Blood samples start their long journey home to Arnhem Land

11 November 2019

For 50 years they have been housed at ANU. But today, blood samples from the Galiwin'ku people of Elcho Island in Arnhem Land start their long journey home.

The 200 blood samples were collected in the 1960s after a typhoid outbreak on Elcho Island, and form part of the collection at the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics at ANU. During that time they have unlocked vital medical and health breakthroughs.

But the University also recognised Canberra was not their home.

For two years, ANU has been working with the local community to repatriate the 200 samples from those who have passed away to their families and land.

Next week the blood samples will be buried in a special ceremony on Elcho Island.  

To start their journey home, the University has today held a moving smoking ceremony featuring Ngunnawal Elder Aunty Matilda House and Galiwin'ku traditional owners, Rosemary Gundjarranbuy, David Yangaririny Munyarryun, Ross Mandi and Shane Dhawa Bukulatjpi. 

The ceremony and repatriation are one small part of the University's ongoing commitment to deep and meaningful reconciliation driven by the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Australians.

ANU Professor Brian Schmidt described the repatriation of the blood samples as representing something "remarkable".

"Today, more than 200 biology samples from the Galiwin'ku are returned to the representatives of the Galinwin'ku community from which they came," he said.

"The conceptual boundaries have shifted here at the national university. Models of conduct for human genomic research have been reshaped, and those will reverberate not just around ANU, not just Australia, but the world.

"It is our hope this will benefit the community of the Galinwin'ku and the University simultaneously."

The repatriation and consultation with the Galiwin'ku community has been led by Ms Azure Hermes from the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics.

In an ingenious solution, the local people have said that they want the samples of those who have passed away to be returned to the island. But they have also given ANU permission to sequence the DNA so that it can help unlock further medical and health breakthroughs.

"Mrs Azure Hermes from the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics and the elders of Galinwin'ku have forged a new approach to the ethically and culturally challenging topic of Indigenous genomic research," Professor Schmidt said.

"Together the University and the community of Galinwin'ku have humanised scientific samples and the way scientific research is conducted using these samples and others like them.

"Culture and tradition calls for the return of the samples to Country; this is versus the importance - indeed the urgency - to harness the potential of genomic research to help lift the heavy burden of disease that is part of life for many Indigenous Australians.

"Together, we discovered that either-or is not necessary.

"Our shared ability to bring to realisation a research model that respects Indigenous cultural practices and genomic discovery is a remarkable achievement, and a gift from each of us to the other. It is, we suggest, reconciliation in action."