The remains of hundreds of tūpuna are scattered in museums around the world, still waiting to return home, writes Pounamu Jade Aikman, who came face to face with some of them a few months ago, at a museum in Boston.
I wept as I knelt before the mummified upoko of a rangatira long passed, and a box of kōiwi from multiple other tūpuna.
These earthly remains were as far from home as I was — in Boston, Massachusetts, at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology — but they’d been resident at Harvard for much longer, as the object of racial science, colonial curiosity, and the assumption that the world “out there” ought to be classified according to a Eurocentric cosmos.
The museum visit had come during my time at Harvard this year for a post-doctoral project under the Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Scholar Award. Not long before I was due to leave, a Diné friend, Julie, the only Native librarian at Harvard, told me about a recently released report that highlighted the possibility of Oceanic remains in the museum’s collections.
I had to know if there were kōiwi still there, and Julie helped me reach out to the right people at the museum. I was on the subway home when I got the email telling me that yes, they had kōiwi, and instantly felt sick in my puku.
But I wasn’t expecting the wave of emotion that engulfed me when I came face to face with the remains of so many tūpuna.
A few weeks ago, we saw the final return of 64 tūpuna belonging to Te Tai Tokerau, Ngāi Tahu, and Moriori, who had, until now, been hoarded in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
The notorious grave robber and thief, Andreas Reischek, had plundered and desecrated the majority of those kōiwi in the late 19th century. It’s through opportunists like Reischek that so many of these kōiwi and upoko have found their way to distant reaches of the globe.
The museum staff at Harvard told me that the kōiwi I saw were from Canterbury, and that they’d been stumbled upon by a similar “explorer” during the search for moa remains more than 100 years ago. It’s possible that, as in the case of Reischek, the resting places of these kōiwi were defiled and looted, eventually finding their way into the museum’s collections.
But what struck me was how haphazardly they’d been stored. Numerous tūpuna were jumbled together in the box, in an unrecognisable heap. It was painful to think of them in that heap, thrown together so carelessly, unable to rest. The museum staff couldn’t say for sure how many of them were there, which only amplified our pain.
My Sāmoan aunty and I had wailed when museum staff lifted the lid of that cardboard box, and we felt the wairua and mamae of the kōiwi cascading out. Together with Julie, we were an Indigenous trio alone at the heart of this colonial institution, struggling to carry the weight of a past saturated by the untrammelled belief in white racial superiority and in the inferiority of others.
A smaller box lay beside the kōiwi. Inside lay the chiefly remains of an upoko rangatira. His hair had bleached into a cloudy bronze, but his moko etchings still told their story — whatever it might have been.
Less was known about this rangatira, staff told me, but the patchy records available suggested that he’d died in the late 18th or early 19th century. His was one of many toi moko, or mokomōkai, that are scattered throughout the world’s museums and private collections.
The trade in mummified upoko, common during this time, was an ugly consequence of a much older, tapu practice of preserving the heads of great rangatira or slain foes.
A European appetite for toi moko and mokomōkai grew substantially in the 1820s, because they were coveted as curiosities of strange new worlds — and objectified as evidence of a racially inferior people.
But so insatiable was this hunger, as Ranginui Walker explains in Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou, that Māori — who were active in this lucrative trade — eventually turned to tattooing slaves’ heads and selling them, to keep up with demand.
And yet knowledge of this history didn’t ease my mind on that hot Massachusetts’ day. Nor did it offer any respite to the reality of the very real tūpuna lying before me. Whatever their status in life, they had become rangatira in their own right.
For we can’t forget that, regardless of Māori involvement, the existence of the trade itself arose out of the racial dogma of the time, and out of the ravenous curiosity of Euro-American society as they gazed upon the “savage other”.
Between tears, I asked the museum staff: “Who are they kept with? Are they warm, and how do you look after them?”
As they answered, it dawned on me just how extensive their collections are. They have a thousand crying tūpuna lying in the institution’s shelves, each of them muffled under a similar cardboard box.
The result has been the racial classification of countless Indigenous peoples, with the museum holding remains, casts, and taonga of tūpuna from across Oceania, Australia, the US, and far beyond. That’s what made the heartache so much more painful that day.
In addition to kōiwi and upoko, the museum, so I found, has a broad collection of pounamu, whakairo, korowai, and photographs of tūpuna Māori. I checked through as much of the database as I could, and in one instance, found photographic records from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries that had misgendered tupuna, with a tāne being recorded as a wāhine, and vice versa.
I raised this with the staff, who were swift and respectful in correcting the records. But what would’ve happened if I hadn’t delved into the museum’s records? And how often are these taonga and kōiwi visited by their uri, or anyone for that matter? (Staff suggested the upoko had been visited only once before.)
My kōrero with the Harvard Peabody Museum, and other museums in the Boston area, is ongoing — for this encounter revealed a myriad of other cases, of kōiwi and taonga from Aotearoa and Oceania that are yet to return home.
Our visit ended with a meeting with the museum’s director, empathetic to our experiences, and very clear that our tūpuna must make the final journey home. There was no resistance to repatriation, she said. “We’re waiting for the request from Te Papa.”
There is a long path ahead. As Tā Pou Temara remarked at Te Papa earlier this month: “What we have repatriated is only a small percentage of what we haven’t got back. We still have to wander and find out where our ancestors are.”
I’m thankful that my wandering found some of our tūpuna, and in my final karakia with them, promised that “soon you’ll be home, and properly at slumber.”
Dr Pounamu Jade Aikman is an independent Māori scholar whose work explores the continuum of racism and settler colonial violence in the Aotearoa New Zealand and United States’ contexts. Of Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Tarāwhai, Ngāti Wairere, Ngāi Te Rangi, and Ngāti Awa descent, his research investigates Indigenous relationships to land and environment, and the ongoing impact of settler colonisation and corporate exploitation upon this.
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