Mokomokai are home where they belong

There was a story that featured this week about the return of several mummified Maori heads from France to New Zealand.

It was a positive tale of Maori values being recognised by an overseas authority and it was one that has a long history in terms of Maori trying to repatriate their ancestors from the preying eyes of an interested public. The challenge of returning such human remains now rests with our national museum, Te Papa, and with the latest news it would seem it is doing a good job.

Maori preserved heads, otherwise known as mokomokai, was a practice that goes back hundreds of years.

According to Pakeha who witnessed the practise the inside of the head would be removed and then steamed. It would then be put through a process that involved smoke from wood and the sun in order to dry the remains and ensure that the head would last for years. It was interesting listening to Professor Paul Tapsell, the current head of Maori Studies at Otago University and the former head of Maori at Auckland Museum. He explained that it was carried out as a way of acknowledging ancestors of the dead.

He said that mokomokai was normally reserved for chiefs and that they would be placed around the body of the deceased. The idea was that they would assist the dead in returning to Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland for Maori.

The practise has taken on a new form now with photographs being the modern day equivalent.

The history records show that on the whole mokomokai came to be in the hands of overseas dealers through dubious means.

The one instance when mokomokai was offered by Maori to a European, it was done so on the provision that it would be a slave's head and not that of a chief. But by and large mokomokai found their way in to the hands of Pakeha exploiters through a combination of stealing and grave robbing.

The rationale for wanting the heads was for two reasons. Firstly, because they displayed the moko or tattoo, it was said that some dealers appreciated the art involved.

Secondly, and perhaps the greater reason, was that the European had a fascination with indigenous culture especially when it involved "solving" medical mysteries and propositions such as "natives having smaller brains".

Whichever way you look at it the practice was macabre and a highly offensive industry to Maori.

The latest return of mokomokai can be attributed to the late Dalvanius Prime. He made it his mission to have mokomokai returned to Aotearoa and it was his purpose in life before he passed away.

Prime, of Poi E fame, was more associated with music but one of his many contributions to our country was to see to it that Maori mummified remains are returned to where they rightfully belong. I would say that the current Te Papa programme most likely owes its origins to the efforts of Prime.

The latest return of mokomokai should be used as a template for other countries who want to do the right thing. It was the first time that a law had been overturned in order to have mokomokai returned to Aotearoa. In 2002 France passed legislation that made cultural objects that are held by museums inalienable. Rouen, the locality in which the remains were held, passed a by-law that states that human remains cannot be considered cultural objects. Leading the charge was Senator and former Deputy Mayor for Rouen, Catherine Morin-Desailly.

She accompanied the remains back to Aotearoa and commented that she could see for herself the special significance the return of mokomokai had for Maori. She was rightfully acknowledged for the role she played in the repatriation by Maori during the ceremonies on both sides of the globe.

This latest development involving mokomokai should give Te Papa enough heart and conviction to pursue their goal of having Maori remains return home. They should celebrate the success of their excursion to France and look to create more pressure on those institutions that hold Maori remains by highlighting the current example.

South Canterbury