Our indigenous persons must be hooting with great delight, once they’ve finished weeping and wailing during ceremonies to welcome the return of tattooed heads from overseas.
Whether they can tell which heads belong to which tribes is a good question.
Whether they have been reclaiming pakeha heads – it transpires – is another good question.
This account of what’s going on from an American perspective was given a year ago in USA Today:
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Even the roar of gale-force winds couldn’t drown out the weeping and wailing of dozens of New Zealand Maoris as they welcomed home ancestors.
The arrival this month of the remains of 13 Maori warriors from collections at museums and universities in England, Ireland and the islands of Guernsey, was a victory for the indigenous people of New Zealand.
For decades, Maoris from this South Pacific island have been fighting with institutions around the world for the return of an estimated 600 preserved tattooed heads known as toi moko, and skeletal remains called koiwi tangata.
The Maoris persuaded France and England to turn over some public collections, but hundreds of known remains worldwide have not come home.
USA Today talked with a prominent indigenous person to discuss what is happening.
“There’s great fascination with toi moko, the tattooed head. People traded them. That’s part of the history, but now, it’s a question of how to reconcile that,” said professor Pou Temara, chairman of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Advisory Panel.
Under Maori tradition, the article explains to its American readers, intricate facial tattoos were inscribed on the faces of chiefs and warriors.
After death, the head — considered the most sacred part of the body — was smoked and dried in the sun for preservation.
Pou said some remains were taken without the knowledge of families; bodies were sometimes dug up out of the ground.
Maori participated in the trade. They would sell the heads of enemy tribesmen taken as battle trophies until such sales were banned by the British governor of New Zealand in 1831. But the trade continued illegally.
In 2003, the New Zealand government established and funded the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Program to seek what Maoris were claiming the remains of their relatives.
The program is administered by the Te Papa Museum, which has repatriated 240 Maori ancestral remains (according to the USA Today report) and keeps them in a private setting.
The Poms have been eager to do the right thing and oblige the indigenous persons, even though they can’t have much idea of which heads came from where and therefore which heads should be returned to whom.
University of Birmingham’s June Jones said that the university discovered in 2011 that it had four koiwi tangata and one toi moko in its ancient anatomy collection that had been in storage for decades. The documentation that accompanied the collection was lost. When it discovered the remains it offered to repatriate them, a gesture that Jones would like to see other institutions replicate.
And down here in Godzone…
British High Commissioner to New Zealand Vicki Treadell said returning the remains was “the right thing to do.”
“Just from having being involved in this ceremony and watching it, it’s deeply moving and if you’re in any doubt about what it means to the people here, those doubts soon evaporate, because this is about coming home,” Treadell said.
Alf trusts the High Commissioner gets hold of book titled ‘Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found’, by Frances Larson. It is published by Granta.
The NZ Herald gives us an idea of its contents today:
A macabre international trade in severed heads intensified Maori inter-tribal warfare to such an extent it was feared they would be wiped out altogether, a new book has found.
European agents sent to New Zealand in the nineteenth century to buy or trade for the best baked heads were often murdered and beheaded themselves, before being traded back as authentic “Maori warriors”, according to a new book on the history of severed heads.
In ‘Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found’, English author and anthropological expert Dr Frances Larson explores the “bizarre, often gruesome and confounding history of the severed head … our history is littered with them”.
In it she features the grisly history of Maori trophy heads, or toi moko, traditionally taken from the enemy during inter-tribal warfare.
The book tells us the heads were not shrunken, as they were in South American head hunting cultures, but were preserved with their skulls intact.
We are further told that as Maori contact with European whalers and sealers increased, and the desire for guns increased among Maori in the early nineteenth century, the trade in preserved heads took off.
Over the course of the 50 years from Captain Cook’s first visit in 1769, trade in human heads “reached such intensity, and inter-tribal warfare escalated so ferociously, that many believed the Maori would be completely annihilated,” Dr Larson writes.
The intricate facial tattoos of Maori chiefs were particularly attractive to Europeans.
But they were also the hardest to find and led to slaves being forcibly tattooed and sold to order.
European agents sent over were sometimes killed, tattooed, and sold back to their own unsuspecting countrymen.
Since 2003 (according to the numbers in the book), more than 70 toi moko have been returned to Te Papa Museum in Wellington from public collections around the world.
Larson says there are at least 100 more in collections around the world.
And some of them – it would seem – are European heads.
So who can tell which is which without bringing in the DNA experts?
And if can sort them out, will our indigenous persons – between bouts of weeping and wailing – recognise that the European heads strictly speaking belong in Europe?
Oh – and can the Europeans lay claim to the return of the guns?