17 Aug 2016

Repatriation: a Māori perspective

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 17 August 2016

In the nineteenth century the remains of Māori were often traded as curiosities or for scientific research. Now a Māori expert in the area wants to bring them home.

“There’s been many times when I’ve been in tears, actually, especially when we take them home. That’s when it really hits you.”

Amber Aranui, a PhD student at Victoria University and a repatriation researcher at Te Papa, is researching where Māori remains are now kept, and is working with institutions to bring them home.

Most of these remains were collected from the 1840s; with the vast majority collected in the 1870s.

“At the time scientists and museums were interested in collecting skulls from around the world, particularly from indigenous cultures, just to, I guess, compare them, to put them in a tree if you like,” she says.

Many of these remains ended up in collections at museums and other institutions and she says people in overseas institutions are often surprised by the emotional connection Māori feel to them.

“I was at a conference recently in London about corpses and cadavers, and how human remains were used in the past and present in a number of different fields.

“People were talking about ancestors and human remains as being ‘specimens’ and ‘objects',’” she says.

It wasn’t until she gave her own Māori perspective about the remains being human that there was a change.

“You could see in the audience that people were actually thinking about it in a different way.”

She said it’s a learning process.

“The equivalent of how it feels emotionally for us would be for me to come and dig up your parents, or your grandparents – dig them up, take them away - do things to them, scientific research. And then pop them on display in a museum.”

From the 1870s hundreds of skulls were taken from New Zealand and thousands from around the world.

Toi moko, Māori tattooed preserved heads, were collected from the time of Captain Cook.

Joseph Banks obtained the first preserved head of a young boy. He traded it with a Māori for some white linen draws.

According to Cook’s journals the Māori didn’t want to sell it. Begrudgingly he sold it, then he tried to go back on the deal. Banks reportedly pulled out a musket and said 'Give it to me'.

Māori didn’t trade the heads of their own, they traded the heads of their enemy.

“Prior to Europeans coming to New Zealand we weren’t seen as iwi, we were hapu or sub-tribes, large extended family groups. We didn’t see ourselves as one as we do today.

“The ultimate disrespect you could give to your enemy was to trade their head and send it overseas.”

The Karana Aoteaora repatriation programme was set up in 2003 to bring Māori ancestors home and Amber says returning them to their communities is an emotional experience.

“There’s been many times when I’ve been in tears, actually, especially when we take them home. That’s when it really hits you.”