Māori ancestors repatriated to New Zealand by the Peabody Museum

On the morning of June 21, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History voluntarily transferred the remains of seven Māori and one Moriori tūpuna, or ancestors, to representatives from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, known as Te Papa.

The Māori and Moriori ancestors had been in the Peabody’s care since they were donated to the museum in the 19th century. In 2003, the New Zealand government mandated Te Papa to “develop a formal programme for the repatriation of kōiwi and koimi tangata (Māori and Moriori skeletal remains) from international institutions to iwi (tribes),” codifying an effort to reclaim ancestral remains that began several decades ago. Overseen by the Peabody’s repatriation coordinator, Erin Gredell, Thursday’s repatriation makes Yale the third American university to return Māori and Moriori ancestors to Te Papa since the mandate.

“For over 100 years, the Peabody Museum has been honored to care for the Maori and Moriori ancestors, and we hope their return brings healing and joy to their descendants,” said David Skelly, director of the Peabody and the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology. “As Mr. Herewini so elegantly stated during today’s ceremony, we are all part of the reconciliation process, and on behalf of the Peabody Museum and Yale University I would like to thank our distinguished guests for inviting our participation.”

The delegation from Te Papa included Te Herekiekie Herewini, head of repatriation for Te Papa; Te Arikirangi Mamaku, repatriation program coordinator and courier for Te Papa; and two Māori elders, Te Hemanawa Temara (Hema) and Tamahou Temara (Tamahou). The delegation and representatives from the Peabody began the day with a private ceremony where Māori elders and Te Papa representatives were able to “pay respects to the tūpuna and to prepare them for their journey home.”

Following the private ceremony, there was a second, public ceremony for the signing of the official handover papers. Heralded by the sound of the pūtātara (conch shell trumpet) and karanga (call of acknowledgement to the ancestors), the representatives of both museums processed into David Friend Hall with the Peabody staff carrying the tūpuna in their travelling cases. Te Papa believes that including the returning museum’s staff in the process of repatriation is essential, as they believe it is important to acknowledge the stewardship these individuals have shown the ancestors. The Peabody staff placed the cases on a table draped with black cloth, and Te Papa then laid a contemporary Māori kākahu (cloak) over the cases.

Kapi‘olani Laronal, assistant director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale and herself Native Hawaiian, joined the delegation from New Zealand at both ceremonies. Native Hawaiians and the Māori are two branches descending from a common ancestral family, the Polynesians. The delegation invited Laronal, whom they greeted and embraced as family, to stand with them, acknowledging that these are Laronal’s ancestors, too.

“It is a reminder for us all that it is critical to include everyone in the process of honoring our past and connection to it,” said Laronal about the Māori and Moriori ancestor repatriation. “Ceremonies such as these helps to establish a connection and relationship between people and the land in ways that acknowledges the past, heals the present and protects our future. Ceremony sets a foundation for our relationships, be it spiritual, physical or material. This is critical for living a good life and in the right way.”

Skelly welcomed the Māori elders and Te Papa representatives in his opening remarks at the public ceremony and invited Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe to share her own welcome to the delegation. In January, the Peabody transferred hundreds of Mohegan artifacts to the tribe’s Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville, Connecticut. Hema and Tamahou, the Māori elders, offered traditional Māori songs and blessings for the ceremony.

The participants exchanged gifts at the end of the ceremony. Malerba gave the Māori elders a wreath of sweetgrass and tobacco as well as a special piece of wampum. Laronal and several Yale students, who are themselves of different Native heritages, presented both leis and small tokens from Yale’s NACC to the delegation. In turn, the delegation presented Malerba and Laronal with jewelry made from pounamu (greenstone) and Skelly with a book of traditional Māori art.  After the public ceremony was complete and a brief recess taken, Te Papa representatives spoke about the importance of the repatriation to Māori communities.

Te Herekiekie gave a presentation on the history of the trade of Māori remains, including both skeletal remains and tattooed, preserved heads, which were taken from New Zealand beginning shortly after the initial colonization of the island by British explorer Captain James Cook. European colonizers valued the remains as both curiosities and anthropological specimens to bring back to Europe, Australia, and North America for museums and private collections alike. Te Herekiekie explained that while the repatriation, or “uplift,” of internationally held Māori and Moriori ancestors is mandated by the government, it is also supported the Māori and Moriori tribes, who deeply desire the return of their ancestors.

“When the ancestors go home, we have a sacred repository that’s dedicated for their temporary care at the museum,” said Te Herekiekie. “But the ultimate goal of our museum is actually to return the ancestors to where they come from around the country.” Thus far, Te Papa has been able to return about 50 ancestors to their places of provenance.

“Basically, our ancestors…” said Te Herekiekie, “their life-force comes from the land that they grew up in, so we want them to return back to their homeland and to the life-force that they were nurtured under.”

Due to the cross-cutting legacy of colonialism, sometimes repatriation goes both ways for Te Papa, which upon its original founding in 1865 was known as the Colonial Museum and not until 1992 did it become the bicultural hub for both Māori and colonial New Zealand histories that it is today. On their journey to Yale, the delegation stopped over in Washington State at San Juan Island to repatriate a Native North American ancestor, who had been in the care of Te Papa, with provenance to that land.

Te Papa treats the repatriation of ancestors of other Native peoples with the same care and respect that they expect their own to receive. “We dedicated a lot of time to making sure we returned that ancestor in a way that’s appropriate, and also with full agreement of the associated tribes of that area,” said Te Herekiekie.

Learn more about the Peabody Museum of Natural History, its history and mission, and visiting hours online: http://peabody.yale.edu/