Returning Indigenous ancestors home to New Zealand/Aotearoa

For centuries, museums have held human remains as artefacts – including those sold, looted and smuggled out of colonized countries. Hana Pera Aoake explains how New Zealand/Aotearoa has become a world-leader in repatriation.
Elder Taharakau Stewart (in the middle with cane), is joined by other Māori people during a ceremony in Berlin, Germany on 29 April 2019. The event marked the handing back of the remains of ancestors which had been held as part of Charité – Berlin University of Medicine’s former anthropology collections. JÖRG CARSTENSEN/DPA/ALAMY

When visitors first enter a marae, a Māori meeting house, the first thing they hear is a karanga. For Māori people this call, issued only by women, is a sacred expression of welcome that provides the medium by which the living and dead of the visitors may cross the physical space to unite with the living and dead of the people who belong to the marae.

The kai-karanga (the woman making the karanga) sounds as though she is wailing or performing a stylized lament. It is deeply spiritual, and the responsibility she holds for her entire hapu (sub-tribe) is expressed through her call.

For Te Herekiekie Haerehuka Herewini, who is head of the Karanga Aotearoa repatriation team at Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand), understanding these kinds of protocol is a crucial part of the responsibility his team has in ensuring the return of looted ancestral remains from across the world, and that they are treated with dignity and respect.

Stolen ancestors

New Zealand/Aotearoa, not unlike other colonized countries, was looted not just of various taonga (treasures), but the remains of hundreds of ancestors. It is estimated that around 3,000 remains have been taken from Aotearoa, and 800 returned since 2003.

It’s now been 20 years since the Aotearoa government, then led by Labour Party Prime Minister Helen Clark, mandated Te Papa Tongarewa to develop Karanga Aotearoa, a formal programme for the repatriation of kōiwi and kōimi tangata (Māori and Moriori skeletal remains).

‘While they are overseas, their spirit is not settled,’ says Herewini, noting that these ancestors are ‘waiting’ to come home. ‘Part of our responsibility is reconnection and allowing the cultural mechanisms we have to let them come home.’

Tracing history

Often the records of who these ancestors were, and where they were taken from, are unclear or nonexistent. Karanga Aotearoa researchers identify where the remains are being held – almost exclusively in museums in Europe and North America – and work backwards, tracing the history of acquisitions as best they can. The process is akin to tracing a supply chain – identifying buyers and sellers until a point of origin is found.

The programme locates ancestors’ remains – whether within Aotearoa or elsewhere in the world, negotiates their return and brings them home to be stored in a wahi tapū (a sacred space for holding the dead). They are not displayed, but are cared for until they can be identified and repatriated, as Herewini explains: ‘While kōiwi are resting here, we confirm provenance to the iwi [tribes] around the country and then we start having conversations. Our goal is to return them all to where they came from.’

Karanga Aotearoa is the first programme of its kind globally. It’s Indigenous-led and actively supported by an Indigenous advisory panel made up of respected elders. The team’s work is challenging; it can take decades, and involves long-term negotiations with institutions that are sometimes unwilling to part with their collections, even if they were dubiously acquired.

Moriori return from London

Over the years, Karanga Aotearoa’s painstaking work has paid off. In 2022 they secured the largest single repatriation of ancestral remains to date with the return of 111 Moriori skeletal remains from London’s Natural History Museum, where they had been held for almost a century.

Moriori are the original inhabitants of Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands, an archipelago around 800 kilometres east of New Zealand/Aotearoa. Following European contact in the late 18th century a number of Europeans moved to Rēkohu as sealers and whalers in the early 1800s. The Moriori were a peaceful iwi and a chief named Nunuku had forbidden war many generations beforehand.

However, in 1835 the Moriori welcomed around 900 Māori from the Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama tribes of the Taranaki region. They arrived on a hijacked European whaling vessel, the Lord Rodney. Severely weakened, the passengers were taken in by Moriori and nursed back to health. But, once they regained strength, the Moriori’s guests unleashed a reign of terror where they massacred and enslaved thousands of Moriori. By 1870, more than 90 per cent of the Moriori had been wiped out and fewer than 200 remained. During this time, and up until the 1970s, hundreds of Moriori remains were taken from Rēkohu.

There is a common myth by colonial historians and politicians that Moriori are extinct, but descendants continue to live to this day and can count almost 2,000 registered tribal members. Following the signing of their Treaty Settlement in 2020, Māui Solomon, an Indigenous rights activist and Moriori descendant, explained in an interview with Radio New Zealand that ‘the reason [the myth of Moriori extinction] became so powerfully ingrained in the psyche of New Zealanders is because, if Māori could push Moriori out of NZ, then later European migrants could push Māori off their land... It suited the narrative, and it was a justification of European colonization of Māori land.’

Solomon spent 20 years working alongside Te Papa to ensure the return of his forebears from national and international collections. ‘Moriori have had so much taken. Our land, language and liberty’, he tells me over the phone, after the Moriori remains were returned from London. The pain of his ancestors is palpable.

While they are overseas, their spirit is not settled. Part of our responsibility is reconnection and allowing the cultural mechanisms we have to let them come home

He notes that throughout the repatriation process, Karanga Aotearoa and the Te Papa team were vital in developing ongoing reciprocal relationships with several cultural institutions, both within Aotearoa and abroad. ‘[They] deserve so much credit for their work. They led with mana [status], grace and dignity,’ he said.

A museum that often acts as a repository for other museums, Solomon also acknowledged that the staff from London’s Natural History Museum were extremely respectful and driven in their determination to unite these ancestors with their descendants.

A grim trade

One of the most sought-after items for trading from Aotearoa in the 18th and 19th centuries was toi moko, also known as mokomokai, which are the preserved heads of the dead. For Māori the head is tapū, or sacred, and so these toi moko were kept and cared for by whānau (family) in ornamental wooden boxes and used in various sacred ceremonies. The heads would be steamed, smoked, dried and sealed using shark or whale oil and kept as a trophy of war, or to hold on to a loved one.

The first known ‘trade’ in toi moko was in 1770 when the British botanist Joseph Banks, while travelling with Captain James Cook on board the HMS Endeavour, pointed a musket at a leader of a Māori tribe to get him to part with a toi moko of a 14-year-old boy, in exchange for linen underwear.

Toi moko could be exchanged as a peace broker during times of conflict. Most were adorned with ta moko (facial tattooing), a practice that has been revitalized today, but in pre-colonial Māori society was given as a means to mark someone’s whakapapa (ancestry) and status within their tribe. The traditional method for tattooing, before metal and machines, was to chisel into the skin using bird bones. This was a process that was extremely painful and resulted in beautiful curves and lines that represented a person’s genealogy and connection to the land.

In the early 1800s, as the appetite for toi moko among European collectors grew, it helped fuel Aotearoa-wide inter-tribal battles, known as the Musket Wars – a series of conflicts that took place between 1818 and the early 1830s. Thousands of Māori were killed and more were enslaved or became refugees. Although warfare had always taken place between rival groups, conflict had been carried out using hand-to-hand weapons, with relatively few deaths. Muskets were introduced by European traders, and much more damage could be inflicted.

Toi moko were traded with Europeans for muskets, which were used by certain tribes to gain land and settle old scores with others. Many tribes became a lot less discerning about who they traded with, and some simply decapitated enslaved people or lower status tribal members whose heads were then preserved and traded.

The trade in toi moko peaked in the 1820s, and up to 300 were taken out of the country at this time. But in 1831 the then governor of New South Wales, Ralph Darling, banned the trade out of Aotearoa, and by the mid 1830s demand for firearms dramatically reduced as the various tribes acquired a military parity.

However, the trade resumed just a decade later, following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 (a document some Māori chiefs signed with the British Crown in order to better control unruly settlers) and then Aotearoa becoming a British colony.

Colonial museum directors sought Māori and Moriori taonga (treasures) and remains to fill the newly established museums around Aotearoa. From the 1860s, onwards, thousands of ancestral remains were stolen and traded across the country and abroad.

Te Herekiekie Haerehuka Herewini, who leads the Karanga Aotearoa programme, stands by a Māori bust at Göttingen University, Germany on 12 October 2022. The university’s ‘Sensitive Provenances’ research project launched in 2020 and aims to examine the origin of human remains held in two of its collections. In February 2022 a number of skeletons, taken by the anatomist Georg Thilenius from Hawai’i in 1897, were returned to their descendants during a ceremonial event. DPA/ALAMY


One of the methods that Karanga Aotearoa have used to work out what has happened to people’s remains is by researching the archives of explorers and other Europeans who came to Aotearoa. One such person was the Austrian botanist and grave robber, Andreas Reischek, whose diary the team have been examining. Known for digging up sites (Māori settlements) and burial caves, he often stole human remains, tools and ornaments, completely disregarding and disrespecting the sanctity of the places he took them from. Reischek also killed a number of rare birds, which were at that time close to extinction.

The most famous of the botanist’s exploits was the pillaging of the so-called ‘Kāwhia mummies’ which were located in areas around the King Country region in the west of Aotearoa’s North Island. This was an area that, from 1864 onwards, had been closed off to Europeans, until the Māori King Tāwhiao began re-establishing contact. Reischek gained Tāwhiao’s trust and was permitted to conduct expeditions around Pirongia mountain and Kāwhia harbour.

Fristedt, Reischek and others took these remains and other ‘curios’ that were sacred to the communities that had welcomed them

On one of these jaunts, Reischek stole the remains of Tainui ancestors from burial caves near the Awaroa river, including Tūpāhau, a 17th century chief and descendant of Hotorua, the captain of the Tainui canoe that first brought people to Aotearoa some 800 years ago. Tūpāhau’s remains ended up in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Reischek was fully aware of what he was doing. In a 1888 diary entry he wrote: ‘Maori crania collected from caves, crevices, hollow trees, battle-fields and kitchen middens. It is one of the most difficult tasks, because all these places are tapu, holy, and no one is allowed to enter them without being noticed by the locals early morning to evening, especially when they’re mistrusting.’

Another ‘collector’ who used the relationships he had built with Māori in order to steal from them was Swedish natural historian and grave robber Conrad Fristedt. In 2017 the Karolinska Institutet, a Medical University in Stockholm, returned ancestral remains that he had taken in 1890.

Fristedt had spent time in the Bay of Islands and recorded his journey into the Whangaroa region to access Māori remains from wāhi tapu, isolated sacred repositories, in his diary. On this trip he collected three toi moko but kept it a secret from Māori living in the region.

Fristedt, Reischek and others took these remains and other ‘curios’ that were sacred to the communities that had welcomed them. As disrespectful as their exploits were, through their records the Karanga Aotearoa team have been able to identify where a number of ancestors came from, and ultimately return them back to the communities they were taken from.

Between the living and dead

The work Karanga Aotearoa does to secure the return of ancestors’ remains builds on the endeavours of Māori, and other Indigenous groups, for over 50 years.

In 1970, the UNESCO convention on cultural property set new standards in the interest of protecting objects of great cultural importance from trafficking. Article 7 provides provisions for states party to the convention to prohibit the import of looted objects, ‘stolen from a museum, or a religious or secular public monument or similar institution’ and, when requested by ‘the State Party of origin’, sets out that states should ‘take appropriate steps to recover and return’ stolen cultural property imported after entry into the Convention.

In the late 1980s Maui Pomare, who was then chair of Aotearoa’s National Museum Council, undertook research locating looted items – and people – and began the arduous process of ensuring their return. In 1985, a project led by the late Māori queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu – alongside museum directors such as Pomare, and several politicians – secured the return of the sacred head that Andreas Reischek had sent to Vienna more than 100 years earlier.

Pomare, who died in 1995, played a key role in building the strong relationships with many cultural institutions in Germany that continue to this day. Germany was one of the first countries to agree to repatriate Māori and Moriori remains with ancestors coming home from the Hamburg Museum in 1991. Since that time museums and institutions in Bremen, Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin have returned over 150 ancestral remains.

Fristedt, Reischek and others took these remains and other ‘curios’ that were sacred to the communities that had welcomed them

Interestingly, in an interview in 1985 with Tu Tangata magazine, Pomare – who was also able to establish an appropriate wāhi tapu (storage space for remains) in the former National Museum – explained that his mission was to ‘repatriate those with tribal significance, personal connection or of other major importance. But I don’t believe all artefacts held overseas should be returned – we need to be selective.’

It is the work of leaders like Pomare that laid the groundwork for Karanga Aotearoa. In 1998, a series of wananga (discussions or dialogues) were organized by Te Papa, followed up with another hosted by the Ministry of Māori Development (Te Puni Kōkiri) in 1999. Through these wananga it was decided that Māori and Moriori tribes should be involved not only in repatriation, but also in the decision-making around the resting place for taonga and ancestral remains.


Te Papa’s approach was – and still is – world-leading. It is Indigenous-led and centred around a Māori methodology based within tikanga (Māori law) and whakawhanaungatanga (reciprocal relationship building with institutions and an acknowledgement of the relations Māori and Indigenous people hold with the living/dead and human/non-human).

The identification process involves working alongside those with particular expertise in various fields including ta moko (traditional Māori tattooing). In order to preserve the mana and dignity of these ancestors they do not carry out DNA or isotope testing, or carbon dating. For Herewini these are people not objects and to carry out such testing would require the permission of the families they were taken from. Once identified, their descendants may choose to do many of these tests, but it is rare, as most family members just want to bury their ancestors in the places from where they were taken.

All arrangements for repatriations are led by descendants of those who were taken. Iwi decide when and where the remains will be put to rest and what kind of funeral rites are performed. Te Papa’s role in this stage of repatriations is to simply honour the wishes of iwi.

Crucial to Karanga Aotearoa’s working methodology is the Repatriation Advisory Panel, which is made up of kaumatua (respected elders) from iwi all over the country and who sit on the board based on their expertise. Through relationships with these kaumatua, the Karanga Aotearoa team is able to seek advice and guidance, ensuring that not only is Karanga Aotearoa Māori-led, but it is guided by a Māori way of doing things. This helps to balance the emotional and spiritual weight of the work that Karanga Aotearoa do.

Upon the return of Māori and Moriori ancestors from Vienna, academic Sir Pou Temara, who is the Repatriation Advisory Panel chair, remarked: ‘It is always a spiritual relief and privilege to welcome back our ancestors who have been victims of such wrongdoing. Culturally we know they are weeping with joy, now that they have returned to Aotearoa where at last they will rest in peace.’

Often, members of the Advisory Panel will accompany members of Karanga Aotearoa to the sites where ancestral remains are being held for their journey home. Utilizing ancient karakia (statement of intent, prayer), karanga and moteatea (lament, chant), these ancestors are greeted with words that they know, reconnecting them back to their people and their homes. ‘These are the ways that bind us between the living and the dead,’ Herewini observes.

Elder Taharakau Stewart (in the middle with cane), is joined by other Māori people during a ceremony in Berlin, Germany on 29 April 2019. The event marked the handing back of the remains of ancestors which had been held as part of Charité – Berlin University of Medicine’s former anthropology collections. JÖRG CARSTENSEN/DPA/ALAMY

Making headway

While Karanga Aotearoa works within the national museum – an institution that has itself also engaged in dubious collecting practices – the team is increasingly approached by cultural institutions across the world who want to bring ancestors home.

The programme is a part of a global repatriation movement, wherein many museums have taken a serious look into their collections. Many of these hold cultural or sacred objects and, notably, remains of people who were acquired within a colonial context and appropriated under unequal power relations.

The movement has been making significant headway in recent years. One example is the landmark agreement signed in 2022 between Germany and Nigeria that will see the return of over 1,130 Benin bronzes looted in the British ransacking of Benin City in 1897.

There is, however, a lot of scepticism over what such returns mean, including among some academics. Professor of archaeology at Oxford University, Dan Hicks, has questioned such actions as being a ‘scramble for decolonization’, rather than a genuine atonement for colonial transgressions. This is in reference to the Scramble for Africa, a period roughly between 1884-1914 when European colonial powers carved up the African continent into protectorates, colonies and ‘free-trade areas’.

Hicks is not alone in his doubts. Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has described the restitution of objects from French museums as paternalistic and legalistic. Mbembe sees the loss, not merely of the objects themselves, but of the world they were a part of. He has often written about museums as spaces that neutralize living forces and says it is necessary to establish an ‘anti-museum’, that is not an institution but a place where objects aren’t disconnected from the many worlds ruined through the process of looting or ‘collecting’.

The issue is perhaps less about the process of repatriation and more about the use of the word ‘restitution’. The word comes from the Latin restitutionem which means ‘a restoring’.

Repatriation in contrast is the act of sending or bringing someone, or sometimes money or other property, back to the country that they came from. The return of these looted objects and ancestors can not offer the repair of worlds that were shattered through colonization, but can offer a first step towards repair and the beginning of more partnerships between cultural institutions that are based within reciprocity, care and understanding.

People not objects

The work that Te Herekiekie Haerehuka Herewini and his dedicated team at Karanga Aotearoa do is not only challenging but can often be distressing. There have been moments where they have had to witness a deep disrespect towards the ancestors they are working to return.

Herewini recalls one conversation with the chair of a medical institute in the UK, who told him: ‘We are giving them back, because they are of no value to us.’ In this painful moment, Herewini’s anger subsided when he reminded himself that, ‘the tūpuna ancestors want us to offer dignity even to those who don’t show them dignity’. So, Karanga Aotearoa instead embraces a cultural practice wherein they seek to offer a Western museum, or other institution, a connection to humanity by reminding them that these are our ancestors – they are people, not objects for display.

An act of return should not be treated as a moment of closure, or of merely disposing of undesirable ‘objects’ within a museum’s collection. It must instead create a space of remembrance and repair, where a new relationship can form that is based around understanding and continually addressing the ongoing legacy of colonialism.

Museums developed from Eurocentric notions of ownership and domination, collected so-called ‘exotica’ from around the world and shipped it back to the ‘Mother Country’ to display as a physical testament to the empire’s power – whether British, French, Dutch or otherwise. In Aotearoa, Australia and other parts of the Pacific, the botanist Joseph Banks was responsible for collecting plant specimens, items from Indigenous material culture and treasures, and displaying these ‘finds’ as curiosities in Britain. Partly, this was done out of a commitment to intellectual inquiry and the study of the foreign world, but it also reflects a sense of British entitlement to the lands they encountered.

But, Herewini is hopeful for the future. He notes that since taking the role in 2017, ‘institutions are more proactive in returning ancestors to their communities’, which he says is due to ‘new school thinking’.

Although it has only been around for 20 years, Karanga Aotearoa offers a blueprint towards how museums might begin to start having difficult but necessary conversations about what they have in their collections.

With a number of Māori and Moriori remains still scattered across the world, Herewini is determined not to stop until they have located each and every one and returned them to their communities.

In 2022, Haiti Matangi, a sacred effigy that had been taken from Māui Soloman’s family urupa (graveyard) was repatriated from the Auckland War Museum. Soloman described it to the Guardian as ‘the ultimate honouring of our ancestors’.

The rights activist believes that museums holding human remains should reflect on their collections and take action. ‘Return them to the people who will love and care for them... enter into reciprocal relationships with iwi,’ he says. ‘You have to be realistic, but anything sacred should be returned home.’

But, when talking about what these repatriations have meant to his people, Māui Solomon reiterates that, ‘these are not curios or objects. They are my ancestors.’

This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.