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Preserved Māori Head Returns to New Zealand

The sacred items were once widely collected by Europeans. In recent years, New Zealand has worked to secure the repatriation of these ancestral remains

Covering the tūpuna (Māori ancestral remains) with the leaves of the kawakawa (Kate Whitley, Te Papa)

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Europeans went crazy for preserved, tattooed Māori heads. The heads, also known as toi moko, mokomokai, and upoko tuhi were once an important part of Māori sacred ceremonies in New Zealand, but with the arrival of European settlers, they were bought and sold to both museums and private collectors overseas. Now, as Deutsche Welle reports, the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum of World Cultures in Cologne has become the latest in a string of institutions to return a preserved head to New Zealand.

A former director of the museum purchased the controversial item from a London dealer in 1908. After being held at the Rautenstrauch for 110 years, the head was given to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—also known as Te Papa—during a repatriation ceremony in Wellington in June. Last Friday, Te Papa hosted a pōwhiri or welcome ceremony to mark the return of the toi moko from Cologne in addition to 16 other ancestral remains of Māori and Moriori (people indigenous to New Zealand's easterly Chatham Islands) recently repatriated from the United States. According to a museum press release, the repatriated remains will stay at Te Papa's wāhi tapu or sacred repository until the deceased individuals' descendants can be identified.

High-ranking Māori traditionally tattooed their faces as a sign of their status. When revered warriors or chiefs died, their heads were smoked and dried in the sun to preserve them, according to the BBC. Toi moko, which are considered sacred, were kept in carved boxes and only displayed during ceremonies. In an opposing tradition, toi moko were also made from the heads of defeated enemies and kept as trophies of war.

To the European settlers of New Zealand, however, toi moko were gruesome curios of a foreign culture. The first European to acquire one of the heads is said to have been a member of Captain James Cook’s voyage to New Zealand; the man reportedly acquired the head in exchange for a pair of linen drawers.

Soon, Europeans were clamoring to collect toi moko, and some Māori were eager to sell them. During the 19th century, a series of inter-tribal conflicts raged across New Zealand. Known as the Musket Wars because they were fueled by new weapons that Europeans brought to the country, the conflict is believed to have led to the deaths of 20,000 people. And as tribes eagerly sought to purchase guns, toi moko became a valuable form of currency.

“[T]ribes in contact with European sailors, traders and settlers had access to firearms, giving them a military advantage over their neighbors,” the blog Rare Historical Photos explains. “This gave rise to the Musket Wars, when other tribes became desperate to acquire firearms too, if only to defend themselves. It was during this period of social destabilization that mokomokai became commercial trade items that could be sold as curios, artworks and as museum specimens which fetched high prices in Europe and America, and which could be bartered for firearms and ammunition.”

The situation became so extreme that Māori began tattooing and killing their slaves so their heads could be exchanged for guns, according to Catherine Hickley of the Art Newspaper. Collectors would survey living slaves, letting their masters know which ones they wanted killed. People with tattooed faces were attacked.

The trade of toi moko was outlawed in 1831, but it continued illegally for nearly a century after that.

In recent years, there has been a push within New Zealand to seek the return of Māori remains. The government’s indigenous repatriation program has arranged for the restoration of some 400 individuals since it was established in 1990, according to Eleanor Ainge Roy of the Guardian. Beginning in 2003, the government mandated Te Papa to create Karanga Aotearoa, a special unit within the national museum, whose mission is also focused on securing the return of Māori and Moriori skeletal remains still held abroad.

“Our ultimate aim is to ensure the safe return of Māori and Moriori ancestors to their uri [descendants]," Te Herekiekie Herewini, head of repatriation at Te Papa, said in the museum's statement. "Through this work, the ancestors are embraced by their whānau, comforted by the spirit of the land and once return to a peaceful enduring slumber.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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