Maori ancestors are coming home

On a cloudy day recently, Hinemoana Baker walked into a white room at the Ethnological Museum in southwestern Berlin, dressed in all black. A New Zealand poet and musician, Baker is a descendant of both the island nation’s indigenous Maori people and the Europeans. As she entered the room, she began to utter a Karanga, a traditional Maori call, in a poignant, almost weeping sound. Following her were two museum staff, each carrying a paper box. Inside the boxes were what Baker regarded as her ancestors – two mummified and tattooed Maori heads, also called toi moko.

As the boxes were laid onto a table covered with a black cloth, Baker turned to address them directly: “We are here to mourn for you and for what’s happened to you,” she sang. “Very soon you will be going home to your mountains, your rivers, your people, and your homeland.”

The ceremony marked the handover of the toi moko from the Ethnological Museum to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. The museum’s Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Program, established in 2003, has returned over 600 ancestors, including toi moko and the remains of Maori and Moriori people, an indigenous group that lived on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands.

To the Maori people, the practice of preserving one’s head after death was an act of love and respect. Many of the deceased people’s faces had moko, a highly individualised tattoo chiselled into the skin, a sacred sign of status for chiefs, warriors, and family elders.

– Agencies

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