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Amber Aranui, 7 May 2018, Long Journey Home: Repatriation symposium

PAUL TURNBULL: Thank you. My name’s Paul Turnbull, I’m a historian who’s been working on repatriation I guess for nearly 30 years now. It’s a great pleasure to have to introduce two of my friends and colleagues, who’ve been intimately involved with the Return, Reconcile, Renew project.

Amber Aranui is our first speaker. Amber has been heavily involved in repatriation. Since 2008, she’s been involved in the repatriation unit at Te Papa. She has a passion for research, a real passion for research, which has led her on through a BA, MA in Anthropology and Archaeology to now, just having recently submitted her PhD at the University of Victoria which I think is going to shed a lot of light on many of the issues that we’ve been talking about today. So without further ado, Amber very pleased to have you here.

AMBER ARANUI: [Speaks in Maori]. So, to the traditional owners of this place, of this land, my sincere honour and respect go out to you for allowing us to be here today. My esteemed colleagues, I would like to greet you and extend my gratitude to you all who are gathered here today.

My name is Amber Aranui. I’m of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent, and I’m the researcher for the Karanga Aotearoa repatriation program, which is based at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. So that’s our national museum and I’ve been there for ⁠— it’ll be 10 years in September.

So as Paul said, I’ve just completed my PhD. It’s not over yet, but nearly! And my thesis looks at Maori perspectives of repatriation, as well as touching a little bit on the scientific research of ancestral remains, and looking at what are the benefits, or are there benefits at all. But my presentation today really explores repatriation from a Maori perspective, or a number of Maori perspectives. So just before I begin, I’d like to just identify some key words that I’ll be using so you don’t get lost.

So the first is tipuna, which means ancestor. The second is kōiwi tangata, so that translates to skeletal remains or ancestral remains. The other is toi moko. So toi moko are the preserved heads of our ancestors that are almost always tattooed, but not always. The next one is wāhi tapu, so that refers to our sacred spaces, burial places but also other spaces that are important for us. And then we have iwi, which is tribe or nation. I quite like that word, nation, now rather than tribe. And hapū, which is a subtribe or an extended family group. And the last is whanau, family.

So the practice of repatriation of our ancestral remains from outside of Aotearoa New Zealand has its beginnings in the 1980s with the international exhibition Te Maori. This exhibition was pivotal in increasing the understanding and global importance of repatriating human remains, as a highlight of the fact that Maori, our living culture, was still very much connected to the past as it was a direct link to the ancestors. The exhibition was also an important event in which the Maori culture came to be seen as central to New Zealand’s identity — and that’s within New Zealand itself — as well as how New Zealand was also represented overseas.

Following from this, the first international repatriation took place in 1985, with the return of the chief Tupahau whose remains along with those of an infant were taken from a sacred cave at Kawhia which is located on the west coast of our North Island. They were taken in the 1880s by naturalist and collector Andreas Reischek and he was from Vienna.

From the end of the 1980s, the late Sir Māui Pōmare was one of the most influential people in New Zealand relating to the early work in the repatriation of our ancestral remains. He spent much of his time dedicated to this work, with a focus on toi moko, the tattooed heads. He was at the time the Chair of the National Museum’s council, and therefore was involved in the National Museum, which is Te Papa’s predecessor. And the National Museum at that time also became the national repository for kōiwi tangata. A special wāhi tapu or sacred space was set aside specifically so that they were separated from the rest of the museum collections. So prior to that time, some but not all human remains were in amongst other collection items which is probably something that’s happened throughout the world.

So throughout the 1990s, the National Museum continued to carry out the work that they started. In 1999, a meeting was held with iwi representatives, Te Papa as well as other regional museums and New Zealand government agencies, regarding international repatriation. The meeting confirmed that the return of ancestral remains from overseas was a significant issue for Maori, Te Papa was the most appropriate body to undertake the work and to continue as a repository for ancestral remains, and that Maori would be involved throughout the process, and most importantly the government should have a facilitative and funding role only. From the recommendations of this meeting, the New Zealand government acknowledged that the return of kōiwi tangata from overseas institutions is a significant issue for Maori who regard kōiwi as a taonga or treasure to be protected under the Treaty of Waitangi.

In 2003 a policy was created in which it mandated Te Papa to act as a Crown agent to facilitate the return of ancestral remains back to the iwi. The responsibility therefore of returning Maori and Moriori remains — just as an aside, Moriori are the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands — so the Chatham Islands is located about 800k east of New Zealand’s North Island so our program was therefore responsible for returning Maori and Moriori remains.

So it didn’t fall within individual tribal groups themselves, but instead it was a responsibility of the Karanga Aotearoa repatriation program, which was specifically set up as I noted in 2003 to work on behalf of all iwi. The entire program is made up of Maori staff, representing a wide range of tribal groups. The Karanga Aotearoa repatriation program is currently a small team of three — down the side there, the photos are that old — yes, a small team of three, but actually we’re really supported by our repatriation advisory panel, who are pictured up here and they are made up of well-respected Maori, Moriori elders and experts in their field. So we really rely on their guidance in terms of the work that we do —obviously the research that we undertake.

So far our program has returned over 500 ancestral remains from overseas institutions. Most of those institutions have been located in England, and that’s really due, as we all know, to its colonial role. And to date, we have also returned since about 1996, over 85 kōiwi tangata, or human ancestral remains, back to iwi, from 22 different regions and tribal groups throughout the country, some of which were actually part of the National Museum’s collection for well over 100 years.

So you might sort of think, well, you’ve brought back 500 but you’ve only given back about 85. And the reason for that is actually something that we’ve already sort of touched on today and it’s understanding that reburial process. In Aotearoa, some iwi are very used to having —well not used to — areas where there’s high development, kōiw are excavated or dug up quite often. So iwi within those areas, they’re accustomed to having to rebury their dead.

But there are other tribal areas where this has never happened before so from a cultural perspective, they have to figure out, ‘How do we do this? Do we just give them a similar ceremony that they’ve already had before? Or do we have to think of something totally different?’ So it’s not always as easy to take them back to their people as we might think but we are really pushing, pushing on this. But that’s one of the reasons why I think we haven’t returned as many tīpuna back to their people as we would have liked to. That’s one of the reasons.

So in order to understand why Maori and many other indigenous communities feel so strongly about having their ancestors returned, it’s vital to recognise that we have strong relationships with our dead. For Maori, there are certain beliefs and values that are central elements to the continued connection and respect and care given to our ancestors and they include some of these beliefs and practices up here.

So tikanga, so that’s defined as a set of beliefs associated with practices and procedures to be followed in conducting the affairs of a group or individual. Tapu is defined as sacred or under spiritual restriction. It’s a concept that is present in all aspects of Maori life and can be seen as a law to be observed as long as the tapu is in place. The next is mana, and this is defined as authority, influence or prestige and it is something that all people have, whether they are dead or alive, and mana can also be gained and lost. And the next is whakapapa, so this is best translated to mean genealogy, of people but also of things —tangible and intangible. The Maori view is that we are all connected to everything in some way. In relation to the dead, regardless of whether or not we know their names, the fact is that the place that they are buried identifies that there is that genealogical connection.

I think it’s also important to note, to recognize that urupā, or cemeteries, and other burial locations, are not treated or viewed in the same way as many Western cemeteries, which are generally maintained in some way or beautified. There are even some that are made into park-like spaces and visited, and others are even part of a city’s tourism. In pre-European New Zealand burial sites were not places to be visited or beautified. They were secret, sacred spaces where the dead were placed to rest peacefully. These spaces were often hidden in either caves or crevasses, or buried in unmarked graves, so that they could not be desecrated by the enemy tribes. These views continued well into the 20th century, and surrounded by the cultural values I’ve discussed above. So through my many years of reading interesting letters, you get to know that some collectors are of the view that, ‘They don’t care about their dead. ‘They just leave them there. They don’t even talk about them.’ or ‘They don’t know who they are.’ So it’s that lack of understanding that from a Western point of view perhaps the dead or cemeteries are places that you visit and you beautify, and you might take your dog for a walk there but for Maori, that’s not we did — and it’s probably similar for many other indigenous cultures as well. So I think it’s quite interesting to sort of make that distinction.

So the journey of returning the dead back to the homeland and loved ones has always actually been part of Maori culture. And therefore repatriation in this day and age is not a new process or concept. In the past when our people died in battle or during long journeys away from home it was common for people to bring back the dead wherever possible. Sometimes in battles, it was not always possible to bring back the entire body so the head was often returned, so the family could weep over their loved one before laying them to rest.

Repatriation of loved ones back to their birthplace or village still continues today. With the example I give of my own father, who lived in Wellington for the past 37 years of his life — the last 37 years of his life — and when he passed away, he was taken back to the tiny village of Paki Paki about four hours north of Wellington in the Hawke’s Bay, where he was born so he was buried with his parents and the rest of his family.

So for us this wasn’t unusual. It was expected and it’s still something that continues today, and it’s quite strong also particularly for Maori that live in Australia. They take —they ensure that they go home. I even have a friend who at the moment lives in England and she’s organised in her will that if she was to die over there that she would go home.

Okay. So now I just want to share with you some experiences that I’ve had with taking ancestors home. So in 2012, the archaeological research centre at Stanford University in the US returned two skulls to New Zealand and I was lucky enough to be part of the delegation to go over and uplift these ancestors and travel with them to their homeland of Oparau near Kawhia on the west coast of the North Island.

This repatriation was a first for our program, because these tipuna were not taken back to Te Papa, which is what’s usually done. But in actual fact, the research and the information around these ancestors was so good that they actually went straight home. So the owner of the land had actually identified exactly where these ancestors had come from, so I was able to get our old survey maps and have a look at them. And actually I found where that landowner had his land specifically, and he identified a cave that was in the area, and that cave was actually identified on the map. So it was not something that always happens for my research, but being able to identify specifically is very rewarding. So the iwi concerned were contacted, and they wanted their ancestors back directly. So the ceremony was extremely moving for our delegation, especially as we all had whakapapa or genealogical connection to this particular area.

Our next one is Wairau Bar. So in 2016, sorry 16th of April, 2009, more than 66 of ancestors were reburied at Wairau Bar 70 years after they were excavated. All but two of the ancestors had been held at the Canterbury Museum since their excavation, and two were held at Te Papa. The repatriation for Rangitāne o Wairau, that’s the iwi there, was a long-awaited event as the iwi had been fighting for the remains to be returned and reburied since they were excavated. And I think it was over three or four generations of this same family that were fighting to get those ancestors back. The iwi then included in their Treaty of Waitangi claim the return of their ancestors. So they had been requesting the return from the Canterbury Museum for years with no effect. So they were forced really to put it in their Waitangi tribunal claim, and the Museum kind of had no choice then but to return them.

So descendant Judith McDonald notes that, ‘It has been a dream of past generations to ensure those original people were buried back in the ground with love and tears by their descendants.’ For Richard Bradley, also a descendant, the return was a triumphant one. He says, ‘We achieved our first aim, finally after all these years. We are getting custody of our people. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.’ So these ancestors never left Aotearoa. They went to the Canterbury Museum in the South Island, and I guess the reason for such a hard battle for these ancestors to be returned is that this site is I guess the holy grail of New Zealand archaeology. It’s one of the earliest sites so far identified and so therefore archaeologists, anthropologists, they didn’t want to let these ancestors go because they saw these people as the first New Zealanders. So yes, it was a really tough battle, but eventually they have been returned although under some restrictions.

When the gentlemen were talking about the return of Ainu remains but went back to the university, for me these tipuna, although they’ve gone back to Wairau Bar where they were taken from, they were buried in such a way that if in the future research wanted to be done on them, then it could happen. So for me it’s like, have you really repatriated them or have you just given them back for them to look after? So in December 2012 when our program returned an ancestor back to Porangahau, I’ve just identified round about where Porangahau is — and that’s located in the Hawke’s bay, and this is an area that I’m from. So this tipuna was uncovered in a farm in the 1970s and was taken by the police to the National Museum. At the time the tipuna was removed, the police actually took a grid reference of the location which can be sort of seen here in the photo —it’s sort of in between that shed and the tree.

So we were able to actually take that tipuna and bury it back in the exact same spot. So our delegation included Te Papa staff who were actually from this community, and so this was a very special day for them, as they were carrying their tipuna onto the Ngāti Kere Rongomaraeroa. We were called on by the booming of a pukaea, a traditional Maori trumpet. We replied in turn with the call of our own putatara, or a conch. As we entered the marae, the women began to weep for this tipuna. This was a small community whose connections to the land were very strong so when we placed the tipuna on the mahoe as seen in this image, the women immediately embraced the crate which held the ancestor who had been away for over 30 years — so 30 years isn’t really that long a time.

It was a very touching ceremony. In this photo, you can see the women with their ancestor and, behind them, pictures of other ancestors who have passed on. In our culture, we place pictures of our dead with those who have just passed away as a way of comforting them. It’s believed that once this spirit leaves the body, it is these ancestors in the images who accompany the spirit back to Hawaiki, our spiritual homeland. Once the ceremony was completed we took the tipuna back to where he was originally found, and buried him back in the same location — just don’t look at the midden there you can see — yes, in the same location. This was something that not often happens, but with the relationship reformed with the land owner, he gave permission for the remains to be reburied there and so that area is now protected.

As the kuia or old women said their final goodbyes, I looked around at the people from Porangahau, and I noticed that there were a number of young children present. A point was made by the people of Ngāti Kere to include as many children as possible, so that they would know why this ancestor of theirs was being returned, and why he’’d been taken in the first place. This was seen as an important aspect of this repatriation for the iwi, and as a younger generation who really don’t know much about this aspect of our past, and what better way for them to learn than to be part of the ceremony?

So in 2013 our program returned a number of ancestors back to a settlement called Waimarama. It’s actually just down the road from Purangahau. This return was particularly important for this community because the collector, pictured up there, Frederick Meinertzhagen was for many years part of this community. So it’s bad enough that outsiders come in and they take our ancestors but it’s even more distressing when a person is actually accepted into a community, acknowledges the beliefs and values of that community, only to go behind their back and steal their ancestors so that they could be sent to overseas museums.

This is seen as the ultimate disrespect and I think, if it had [been] known what he was doing — I’d hate to think what they would have done to him.

Meinertzhagen even mentions in his letters that he needs to be careful, as he employs many Maori on his sheep farm and he cannot afford to run counter to their prejudices. He states, ‘You doubtless know how they respect the bones of their ancestors.’

So I think, in an interesting side note to this, the largest single collection of taonga Maori or Maori objects in the British Museum is actually from Meinertzhagen and a large proportion of those are from Waimarama. So the iwi are really keen to get a lot of those taonga back. I don’t know if it’ll happen, but you can only but try.

So now I’d like to show you an example of just the emotional impact of returning tipuna has on this community here at Waimarama. So the news clip is in the Maori language, but it does have subtitles and I guess we’ve been seeing images of ancestors coming back, and so we get to see part of the reburial ceremony.

So working with our iwi or tribal groups, and returning the ancestors, is actually a really important relationship and though our program, we are all tangata whenua or people of the land, we actually have a dual role. On the one side we are a government-mandated and funded program, and therefore represent the nation of New Zealand, but on the other we are Maori working hard to bring back our ancestors, to bring our ancestors back home where they belong. This dual role allows us to maintain close relationships, not only with our people but also with other government agencies within New Zealand and internationally. And this work would not be possible without the support of our people, but also of the support of some of our government agencies within New Zealand.

So New Zealand is not the only country, as we’ve heard today, who has had important changes occur around the issue of repatriation. Australia, the US, Canada and the UK have made significant changes in both policy and legislation which deal with the display, care and repatriation of human remains. An important development in attitudes regarding the repatriation of human remains are those specific to toi moko took place in France in 2010, with the passing of a bill which allowed French museums to repatriate only toi moko from their collections if they wished to.

Though this outcome is not ideal for the remaining skeletal remains, as well as all other indigenous remains that are located in French museums, but it is a start and one I believe with perseverance and relationship building, will develop over time. The change in attitude has strengthened New Zealand and France relations, with the embassies working closely together before, during and after the repatriations which took place in 2011 and 2012. I think being associated with the Museum has enabled us to establish relationships built on goodwill and reciprocity between institutions. An interesting example of this is with the law change in France. This was not supported by the [inaudible] in Paris but the attitude soon changed when they had an interest in an exhibition that Te Papa had, called E Tū Ake: Maori Standing Strong. This highly publicised repatriation of over 20 tipuna from nine museums and one university actually coincided with the closing of the E Tū Ake exhibition.

So as a result of that French repatriation, and it had quite a high profile in the media, we were then contacted by a private collector in Oklahoma who wished to return a Maori skull that had been in his family for over 50 years. So I guess there are some positives to being in the media, in some ways.

So the importance of establishing good relationships with international institutions, particularly when you’re in the negotiation phase, is key as these relationships can lead to exchanges of information for both parties. Such as excision records, the research of other taonga that might be in the museum, which is also something I try and do. If I go to a museum I will try and get copies of everything relating to Maori that they have in their collections. Particularly so that our iwi, they know where their taonga are, they know where their objects and treasures are around the world.

So creating what we call taonga databases is actually becoming more and more common, both within museums and actually with communities themselves. So these international relationships, I think, have changed the attitudes of many museums and institutions around the world and the success, I think, of our program reflects that.

Maori have a concept called tatau pounamu, which can be seen as a peace treaty. In times gone by, warring tribes would exchange items and people, both dead and living, to make peace and settle any grievances. This exchange could be in the form of a marriage, or the giving of pounamu or jade, one of our highly prized resources — and in some cases, the head of a warrior or slain chief, was given back to the tribal community or the family.

The concept of tatau pounamu means that peace was an enduring agreement that holds for all time. In a sense, the return of our ancestors back to us, and the relationships formed in the process, is a type of tatau pounamu. So I believe that much has evolved over the last 200 or so years. From collectors and explorers, seeing peoples from other lands as non-human, savage, or merely a curiosity to be obtained and studied. Today, the tide has turned with the descendants of those objects of curiosity, like myself, exploring the world, searching for their ancestors and righting the wrongs. Reclaiming the past and closing the chapter on that part of our history. We know that the actions of the past will never be forgotten but in order to move forward we must literally lay the past to rest.

PAUL TURNBULL: Thanks, Amber. We’ve decided what we’ll probably do is have a shorter toilet break for about 10 minutes or so, allowing enough time for discussion at the end but there is time for some questions now then if anyone has …

QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks, Amber. I’m just interested — you mentioned about working with local landowners — is that a big challenge that you face regularly? Is that something that can often delay a repatriation process?

AMBER ARANUI: No, we don’t deal with that ourselves —it’s between the iwi and the landowner. For the most part, when we take ancestors home, they are buried in what we call our local urupā, so they were Christianised cemeteries. Now, for the most part, that’s where the majority are reburied. Some are taken back, like with Porangahau, back to where they were actually taken from. That’s I think a good example of that relationship building ’cause prior to that the iwi didn’t have a good relationship with the landowner and I think part of that healing process was to take their ancestor back. But yes, so it just depends but mostly they are buried back in urupa, our cemeteries. Yes.

QUESTION: Amber what you were saying earlier about how ancestral remains were put back, when they were first sort of buried or put back in a country, and they were left alone — that’s the same with our mob up in the Kimberleys there. I mean, once somebody passed away, the normal practice around the Kimberleys was to wrap somebody in paper bark and put them up in platforms up in the tree for a couple years or more until they became skeletal, and then they put them into caves, or buried them or put them in crevasses on the side of the hills and all that — and they were just left, and people sort of kept away. It was not because we didn’t care about them — that was a sacred place, but the family knew that those people were there and that became their sacred place.

That’s why it was so easy for these robbers to come in, and just take those things away and steal them and take them. A lot of the white men, even not too long ago, back in the 70s there was a white bloke that took skulls out of a cave near Fitzroy Crossing and took them back to his house, and had them as bookends. And he said, ‘Oh no, those black fellas don’t care about their things, I found these in a cave.’ And he had them there for a couple of weeks, until things started happening to him. And he started going bloody mad. Things were flying off the wall and everything. And he decided to, himself, to get an old Aboriginal bloke to follow him, and take those skulls back. And then he realised that they weren’t just left there and disregarded and not cared about any more. They were placed there because they were put in a sacred place. But that’s why it was so easy for the [inaudible] European people to come in and steal our remains, and take ‘em away.

And to have them taken away and put in a museum and then bring them home and put them back where they come from — and correcting that wrong you know. We all feel the same way and hearing the gentleman from Japan, and how they — can you translate what I’m saying to them too, and just say that, look, when we go to pick up our remains, we don’t have guards standing in front of the door and telling us that we can’t pick up our remains. I admire the strength of these gentlemen here and their story, but we’re all about the same thing — bringing our ancestors home, and putting them back into a country. We didn’t put our ancestors into the country and disregard them and forgot about them and all that. They were placed there for a reason. And they got stolen. Yes.

AMBER ARANUI: Yes. This is a very similar story, throughout the whole indigenous world, isn’t it really. Yes.

QUESTION: [Speaks language] I just wanted to say, as someone who’s been involved in repatriation for nearly three decades, how inspired we are, those of us from [inaudible] by what Te Papa Tongarewa has done, and the leadership it’s shown. When we’re involved in cases that were just almost maddening, I would always go look up what you guys were doing.

AMBER ARANUI: It’s the same thing.

QUESTION: It’s so inspiring, it really just empowered us to see — there’s no other word for it but leadership and I just wanted to acknowledge that, and say we appreciate it. It’s inspired our work, and I hope we have done the same.

AMBER ARANUI: Thank you.

QUESTION: [Speaks in Japanese]

QUESTION: So, in a nutshell, in institutions in Japan as well, skulls and bodies have been separated. Do you know the reason for this?

AMBER ARANUI: I think it probably goes back to the 1830s and things around Darwinism, where they believed the skull had the most information. So, we found that I think with the University of Edinburgh — have you found that as well? — that when we’ve gone to get our ancestors back, we have the skulls separate from the rest of the skeletal remains. So I think it was just part of anatomy at the time, learning more about these other cultures or comparing the skulls because they believed they told you more about how evolved or not evolved certain people were. Yes. Chris?

CHRIS: I just wanted to offer, too, that if people did steal all of the body, or the cranium plus some of the rest of the skeletal remains, what happened in Edinburgh is a good example — that they wished to put the skull on display, but you can’t put the skull and all the bones on display. So they put the bones somewhere else, and also, if they had the complete skeleton, it’s very expensive to articulate it. So you get this thing where elements are separated and then sometimes also, you have where someone is doing a study on just one part of the skeleton, so the clavicles or this — to they then take them as well. And this all leads, over many years, to a separation of the individual’s body parts, which is hugely complex for people trying to decide about what to do with their loved ones when they’re returned home. So like Amber says, often in the majority only the skull was taken in the first place but then when you do have more remains, you then have processes in the institution which lead to them being separated.

AMBER ARANUI: We’ve just found that — we repatriated almost 90 sets of ancestors in 1990, from the University of Edinburgh but they’ve only, sort of in the last five years, contacted us to say that, ‘Oh we’ve actually found the rest of one of the ancestors that you’ve returned.’ So they often get lost, unidentified and yes it’s a shame but it’s not uncommon.

PAUL TURNBULL: No. Certainly.

QUESTION: Three members of the Ainu delegation have receivers, and [inaudible] is in the next interpreters’ room, interpreting everything that you’re saying. So if you’re wondering why I’m not interpreting for them, the interpreting is being done from the other side of the room.

PAUL TURNBULL: I think we’re going to have to save questions now ‘til the end, because we’re really running over time. And so, if we could have a short break so people could stretch their legs and go to the little boys’ and little girls’ rooms. If we can get back here at half past, that’d be great and that will give us enough time at the end to raise the questions for those who haven’t. And it’s just a matter now to say thank you to Amber for a terrific presentation.

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Date published: 14 November 2019

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