Jacob’s message is ultimately about putting past injustices to bed and paying respect to the people whose bones were taken in the name of science. As Jacob explained his actions: “We want people to see before we take these people to graveyard and put them to sleep. We’ll follow, we’ll go after them too.”