03.04.2012 - UNESCO Office in Apia

Māori Heads Return to New Zealand from France after 200 years

A Maori chief with tatoos (moko)(c)Wikipedia

On the 27th of January, 2012, twenty Toi moko – mummified, tattooed Māori ancestral heads – were returned to New Zealand from France after 200 years.

This was the culmination of years of steady campaigning by New Zealand and full cooperation on the part of the French government and other interested stakeholders such as the museums and universities which hosted the Toi moko in question. 

Though these were not the first Toi moko to be repatriated to New Zealand, this particular occasion marked the single largest return of Māori human remains from abroad.

The twenty Toi moko were gathered from nine different museums and one university in France. The Māori heads were presented to the delegates from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa: http://www.tepapa.govt.nz) in a ceremony that took place in the Musée de Quai Branly in Paris on the 23rd of January. The French Minister for Culture, Fredric Mitterrand, presided over the handover ceremony.

The Toi moko were then transported back to New Zealand, where it was received with great fanfare. A powhiri (traditional ceremony) was held at the Te Papa to welcome back the Māori heads. Pallbearers, including the French ambassador Francis Etienne, were welcomed with a haka as the ceremony proceeded.

The heads are to be cared for by the Te Papa until research tracing their origins is completed so that they can be returned to their rightful homes. The domestic repatriation process is expected to take between five to ten years.

Since 2003, Te Papa has successfully repatriated more than 180 Toi moko and koiwi tangata (skeletal remains) from several countries through its Karanga Aoeteroa Repatriation Programme (http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/aboutus/repatriation/Pages/overview.aspx). Te Papa estimates that there are still some 500 Māori ancestral remains scattered throughout Europe and the United States, and hopes to continue its successes seen in France in those other regions as well. 

The case of Toi moko represents an interesting intersection between repatriation in the sense of “return of body parts to the nearest relative” versus repatriation of “cultural objects to its country of origin.” In the eyes of the French law, their value as objects trumped their condition of being human remains. Therefore, only after creating a new law that specifically addressed the change in status of Toi moko from artefact to human remains was the Toi moko able to be repatriated.

Moreover, in terms of the significance of these proceedings for the Pacific region, the return of the Toi moko serves as a model for repatriation and an excellent example of diplomatic, legal and cooperative processes that can be utilized. Furthermore, it allows for a reaffirmation of the international commitment to human rights and an excellent platform for Pacific communities to address their own relationship with their heritage as both part of the narrative about their identities and as contributors to cultural diversity, globally.  

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