The journey home

In this piece, Puke Ariki’s Poutiaki Taonga, Trudi Taepa, writes about her journey to help to connect Māori communities with their tūpuna and taonga. 

Tēnā Koutou

Ko White Horse Hill te Maunga

Ko Thames te Awa

Ko Qantas te Waka

Ko Ngāti Pakeha te Iwi

Ko Ronald Didcock toku Matua

Ko Wendy Didcock toku Whaea

Ko Taepa te ingoa Whānau

Ko Trudi Taepa toku ingoa

Repatriation Powhiri at Te Papa, 2018. Photograph by Kate Whitley. Te Papa (109103)

Kia ora, my name is Trudi Taepa and I am the Poutiaki Taonga at Puke Ariki. I obtained a degree in Raranga (weaving) through Te Wananga Aotearoa and developed a passion for Tōi Māori and Māori history. In 2017 I continued my study with Massey University and achieved a Post Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies. Whilst studying at Massey University I became interested in repatriation of not only kōiwi tangata (ancestral remains) but also taonga, which in my opinion should be be returned to their turangawaewae (place where they stand).  When I started working at Puke Ariki in 2017 I was drawn to being part of the New Zealand Repatriation Research Network to give me an understanding of past and future repatriation projects and connections to the wider community.

In September I attended the professional development course Repatriation, Policy and Principles with the Australian National University. The course was a five day intensive programme that was delivered over Zoom, including videos, panel discussions and readings. The content of the course was extremely emotional and a great sadness came over me for the historic wrong-doing carried out by museums.

I have been part of the New Zealand Repatriation Research Network for over a year which sparked my desire to further my knowledge. I wanted to acquire more information around how to start initial conversations with iwi stakeholders. This would enable me to move into a space that acknowledged and addressed the devastating grief of these communities in the return of their ancestors.

One of the key areas that surprised me was the level of responsibility museums have in regards to holding kōiwi or human remains. Museums hold a number of different types of human remains from full skeletons, human teeth or modified objects like carved bone, that were typically picked up by museum collectors in the 1800s. Since 2003, there has been a government appointed authority, Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, which has been working to repatriate kōiwi internationally and domestically to their communities.

Many museums carry with them a legacy of colonialism and reconnecting to communities through the ownership and enrichment of taonga and the repatriation of koiwi at the heart of a becoming a decolonised museum and this process can take many forms.

To move forward museums need to dig down an extra layer and be prepared for descendants to express their hurt and institutions need to take this “on the chin” and apologise for the wrongs of the past. This process carries incredible emotional weight for a local community that understandably brings to the fore raw emotions, hurt and blame. And although ritual is integral to the process, many professional formalities are swept aside as the situation offers up a new kind of relationship, one in which you’re compelled to genuinely connect on a human level to these grieving communities.

Through a self-determined process the community can take ownership to decide on the ritual and shape of this process. One example of this was the landmark return of 138 ancestral remains from the Natural History Museum United Kingdom to Torres Strait communities. This journey took over two years of negotiations and discussions with the museum and local communities before their return in 2011. A second programme discussed the repatriation of 15 ancestral remains from the Swedish Etnografiska Museet (Museum of Ethnography) in 2004. These ancestral remains were directly repatriated to leaders of the Kimberley region. As part of this process the remains were held at the National Museum of Australia for less than 24 hours before being sent home to the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre.

Repatriation is an area that many regional museums are familiar with however the practise of repatriation can be unfamiliar territory for many museum professionals. And because of this very reason, although sometimes ancestral remains have been repatriated from overseas, many haven’t finished the journey back to their source communities. This is not always the fault of the museum.  Some kōiwi tangata (ancestral remains) have no provenance and cannot be ascertained as to which iwi they belong too.  Or the repatriation process is stalled because suitable burial sites – with no risk of future land development – are in short supply. In these cases, ancestors have not finished their journey home which has a huge impact on the source community.

One of the key areas that interested me was the process around the repatriation of Aboriginal Australian remains. In the past when Aboriginal elders passed away they were laid to rest in trees. At times these remains were illegally taken by ethnographic explorers and smuggled to places like Sweden. When these remains were repatriated the local people needed to find a whole new way of carrying out burial ceremonies. These elders had already been buried once, so the ceremony that was originally used was no longer suitable. This process would take many hours of collaboration within the country to create new rituals such as chants and songs.

I would like to use my new-found knowledge by doing a presentation of my findings for my colleagues at Puke Ariki to help enable a deeper understanding of the history of repatriation of kōiwi tangata (ancestral remains). I think many organisations do not have depth of understanding of the trauma involved in this historical practice. Puke Ariki supports my work and is committed to engaging with source communities in regards to repatriating any taonga.  Puke Ariki is reviewing repatriation guidelines and is working towards updating its policies. In addition I am putting together guidelines for repatriation engagement, which hopefully our museum, and others, starting out on this process can use as a resource to connect appropriately with local communities.

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