Tattooed Maori heads welcomed home

HOMECOMING: A powhiri at Te Papa welcomes the toi moko home.
HOMECOMING: A powhiri at Te Papa welcomes the toi moko home.

Twenty Maori heads have been welcomed home two centuries after they were first made.

A powhiri was held at Te Papa this morning to welcome the remains home.

Some of the tattooed heads, or toi moko, are from Maori chiefs and warriors killed in battle in the 18th and 19th centuries then shipped to Europe. It's the single largest repatriation of Maori human remains and media from New Zealand and France were at the event.

The mummified heads were gathered from nine different museums and one university in France. They were handed over by French officials in a ceremony on Monday at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

It took five years for the French government to pass a law change to allow the tattooed heads to return to New Zealand.

Pallbearers, including the French ambassador Francis Etienne, were welcomed with a haka at the Te Papa marae. Etienne also spoke at the gathering.

Earlier, Ettienne acknowledged the leadership of the French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand in supporting the law change as well as Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly, who had faced resistance from those who thought it would open the floodgates from other countries on the return of artefacts.

"The toi moko are a very specific situation," said Etienne.

"This specificity needed to be crafted in the law to reinsure this was indeed no precedent because of the uniqueness of Maori culture.''

He said today's ceremony was important in many ways.

"Of course the respect due the dead imposes us to do what we are doing today, and that's what I say, despite we are speaking of funerals, it's a happy time.

"I am convinced that for the years to come in the relations between France and New Zealand this would be a cornerstone. It's one step, but a very important one."

About 180 toi moko and koiwi tangata (skeletal remains) have been repatriated from several countries by Te Papa since 2003 through the museum's Karanga Aotearoa programme.

Te Papa repatriation manager Te Herekiekie Herewini this week said that the museum would start research to find exactly where the heads came from.

Te Papa was working to repatriate an estimated 500 that remain in the United States and Europe.

The Dominion Post