Bones found at Auckland school, concerns skeletons in closet at other kura

7:15 am on 7 September 2022
Epsom Girls' Grammar School.

A father wants all schools checked for kōiwi after bones were found at Epsom Girls Grammar School Photo: Getty Images / Phil Walter

Whānau were left upset after two Māori students from Epsom Girls Grammar were asked to perform a karakia on human kōiwi (bones) found at the prestigious school.

The school said the teacher who asked the students to perform the blessing was well-intentioned but it was a breach of tikanga and it should not have happened.

The father of one of the girls, who RNZ has agreed not to name, said after his daughter told him what had occurred, he was concerned and angry and was now worried it may be a wider issue occurring in other schools.

"The school is on whenua Māori so there's tangata whenua there that haven't been consulted throughout the process. There's Māori staff within the school that haven't been consulted around the process. And someone's taken it upon themselves, under some directive to move this skeleton and then, somehow, they thought it a good idea to ask my daughter and her cousin to say karakia over them. That's a breach [of tikanga] in many ways."

The two students performed the karakia before the kōiwi, thought to have been used in the past for teaching purposes, were removed from the school and taken to the University of Auckland, but the father said it left his daughter feeling uncomfortable.

"I was worried for the safety of our daughter. In our world, kōiwi, even though it was skeleton, is still a person and so dead or alive that person deserves to be treated with the mana and dignity that anyone else should be dealt with and just to simply be rolled out and transported down the road to somewhere else, as Māori people, we don't do that to people. There's a system and a process in place for us to respond to those sorts of things."

For Māori, kōiwi are the physical representation of their whakapapa and identity. It is believed the essence of a person is in the bones and that they are the most sacred part of a person. According to tikanga, it is inappropriate and culturally offensive to interfere with, display or use kōiwi.

The father said rather than ask his daughter to perform a karakia, a kaumātua or tohunga from the local hapū, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, should have been consulted over the tikanga.

"In my view, we've got to acknowledge the role of Te Tiriti in all of this. There is a very clear disjoint between Māori and Pākehā throughout this process, when in actual fact Te Tiriti requires a partnership at the table, yet it doesn't look like there's one. And because of the lack of one, then what you've got is people that go ahead and do things without the knowledge of doing them in a specific way, ie a Māori way.

"There's potentially a number of conversations where Māori should've been involved, and they just weren't and had they been involved this would not have happened, and as a result of that, that's what angers me, is that our children are put at risk because of that."

The teacher had the right intentions, he said, but what was asked of his daughter was not right.

Other parents were also upset about what had happened.

Huhana Lyndon, the mother of another student at Epsom Girls Grammar, said it was inappropriate for young people to be asked to bless human remains.

"These are remains of an ancestor, someone who has passed. Now whether they donated their body to science or not, we are in 2022 and this is a high school setting"

She wanted to see the school repatriate the kōiwi to the descendants.

"We want to make sure that the remains are stored safely and culturally appropriately, and if possible, to be buried with its own loved ones. These remains have been around for a long time, surely at some stage, we will put them to rest."

After the father alerted the school leadership about what had happened, Epsom Girls Grammar worked closely with his whānau to rectify the situation, which he said he appreciated.

"The school has been really open to an ongoing dialogue. They've been really supportive; they've asked us if there's anything we need and have been genuinely concerned."

Epsom Girls Grammar acting principal Karyn Dempsey said the school strived to ensure the kura was a safe place for all students to thrive, but the incident highlighted a lack of adequate resourcing to support the growth of tikanga within schools and to embed understanding of te ao Māori.

"Like many schools, we are on a learning journey and unfortunately, at times, with learning comes mistakes."

The father said he was now concerned there could be kōiwi at other kura, putting Māori students across the motu at risk.

"I suspect that if there's one of these in this school, it's highly likely that there's going to be some at other schools. And my view is that there shouldn't be. Once upon a time, this might have been good practice and it might have been the way things were done but, in this day, and age there's so much technology around, why would you need those sorts of things in schools?"

Human skeletons can still be bought and sold in the United States, but have not been commercially available in New Zealand for at least 50 years.

The Ministry of Education has closed its Wellington head office because the building does not meet earthquake standards.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He called on the Ministry of Education to do a 'stocktake' to see if there were kōiwi at other schools.

"They should uplift them and deal with them appropriately, accordingly, and have them removed from schools. But it needs to be done in a way that upholds the mana of (1) tangata whenua and (2) the tangata that that kōiwi is."

Dempsey believed it was likely there were kōiwi in other schools in New Zealand.

"Many other schools throughout the country will also have kōiwi as these were widely distributed in the 1950s for educational purposes. We are hopeful that our learning could lead to protocols being developed for other schools with kōiwi on site."

She said little was known about the provenance of the kōiwi found at Epsom Girls Grammar.

The Ministry of Education ignored questions about whether it would undertake a stocktake of kōiwi in schools.

In a statement it said the ministry offered advice to support schools, including on cultural matters and had contacted Epsom Girls Grammar.

"Schools are not required to report to the ministry what materials they use for educational purposes. We encourage all schools to be aware of appropriate cultural practices and to seek guidance and cultural support from kaiako Māori and local kaumātua."

Gareth Jones, an Emeritus Professor of Anatomy at the University of Otago who researches anatomical science and ethics, said there could be human remains at other schools and they were found, biological anthropologists and local iwi should be consulted.

"My immediate question is, where did these remains come from? Do we know that they're human remains? What do we know about their provenance? Are there any possible descendants?"

If there were known descendants the remains should be repatriated, not used in a high school setting, he said.

Epsom Girls Grammar is consulting with their school kaumātua, Richard Nahi, (Ngāti Whātua; Ngāti Paoa). He also sits on the board of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua as the South Kaipara Takiwā representative.

RNZ contacted Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua, who were unavailable for comment.

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