While the Aboriginal repatriation of human remains from the Smithsonian Institution should be celebrated as a great achievement, it raises questions about indigenous languages that remain unsettled.

Death does not alter our responsibility to respect each other. That is the conclusion that film-maker Martin Thomas offers when reflecting on his new documentary, Etched in Bone. The film was co-directed by Béatrice Bijon and released by Ronin Films earlier this year. Made over the course of a decade, it tells a story of the repatriation of Aboriginal remains to Gunbalayna, a community of about a thousand people in Western Arnhem Land.

While the Aboriginal repatriation of human remains from the Smithsonian Institution should be celebrated as a great achievement, it raises questions about indigenous languages that remain unsettled.

This is a tale by turns harrowing and inspiriting. It begins in the shadow of Inyalak, a red-rock cathedral rising from a landscape of shimmering warmth. From its first frame, the film buzzes with the insect-thrum of the bush, crunches with the texture of the place. Bijon and Martin's editorial skill is immersive ― transporting, even. As their composition bends to represent it, the country rises as a protagonist, a centrally-important character of the film. By the time the local residents guide the camera into the sanctuary of Inyalak, letting the lens pass over a painted rock ceiling of incredible beauty, it becomes clear that this was a film made collectively, by a locality, held in great trust and vulnerability, yet offered as a gift to the world.

Inyalak, however, has hosted visitors less respectful. As well as being a gallery of incredible rock painting, the structure is a repository of human bones, a function it shares with many of the great churches of the world. It is a place in which deep ancestral memory and language lay reposed. In 1948, this fact emboldened the gall of a visiting American anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution. Behind the back of his indigenous guide, he stole into the ossuary and disassembled human skeletons ― filming the entire affair ― before packaging them and transporting them to the United States.

Etched in bone

The 1948 Australian-American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land ― supported by National Geographic Magazine, the Smithsonian Institution and the Australian Government — was in itself a complex affair. An interdisciplinary undertaking, it included naturalists, botanist, mythologists and, notably, documentarians. And though the physical anthropologists of the expedition saw human remains as mere "specimens" to add to their collection of human diversity, Etched in Bone refuses to flatten this history into a morality tale of "Western Science" victimising "Indigenous Tradition." Bijon acknowledges that what her film really documents is an act of indigenous innovation. It presents the metaphysical science of Aboriginal people adapting to a bad situation. A problem no one should have to solve: how to return to peace the spirits of ancestors who have been stolen?

This is the terrible problem confronted by the traditional owner at the centre of Etched in Bone, the linguistically-gifted Jacob Nayinggul. Nayinggul died in 2012, seven years before the film was released, but his spirit suffuses it. Bijon and Thomas may be credited as directors, and they live on as the film's spokespersons. Yet at a deeper level, one senses that the film is authored by the country itself, with Jacob as its custodian. His authority to do so lay partially in his linguistic heritage.

When we meet Jacob, his eyes are beaming, as if powered by stars. He explains to camera that he became a traditional owner long before his birth, and outlines a few of the responsibilities that being a custodian entails. The duty of re-orienting the spirits of stolen ancestors, an uncommon and unenviable one, falls squarely on his shoulders. His frame diminishes over the course of the film, perhaps beset by the weighty task.

Jacob makes apparent for the audience that the importance of a person remaining in their territory after death is a matter of speech, a necessity of communication. At several points he relates that after placing a person in their final resting place, the living might "call out" to them, to announce the fact of their following, to ask a spirit to wait for them, or to request that they intervene in the affairs of the living, to help, if they can.

Indigenous language, according to Jakelin Troy, is the ultimate artefact that Europeans stole, a rich philosophical structure that was razed, collected, disassembled and, in some instances, transported by colonists back to England where it could be "preserved."

Nayinggul is faced, therefore, with the duty of communicating with sprits who have been on an unprecedented journey, of calming and reorienting them. At one point of the film, he tells Thomas that he has spoken to the bones, then being prepared for internment, in Mengerrdji, an ancient language that he surmises would be familiar to them.

Etched in Bone is a visual document, but it is also, partially and importantly, a linguistic record. The media-savvy Nayinggul encourages people to talk while the camera is rolling, making their conversations a happy accident of documentation. Jacob tells us that he made this film for his grandchildren, and his grandchildren's grandchildren. Perhaps so that when they follow, and become a spirit of the land, they will speak a language the waiting ones will also speak.

The precarity of language captured by Etched in Bone is a sobering reminder in 2019, the UN Year of Indigenous Languages, about Australia's threatened linguistic heritage. The too-few public schools with bilingual curriculums are under pressure. The UN says, in a conservative estimate, that more than half the world's languages will have no living speakers by the end of this century. Though Etched in Bone is not about the fragility of indigenous language per se, it is shaped by that reality.

Indigenous language, according to Jakelin Troy, is the ultimate artefact that Europeans stole, a rich philosophical structure that was razed, collected, disassembled and, in some instances, transported by colonists back to England where it could be "preserved." Case in point: the journals of William Dawes, from which Professor Troy reconstructed her brilliant book The Sydney Language. Troy suggests that those notebooks, too, should be repatriated to Australia. Another form of repatriation comes in the call to rename country. "Dawes Point," where the southern end of Sydney's Harbour Bridge touches land, is a place more readily invoked by its indigenous name, Tar-Ra.

In the course of reading The Sydney Language, one encounters the evocative Dharug word "bugrabala" which means "broken to pieces, for example, chinaware." It seemed to me an apt description of the way the way indigenous words surface in Etched in Bone. Even as ancestral discourse is used to powerful effect, the film's grasp of the auditory environment is invariably incomplete and fleeting. Snatches of conversation enter the microphone. Words here and there. Bugrabala. It was moving, somehow, that one word from one ancestral language could describe the form in which the entirety of that language — and so many others — find themselves.

Broken language adds just one pang to the long-lasting pains of history. The problems and possibilities raised by theft and repatriation are complex and interrelated. The stealing and fragmentation of bodies, artefacts and languages are imbricated phenomenon. One readily denounces the stealing of human skeletons, but by linguistic loss the ancestral spirits connected to them are increasingly marooned, with no one calling out to them.

The unsettling problems raised by Etched in Bone's soundtrack spiral out from Arnhem Land to evoke a world of voices. In God is Red, a classic account of American Indian politics, Vine Deloria, Jr. spends considerable attention on the raiding and pilfering of Indian burial grounds that continued well into the 1970s. In an ironic after-spasm of genocidal wars ― never mind the continued taxing of Indian reserves ― whites enacted their commitments to preserving American Indians by violating their skeletons. In his chapter "The Religious Challenge," Deloria admonishes such behaviour with a quotation from the Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear:

The white man does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative processes … But in the Indian the spirit of the land is vested … Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers' bones.

Jacob Nayinggul's voice may resonate with us as it calls out to his forefathers' bones. Thomas and Bijon's film may ask us to look hard at a history that's hard to watch. The UN might warn us about linguistic precarity. And may we call "Dawes Point" by its name, Ta-Rar. But these are merely the bits of what Deloria calls "a radical reevaluation of the way we look at the world." In 1972 he stated: "whether we are prepared to embark on a painful intellectual journey to discover the parameters of reconciling history and nature is the question of this generation." Fifty years later, for another generation, it remains the question. Jacob faced it boldly and best he could, while too few have asked it of themselves, let alone tried to answer.