Maori would be better off – wouldn’t they? – trying to get ahead instead of trying to get heads

Alf prepared some questions for asking in Parliament this week, but a caucus colleague advised him against asking them in that forum.

He thought our Maori Party coalition partners might take serious cultural offence.

Fair enough. We might need their votes to have Budget legislation enacted.

But Alf remains very curious.

He wants to know how many people are needed to bring a few mummified tattooed Maori heads back to this country. Lots, it seems.

The eyes of the world, especially indigenous cultures, were watching as the Rouen Museum in France handed over a toi moko – a preserved Maori tattooed head, Te Papa repatriation manager Te Herekiekie Herewini said.

He was part of a delegation that returned from Europe yesterday with two other toi moko, and skeletal remains or skulls from five other Maori. The remains have been held in European museums since the 19th century.

Oh, and how much public money is being spent on this exercise? And is that money best spent on sending teams of Maori to Europe to bring the heads back to New Zealand, and then to spend more money on finding out just whose heads they might be? Or on Maori health, Maori education, Maori employment – that sort of thing?

Alf observes that a great amount of ceremony is attached to the matter, ceremonies chew up lots of time, and time is money.

In a lengthy ceremony, the wooden boxes containing the remains were carried into Te Papa Marae yesterday, with speeches from each country that had returned them.

French taxpayers have invested in this exercise, too, according to a TV One report.

French senator Catherine Morin-Desailly was instrumental in making that change happen, and she was part of the delegation in Wellington today.

She told ONE News that being present has illustrated the importance of returning the head.

“I didn’t realise it would be so important and here when you’re on the spot, people talk to you and I can see their emotion and I can see their reaction and the fact they are sort of overjoyed.”

So whose head is it and which tribe does it come from?

Nobody knows.

Now that the money has been spent bringing it back, more will be spent in the identifying department.

This looks like a nice little earner, because

… staff will begin working to identify the warrior and his Iwi, a task which could take years to complete.

Michelle Hippolite of Te Papa said the investigation will include consultation with ta moko specialists.

“We’ll be trying to identify regional differences in tattoo design and try to get to specific locations or iwi that these designs may belong too.”

Once the identity is established a final resting place will be found.

Here’s hoping it is is a final resting place. David Rankin, who keeps moving Hone Heke’s bones, might have other ideas.

Alf is bemused by the modern-day urge to bring the heads home when the circumstances in which they were shipped abroad in the first place are considered.

Historically, Maori warriors would tattoo their faces with elaborate designs to depict their rank.

Recovered heads of those killed in battle were highly prized by their enemies.

The first such head recorded as being acquired by a European was taken in 1770 by a member of an expedition led by Captain James Cook.

Tattoos made the heads an object of fascination for later European explorers, who collected them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Demand from Europeans for the grisly mementoes eventually became so great that men were murdered specifically for their heads.

Captured slaves are said to have had their faces tattooed by other tribes to make them look like warriors before they were killed.

So the heads brought back from France may well be the heads of some poor buggers who were murdered by Maori in their efforts to make a buck or secure some muskets, or some such.

Likewise Alf is astonished by the fuss made when French museum people ignored Te Papa’s protests by taking and then publishing a photograph of a preserved Maori tattooed head.

The action was “inappropriate and culturally offensive”, Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation programme chairman Pou Temara said.

Photographing the dead was frowned on in Maori culture. “With ancestors, it’s doubly inappropriate for photographs to be taken.”

It seems Rouen Museum published a 3-D image of the toi moko, given to the museum in 1875.

Piri Sciascia, from the Victoria University Maori studies department, said the return of toi moko was virtually uncharted territory. “You are dealing with the unknown – the dead, people’s feelings, people’s pride and mana, and international relationships.”

Alf wonders if anyone gave a toss about the feelings of the poor buggers whose heads were lopped off, smoked and so on, back in the days long before such behaviour was regarded as seriously uncivilized and deserving of a head-lopper being banged up in Paremoremo.

One Response to Maori would be better off – wouldn’t they? – trying to get ahead instead of trying to get heads

  1. Kamiria M says:

    I am an almost 70 year old Maori Kuia. I was present as a Kaikaranga [caller] when these Moko were brought into Te Papa. It is my considered opinion that if as much effort and money put into returning of our dead ancestors was put into caring for the many victims of abuse we have in Te Ao Maori we just might make the future better for all our suffering mokopuna!

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