UH Hilo Indigenous archaeologist Tarisi Vunidilo works on repatriation project in Germany

Former UH Hilo alumna Tarisi Vunidilo, now an assistant professor of anthropology at the university, is doing post-doc work on “Sensitive Provenances” at Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany.

A group photo of 12 multi-cultural and multi ethnic people on the steps of a building.
Tarisi Vunidilo, center, and fellow colleagues working on a repatriation project pose for photo at a press conference event about the project, Forum Wissen Museum (a research museum in Göttingen, Germany), September 2022. Front row from left, Maximillian Chami (Tanzania), Mikael Asilkinga (Cameroon), McMichael Mutok (Palau), Alma simba (Tanzania). Middle row from left, Metin Tolan (university president), Katharina Stotzel (researcher), Tarisi Vunidilo (researcher), Regina Bendix (professor), and Christian Vogel (professor). Back row from left, unidentified participant (representative of the mayor of Göttingen), Holger Stoecker (researcher), and Rebekka Habermas (history professor). (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright

Tarisi Vunidilo, an Indigenous archaeologist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is currently doing post-doctoral work at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany, where she was invited to focus on the repatriation of objects and human remains from the Pacific that were previously held in German collections.

Tarisi Vunidilo
Tarisi Vunidilo

Twenty-six years ago, Vunidilo was an anthropology student at UH Hilo. She returned to the university in 2018 as an assistant professor of anthropology with a passion to investigate and share her knowledge about the histories of places, artifacts, and Indigenous peoples.

Vunidilo says her four-month fellowship at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, as it is known in Germany, “is to jointly develop a research agenda making a comprehensive contribution to further provenance research on more than 1,000 human remains from Oceania, 900 of which come from Papua New Guinea.”

“As a researcher from the Pacific, it is important to connect with societies of origin in the region while being here in Germany so we are able to return these human remains to their rightful homes,” she says.

Archeologist Vundilo’s role in accomplishing this goal is to connect the collections in Germany with museums in the Pacific.

“The hat I wear for the Pacific Islands Museums Association is so valuable as I become the conduit between Germany and our Pacific museums and communities,” she says.

Vundilo’s fellowship is part of Georg-August University’s research project Sensitive Provenances. According to the project’s website, “This research project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, investigates the provenance of human remains from (proto-)colonial contexts in two collections at the University of Göttingen. It aims to examine the origin of mortal remains, the circumstances of their acquisition, their transfer and transformation into ‘things of knowledge’ in scientific practice, and their use for teaching and research purposes.”

Radio interview:

Photo of boxes stacked in warehouse.
Dec. 7, 2022 UPDATE: Click on photo to listen to Dec. 4 radio interview with Pacific Beat for the Australian Broadcasting Commission regarding the repatriation project. The interview features McMichael Mutok Jr., Palau registrar; Jonatan Kurzwelly, post-doctoral Fellow, University of Göttingen; and Tarisi Vunidilo, post-doctoral fellow, University of Göttingen. Photo shows collections from the anthropological collection in Göttingen which contain human remains. (Photo credit Sofia Leikam/University of Göttingen)

The project put out a call for seven research fellowships at the university in order to enter into a close dialogue with scholars from the Global South. In this way representatives of the countries of origin, from which the human remains originally came, become closely involved in the project and bring in their different perspectives on the human remains of the so-called Blumenbach Skull Collection and the Anthropological Collection.

Fellows working with Vundilo hail from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tanzania, and Cameroon.

“I am happy to work alongside fellows, assisting and supporting their research and plans to return their ancestors home,” she says.

She is also working on advocacy and community awareness.

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.

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