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Tattooed head, bones returned to Maori of New Zealand

By Michael Tarm
Chicago, Illinois (AP) 9-07

John Terrell considered the severed head of a New Zealand Native an inappropriate display piece, so the then assistant Field Museum curator carefully lifted it from a glass case and placed it in storage away from public view.

More than 35 years after that bid to provide some semblance of dignity to the deceased, the disembodied Maori head – face tattooed and hair intact – is being returned to New Zealand along with bones from at least 13 other individuals.


The repatriation makes The Field Museum one of the first major U.S. museums to return Maori remains, many of which Westerners collected when Maori offered mummified heads of deceased loved ones in grisly exchanges for guns and other goods.

Terrell and another official from the downtown Chicago museum, which held the human remains for decades, were due to formally hand over their collection at a Monday ceremony in Wellington, the capital of the Pacific island nation.

“This is, in a sense, a very family funeral,” Terrell, now the 65-year-old curator of Pacific anthropology at The Field Museum, said before accompanying the remains on a flight to New Zealand. “It’s delicate. ... It’s very emotional.”

A Maori delegation arrived in Chicago this week to privately prepare the more than century-old remains for the journey to New Zealand, including by reciting traditional prayers over the remains in the vowel-laden language of the Maori – a Polynesian people who make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s 4 million population.

“It was speaking to the ancestors as if they were alive saying, ‘We’re here to take care of you, to take you home,”’ explained Arapata Hakiwai, one of the Maori who came to Chicago. Hakiwai also is an official at New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington, where the remains will be held in a restricted, specially consecrated area out of public view.

Maori activists have urged museums worldwide for years to relinquish such human relics, saying it’s a matter of showing respect to the dead and to the Maori.

Hakiwai said museums outside New Zealand were under a moral, if not a legal obligation to return the remains.

“The question is – is it appropriate for them to hold native remains?” he said. “I don’t think it is.”

The haunting quality of the well-preserved heads, known as “mokomokai,” once made them highly prized by Europeans.

Until the 1800s, many Maori mummified the heads of deceased loved ones by drying them, then kept them at home; some have their eyes opened and lips drawn back forming a macabre grin, their faces covered in tattoos. As contact with outsiders increased, some Maori offered them in trade.

The Field Museum’s head, purchased in 1958 from a private collector, was likely first obtained in this lucrative if chilling manner, Terrell said. The museum bought the bones in 1893 from a scientific supply house in New York and its researchers once used them to compare the features of different native peoples.

Museums don’t give up such artifacts lightly, Terrell said.

“Setting precedents is always an issue ... and anyone knocking on the door and saying, ‘Give it all back!’ can get the cold shoulder indeed,” he said.

There was sympathy among Field Museum staff when Maori first requested the return of the ancestral remains – not least of all from Terrell, who studied in New Zealand as a young man and developed a fondness for its native culture.

But in giving away even a select few of the Field Museum’s some 25 million artifacts, it didn’t want to invite a flood of demands from around the world for other items.

“We couldn’t say yes (to the Maori) in a way that we could never say no again to anyone else,” Terrell said. “We didn’t want to give away the farm. We still rather like being a museum.”

In the end, The Field Museum deemed the Maori items a special case. Staff also were swayed, Terrell said, by the desire of New Zealand’s national museum, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, to maintain a close working relationship with the Chicago museum. Several other American museums still have Maori bones and heads, including the American Museum of Natural History, which has some 35 severed Maori heads.

Hakiwai said there have been talks with that New York-based museum about giving up its head collection – considered one of the largest in the world – but he didn’t know the status of the negotiations. Museum spokesmen declined to discuss the collection this week.

At Monday’s event in Wellington, Hakiwai said more Maori prayers would be said and traditional songs would be sung in honor of the repatriated remains; colorful ceremonial cloaks would be draped across the crates containing the remains as Maori tribal leaders and other dignitaries look on.

“And there will be lamenting for these ancestors who have been away form New Zealand for so long,” Hakiwai said.

Terrell said he expected to be among teary eyed participants.

“You can’t do this kind of thing and not end up being moved,” he said.

On the Net:
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum:
The Field Museum: