A New Zealand delegation is touring Europe collecting Maori remains that left New Zealand more than 130 years ago.
The Dominion Post can reveal the Rouen Museum in France begins today the repatriation of a toi moko - a tattooed preserved Maori head.
The preserved head was given to the museum by a French citizen in 1875 and is believed to have come from a Maori warrior.
Up to 20 toi moko held in French museums were expected to follow, Te Papa said.
"This momentous occasion is filled with joy but is also a time for reflection on the journeys of these tupuna [ancestors]," Te Papa Maori leader (kaihautu) Michelle Hippolite said.
"The French Government have provided Te Papa, on behalf of Maori, the ability to bring these ancestors home."
Late last month Lund University in Sweden gave back the remains of three Maori it had had in its possession since 1876.
This month, the Frankfurt Museum of World Cultures, Senckenburg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, and Oslo University each handed over remains.
Altogether, the remains of nine Maori are being brought back to New Zealand.
The mission is being led by the government-funded Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation programme, run by Te Papa.
The programme had been working with the Rouen Museum for the return of Maori remains since 2007, as part of a wider repatriation initiative across Europe.
Te Papa said Rouen Museum had asked to return the toi moko, citing the need to bring closure to the "hateful trafficking of another era".
A bill was passed by the French Government last May to cut through the red tape surrounding the repatriation of remains.
Te Papa spokeswoman Anna Wilson said the remains were being flown back by Air New Zealand and handled the same as dead bodies.
"The main aim for us is to return the individuals to the appropriate iwi."
Some would be easy because records had been kept. For others DNA testing might be required. Te Papa would not reveal which iwi would have remains returned till they were fully identified.
Te Papa and its predecessor, the National Museum, had repatriated 322 sets of ancestral remains from 12 countries, but it is thought 500 more are around the world.
- The Dominion Post
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