French vow to return Maori head despite court ruling

Paris, France (AP) 1-08

The Normandy city of Rouen pledged during January to find a way to return the mummified, tattooed head of a Maori man to New Zealand despite a court ruling that it must stay in France.

New Zealand has for years sought the return of preserved Maori heads and other human remains, many of which were collected in the West and displayed in museum galleries.

Rouen’s Maori head was given to its natural history museum in 1875. The city has been trying to return the head to New Zealand for months, but its attempts have angered national officials.

The culture minister said Rouen could not make such a decision unilaterally, adding that the issue should have gone before a scientific committee “to verify that there is no unjustified damage to national heritage.”

An administrative court ruled in late December that Rouen did not have the right to make the decision. But the Rouen City Hall said in a statement that it has lodged an appeal and that Deputy Mayor Catherine Morin-Desailly was working on a bill to allow France to part with Maori remains.

“The city of Rouen maintains its objective, despite the judicial twists and turns, of returning this human head to New Zealand so it can be buried in dignity and with respect to the individual,” City Hall said.

Some Maori heads were traditionally kept as trophies from tribal warfare. But once Westerners began offering prized goods in exchange for them, men were in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos, Rouen museum officials have said. Some slaves were forcibly tattooed, then decapitated once their scars healed, to meet the demand, according to the museum.

Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand that handles such repatriations, is hopeful the preserved Maori head will be returned home.

“What we’re hoping for is the Rouen museum and the French government will discuss this matter further,” said Te Papa repatriation manager Te Herekiekie Herewini. “We’re leaving it up to the French government, and we want to have further discussion about it in the near future.”