Home at last: Toi moko from the Ethnological Museum return to New Zealand

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation returns several Toi Moko to representatives of Māori in New Zealand. Te Herekiekie Herewini from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa explains what Toi Moko are and why their return is significant.

Interview: Sven Stienen

(deutsche Fassung)

Te Herekiekie Herewini has been leading the repatriation program at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa since 2007 and is working with institutions around the world to bring the ancestors of Māori back to their homes. In an interview, Te Herekiekie, who has both European and Māori ancestors, explains what tradition the Toi Moko originated from and why their return is of great importance for Māori today.

The Prussian Heritage Foundation will be giving back several Toi moko to their community of origin in Aotearoa New Zealand – what or who exactly are Toi Moko?
Te Herekiekie Herewini: Toi moko are Māori mummified ancestral heads, and were traditionally created for two reasons; To honour the memory of close family members who had passed away, or to denigrate and mock the heads of enemy chiefs or warriors who had died during battle. Toi moko could be male or female, and many had tā moko (traditional Māori tattoos) chiseled into their skin. With the arrival of Europeans in Aotearoa New Zealand, Toi moko became curiosites of high interest for explorers, traders, whalers and the new settlers due to their unique nature. In time they became a valuable commodity to exchange for exotic European goods such as metal tools and weapons, muskets and ammunition. The period of this trade from Aotearoa New Zealand was from 1770 up to the early 1840s, with an estimated 300 Toi moko traded during this period. The heads of those traded included ancestors belonging to enemy chiefs and warriors as well as captives. Despite the trade ceasing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Toi moko continued to be traded and auctioned in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe, Australia and North and South America well into the late 1900s. Disappointingly, Toi moko have continued to be placed on auction in Europe in the last ten years.

How long were Toi Moko in use and what meaning do the Māori tattoos on them have?
Tā moko or traditional Māori tattooing stems from the art tradition that travelled into the Pacific from South East Asia over 3000 years ago. The Polynesian ancestors of New Zealand Māori living today, arrived in Aotearoa about 800 to 900 years ago from their homelands in what is now called the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. On reaching Aotearoa, the early Polynesian migrants needed to innovate quickly to adjust to their new home. Although there was access to greater resources for the new settlers, the climate was much colder, with a shorter growing season for those agricultural plants that survived. Innovations occured across all elements of the cultural spectrum including the application of tā moko, with circular patterns being chiseled or carved into the skin, and then the ink made of natural products inserted into the cut skin. The application of traditional Māori tattooing was painful, time consuming, and included long established sacred rituals, for both the artist and the person receiving the art work. Despite the pain, many wished to receive this art form on their bodies, as the application of tā moko was considered a form of high art, of deep spiritual significance , a rite of passage, a sign of valour and a process of affirming connection with tūpuna (ancestors); acknowledging their great deeds and mana (prestige).
The meaning of each tā moko pattern would be dependent on the artists and the person receiving the pattern, however, in general they would include celebrating or acknowledging important events, tribal locations, ancestors and family relationships. In respect to the mummified heads of chiefs, warriors, your own family or tribe, they were lovingly cared for, mostly hidden from sight, and placed in wāhi tapu or sacred repositories where enemy tribes would find it difficult to access. However, for the heads of enemy chiefs or warriors that had fallen in battle, they would be placed on stakes in the community to be ridiculed and mocked. From time to time, the head of a great enemy chief could be repatriated in return for a peace treaty between the two warring tribes.
From the 1840s the demand for Toi moko diminished in Aotearoa New Zealand. This, coupled with the growing acceptance of Christianity by Māori communities, eventually lead to most Māori being buried in European type cemeteries, although many ancestral remains of those who died prior to the arrival of Europeans remained in isolated wāhi tapu around the country.

Die Toi Moko aus dem Ethnologischen Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin werden nach Neuseeland repatriiert. © Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Leonie Gärtner
Die Toi Moko aus dem Ethnologischen Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin werden nach Neuseeland repatriiert. © Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Leonie Gärtner

What does the repatriation of Toi Moko mean to the Māori people and what role did the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa play in the process?
Not all iwi or Māori tribes participated in the trade of Toi moko from 1770 up to 1840. For many Māori, the trade in Toi moko is a dark period in history, and despite the extended period of time these ancestors have been away from their homeland, they are still spiritually and culturally connected to Aotearoa New Zealand. Many Māori living today are descendants of both the victor and those defeated, and are seeking repatriation to offer restitution and reconciliation to this historical hurt and pain. Through the passage of time, most Toi moko have lost their identity and tribal association, however, on returning home they are offered respect and dignity. Very similar to how the human remains of the unknown soldier are honoured today. The role of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in repatriation is mandated by the New Zealand Government and by Māori and Moriori communities. The duty of Te Papa through the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme is to locate Māori and Moriori ancestral remains housed in overseas institutions, to negotiate their return by mutual agreement, to physically repatriate the ancestors, and to ensure their safe return to their communities of origin around the country. Since the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme was established by Te Papa in 2003, close to 600 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains have been repatriated from overseas institutions. This number includes Toi moko, kōiwi tangata (Māori skeletal remains) and kōimi tangata (Moriori skeletal remains). We estimate, however, that there are a further 600 Toi moko, kōiwi tangata and kōimi tangata still waiting to return from overseas.

There will be a ceremony when the tūpuna (ancestors) are handed over – what will happen during this ceremony and what ist he meaning behind the rituals involved?
Toi moko are ancestors, and despite the long period of time they have been disconnected from their homeland, their spiritual connection endures through the passage of time and distance. As part of the formal handover ceremony to uplift them from overseas institutions, the delegation representing New Zealand and Te Papa, will include members from the New Zealand Embassy in Berlin. These representatives will honour the tūpuna (ancestors), by acknowledging the German institutions for their kind and ethical agreement to repatriate these Toi moko.
During the handover ceremony, the New Zealand representatives will use whaikōrero (traditional Māori speeches), taonga puoro (music), karakia and karanga (chants and calls of acknowledgement) to receive the ancestors, thank the German institutions, and to honour the occasion. Due to COVID-19 infection concerns, Te Papa with the support of the New Zealand Embassy and the German institutions, have streamlined the handover ceremony to ensure all aspects of the ceremony follow strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols. For example at the end of many Māori ceremonies, it would be normal to dip your fingers into a bowl of water, and sprinkle the droplets over your body, as a form of symbolic cleansing. In this ceremony, the bowl of water is replaced by hand sanitiser, for those attendees to use as they leave the ceremonial room. This is a very practical innovation, and literally embodies the intent of the symbolic Māori tradition. Health and safety is a core element of many Māori traditions and protocols.

What will happen with the Toi Moko, once they return to New Zealand?
There will be a number of things that will happen when the Toi moko arrive in Aotearoa New Zealand. They will be placed in quarantine for two weeks at Te Papa, while the courier who arrived with them will be placed in managed isolation by the New Zealand Government for the same period of time. There will be an initial ritual ceremony conducted for the Toi moko as they are placed in quarantine. After the quarantine period at Te Papa, the tūpuna (ancestors) will be formally welcomed home on Te Papa‘s national marae.
After the welcoming ceremony, the tūpuna will be offered care in Te Papa’s wāhi tapu (sacred repository) until provenance research is able to confirm their iwi (tribe) or region of origin.

What do you wish for in regard to the future, concerning museum partnerships and further repatriaiton work?
Te Papa continues to be open to work in partnership with institutions in Europe, North and South America and Australia to repatriate Māori and Moriori ancestral remains to their homelands in Aotearoa New Zealand. The historic trade in indigenous remains through museums and academic insitutions continues to be a contemporary ethical and spiritual concern for many indigenous communities. We encourage institutions to work with other indigenous peoples from around the world to return their ancestors as well. The simple act of agreeing to repatriate these ancestors begins the process of offering restitution, as well as healing and reconciliation for those communities involved in the repatriation process.
E kore e mutu te mihi ki ngā tari, ki ngā whare taonga o Tiamana mō te mānaaki me te aroha ki ēnei tūpuna e hoki ana ki Aotearoa nei. Finally we wish to thank unreservedly the two German institutions who have agreed to kindly return these tūpuna to their homeland, to be comforted once again by their uri (descendants).

For more information about the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme please refer to the webpage of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

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