The skeletal remains of more than 100 Moriori ancestors, the indigenous people of Rēkohu, or the Chatham Islands, have been returned to the tribe from the UK, as part of the largest single repatriation of Moriori remains to date.
The ancestral remains, or karāpuna in the Moriori dialect, were unceremoniously dug up by settlers to be traded as curiosities, and have been in collections for 100 years at the Natural History Museum in London and in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
But on Friday morning, under rainy Wellington skies, they were finally returned to their people, in a moving ceremony held at Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum. There, the remains will be temporarily kept in a wāhi tapu, a sacred resting place, before they are returned to their proper resting place at Rēkohu.
The Natural History Museum in London has returned 111 Moriori ancestral remains and two Maori ancestral remains. At the same time, nearly 200 karāpuna from five national museums and universities have been returned, in what constitutes the largest internal repatriation.
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The overseas repatriation, the culmination of 15 years of research and negotiations, marks the first time the Natural History Museum has agreed to return ancestral remains to New Zealand.
“It’s fulfilling an obligation to our ancestors,” says Maui Solomon, chairman of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, who had tears in his eyes during the ceremony.
“To have suffered so much through the history of post-colonial contact and then to have taken their remains to the high seas for research or curiosity more than 100 years ago, to bring them back home… is, in many ways, the greatest honor of our ancestors.”
Moriori and Māori have great reverence for their ancestors, Solomon said, adding that the Karāpuna would have been “thrilled and happy” to hear their language, which is in the process of being revived, spoken at the ceremony.
“It’s the shoulders we stand on [on] today… to say ‘we haven’t forgotten you, we’ve done our best to bring you home from anywhere in the world’… that’s pretty emotional.”
A change in museum culture
New Zealand, like all colonized countries, has a painful history with indigenous remains being stolen and traded.
From 1769 to the 1970s, thousands of Maori and Moriori ancestral remains were treated as tradable goods, curiosities, and objects of scientific interest. The trade in toi moko (mummified tattooed heads) peaked between the early 19th century and 1820.
But since the 1970s, New Zealand has a strong history of requesting such remains from abroad. In 2003, the country created its first government-funded international repatriation program: Karanga Aotearoa. Now he has seen the return of 800 Maori and remnants of Moriori.
Its manager, Te Herekiekie Herewini, said contact was made with the Natural History Museum in 2003 and it took until 2018 to reach an agreement. This has to do in part with the way the British government and its museums have viewed ancestral remains, Herewini said.
“These remains were mere objects that they could possess, they could collect and transfer…so their policies reflected that: they were the owners of these skeletal remains and we needed their permission for our ancestors to come home.”
The Natural History Museum said the repatriation was an important moment, with its director Doug Gurr adding that the museum was committed to dialogue with governments and communities that wanted to claim the remains back.
“The repatriation of remains to countries and communities of origin is part of a process of healing and reconciliation,” said Gurr.
A global repatriation movement is now forcing cultural institutions around the world to challenge their notions of possession. In recent years, European museums have received requests from Egypt, Italy, Chile, Australia, Canada and Gibraltar, among others.
The Natural History Museum has approximately 27,000 skeletal remains in its collection, of which about half are from outside the UK. There are believed to be another 200 New Zealand remains in his collection that are not part of this repatriation effort.
“We are just one of several indigenous peoples, so it takes quite a bit of time,” Herewini said, adding that it is necessary to evaluate the provenance and DNA of each one.
Karanga Aotearoa has seven other ongoing repatriation processes with overseas institutes in the US and Europe.
“At the end of the day, that institution decides what it wants to do. We can knock on the door and ask.”
It is also a significant step for national institutions considering their own colonial legacy by taking, trading and possessing ancestral remains.
Solomon, who attended the formal handover ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum last week, said the repatriation marked a change in the way colonial cultural institutions recognized the importance of ancestral remains.
“These colonial institutions have certainly advanced from where they were 10, even five years ago… that’s a really positive thing.”
He praised Karanga Aotearoa for the “relentless commitment and passion for this work” over the past 20 years, and the government for funding the work.
“I think it is spreading and helping other institutions abroad to see that this is the right thing to do.”