This month marked a deeply emotional win in the decades-long battle by Māori to reclaim their stolen ancestors, with the return of 64 ancestral remains of Māori and Moriori from a museum in Austria. Now, with the repatriation ceremony at Te Papa complete, the delicate process of returning the ancestors to iwi begins.
Dislocated for centuries, locked behind glass or packed away in dusty shelves on the other side of the world, they’re finally home.
Almost two centuries after being violently disturbed and stolen from their final resting place, 64 ancestors have been received by their descendants. It’s a sensitive and delicate process that stirs up a lot of mamae for the iwi and hapū whose ancestors were robbed of peace.
In the early 1800s, Austrian taxidermist and grave-robber Andreas Reischek stole kōiwi and kōimi (Māori and Moriori ancestral remains, respectively) from all over over Aotearoa: from Rēkohu/Wharekauri (Chatham Islands), Whanganui, Ōtautahi, Lyttleton, Tāmaki Makaurau, and Whangaroa and Taiharuru in Te Tai Tokerau. It’s all recorded in his extensive diary records, published in local New Zealand newspapers in the 1950s.
In one entry, writing about burial sites in Kawhia, he notes “the tapu on such graves is indissoluble, and any one who disregards it is killed”. It appears that Reischek knew the severity of the transgressions he was committing, and did it anyway.
Kiwa Hammond (Tā Imi Moriori, Ngāti Kahungunu o te Wairoa, Ngāti Ruapani, Rongowhaakata) was one of those from Tā Imi Morioi for the repatriation ceremony at Te Papa at the beginning of this month.
“The treachery is what really resounds, the treachery of one man and how he systematically went around the country for 12 years and befriended rangatira, befriended Māori and he was stealing from under their noses and they were unwitting parties to his thievery and his ego-mania.”
Another layer of mamae is that the whakapapa of some of these ancestors was never properly recorded. Hammond says at least two of the tūpuna returned from Austria were in a box simply labeled “Māori: Wharekauri’”. Whether these ancestors were Moriori Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga will never been known.
It’s a painful and confronting reality, but Hammond says his priority is ensuring the people are guided home safely under tikane, “to ensure that the wairu of those karāpuna are able to rest”.
The hope now for Hammond is that they can lay their ancestors to rest on Rēkohu but that is still an on-going, delicate discussion.
Te Papa acting head of repatriation Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside (Ngāti Awa, Tūhoe, Ngāti Makino, Ngāpuhi, Te Arawa) says these decisions are left up to iwi and hapū. “He waka mātou mo ngā tūpuna ki a hoki atu ki te wā kāinga — our waka goes as far as the marae… so it’s entirely up to them.”
These local level negotiations can be particularly difficult where other iwi took part in the trading. “It’s a very, very confronting conversation but the whole kaupapa is reconciliation of the past,” says Mamaku-Ironside.
Backed with a government mandate to negotiate the return of kōiwi, Karanga Aotearoa is a team of just three set up in 2003 to repatriate the extensive number of kōiwi and toi moko (preserved heads) held in collections overseas.
Amber Aranui (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa), the lead curator taonga Māori at Te Papa, worked for 11 years as lead researcher for Karanga Aotearoa.
“It’s not easy, it can take years sometimes to be able to find out the information you need to ensure those tūpuna go home to their people,” she says.
Repatriation a hard-won battle
It was only in the last seven to eight years that the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria became open to discussions about repatriating kōiwi stolen by Reischek.
Māori first called on the government to request repatriation in 1945. However, it was the late Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who led the first delegation to Austria in 1985 to retrieve the toi moko of the Tainui rangatira Tūpahau. A condition of the repatriation was that the other toi moko must stay.
The next repatriation wasn’t until 2015 from Weltmuseum in Vienna. Then in 2017, Mamaku-Ironside says two Tainui kaumātua went and spoke to the Natural History Museum’s new head of collections, who called for Reischek’s diaries to be re-examined and retranslated. Finally, in 2020, it was agreed the 64 ancestors would be repatriated.
Colonial nations are under increasing pressure to rectify the wrongs they committed against indigenous nations, and institutions, like museums, as holders of stolen indigenous people and artifacts, are also having to confront their colonial past.
Just this week, the Nigerian culture minister urged the British Museum to return the Benin bronzes they hold in their collection, which were looted in 1897.
Aranui says, there are still those institutions, like the British Museum, that want to hold on to kōiwi for scientific and global education purposes. “Museums like that are of the view that it is their duty to retain taonga and in some cases, tūpuna, whether it be Egyptian mummies, or our own tūpuna, because it’s their obligation to help teach the world the history of man.
“For the most part things are changing, attitudes are changing, but there’s still the view that museums are going to be empty spaces, it’s going to open the floodgates and everyone is going to be lining up to get all their taonga and tūpuna back – which in a perfect world would be great – but in reality, it’s just not how it is,” Aranui says.
Karanga Aotearoa are mandated only to negotiate the return of kōiwi and kōimi; and they are very careful not to even broach the conversation about the return of taonga.
“If we approach them to say we’re here for taonga as well, then they get a little bit nervous… it’s dangerous territory for them, red flags start ringing,” Mamaku-Ironside says. “They see it as an existential risk to their institutions and their collections, which is kind of understandable but isn’t an excuse that sticks these days.”
While the repatriation from Austria, the biggest from the country to date, is a milestone for Karanga Aotearoa, there is still much work to do.
There are another 400-500 kōiwi out there they’re trying to bring home – and those are just the ones they know of. Many more are believed to be in private collections they don’t even know about.
For now Māori will continue to stand alongside other indigenous nations – First Nations in the US and Canada; Aborigines in Australia; Sami of Canada; Inu in Japan and the nations of Africa – in calling for their people to come home.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.