Te Herekiekie Herewini grew up in the 1960s at Rātana Pā, where, he says: “If a family member passed, the whole world would stop”. Today, that reverence and respect is at the heart of his extraordinary job that involves helping to redeem the memory of those who died and were taken far away from New Zealand.
As Manager of Te Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme (administered by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), Te Herekiekie leads the team responsible for bringing Māori and Moriori ancestors’ remains back from around the world. And all by mutual consent with the countries the programme negotiates with.
“Of course our process is quite unlike how sacred relics were taken from New Zealand,” says Te Herekiekie. “In the earliest recorded event, Captain Cook’s botanist, Joseph Banks, held an elderly Māori man at gun point to exchange a sacred mummified head for a pair of bloomers.”
Te Herekiekie’s mission to successfully repatriate and help restore the dignity of 350 ancestors has involved extensive research by the team, and has taken him to museums and universities in Britain, France, Scotland, Norway and Sweden.
The largest and most exciting project was five years in the planning. It culminated in a major international event in Rouen in 2011, and Paris in 2012, when the French government returned 21 mummified heads at two official ceremonies attended by kaumātua and New Zealand’s Ambassador to France. The remains were then returned to New Zealand and laid to rest at the sacred repository at Te Papa.
“We needed to gain approval from the French Parliament so it took a great deal of work by many people including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including the New Zealand Embassy in France,” says Te Herekiekie. “All of the documentation about the programme and its legacy, including the first set of repatriations by Maui Pomare, Chair of the National Museum in the 1970s, had to be faithfully translated for the French officials.”
Te Herekiekie started the job in 2007, having completed an MA in Māori Studies. He had also been heavily involved in helping young people in Māori communities to gain skills and know-how on the government’s Access work training programme, as well as policy and funds management positions in health, Māori development, research, science and technology.
An avid learner himself, after several years in his role at Te Papa, he wanted to formalise all his knowledge at the museum with a recognised national qualification.
By completing ServiceIQ’s National Certificate in Museum Practice (Level 4), he gained a much better understanding of the museum environment and how each specialist area works.
“One of many things I learned is that good conservation practice equals a lot of our traditional Māori ways – taking care to keep precious remains clear of water and food, and to provide a dignified space,” he says.
Te Herekiekie is now completing his PhD in Māori Studies, but he highly recommends the Museum Practice programme as a vital step for anyone who has worked in a museum for several years: “It’s like an induction process that is also quality assured. It’s critical to cement your knowledge and I highly recommend it.”