The iwi of Northland await the return of the tūpuna kōiwi stolen by an Austrian grave robber

The tupuna and karapuna [ancestors] landed on Te Atamira [the stage] during the repatriation ceremony. Photo / Te Papa

A hundred years of waiting are almost over for the Tai Tokerau iwi who yearn for the return of their ancestors stolen by an infamous Austrian grave robber.

But the return of 60 tūpuna kōiwi (ancestral remains) is just the start as many more remain captive in museums around the world, says Kaihautū of Te Papa | Maori co-leader Dr Arapata Hakiwai.

Seventy years of appeals and negotiations culminated on October 2 when 60 Maori and Moriori remains, stolen in the late 1800s by notorious Austrian grave robber Andreas Reischek, were returned to Aotearoa.

Among them were 20 skull bones looted by the taxidermist from Whangaroa, Waikaraka, Taiharuru, Waipū, Paparoa, Pahi and from the caves and crevices of Aratapu and Maungatūroto.

The kōiwi, stolen during Reischek’s 12-year stay in New Zealand, have been kept in Vienna’s Museum of Natural History for more than a century.

Ngātiwai Trust board chairman Aperahama Edwards said that for more than 100 years, hapū, iwi and descendants of stolen ancestors have been asking and waiting for their return.

The manner in which the taxidermist had used their ancestors made the return of the kōiwi “extremely significant”.

“They were stolen from their resting places at sacred sites across the district – deliberately, and tapu and tikanga were violated,” Edwards said.

“What is appalling is that they are people, they are our ancestors, but at least now they can rest.”

Edwards was overcome with emotion during the repatriation ceremony earlier this month.

“We could feel these tūpuna’s longing to come home and longed for them to be home.”

Iwi wears the tūpuna and karāpuna on Te Papa's marae during the ceremony of welcoming the ancestors home.  Photo / Te Papa
Iwi wears the tūpuna and karāpuna on Te Papa’s marae during the ceremony of welcoming the ancestors home. Photo / Te Papa

At the ceremony, kaumātua in the late 80s who had grown up with the kōiwi stories were taken, said Raniera Kaio, representative of Te Rūnanga o Whaingaroa.

“Even the most hardened kaumātua and kuia had tears in their eyes as they watched their tūpuna be returned.”

Kaio said the next step was to research where exactly in Whangaroa the kōiwi had been stolen. However, there were plans to hold a meeting soon to select a date for their return.

“Early indications are that they are coming from Taratara on our maunga at the western end of Otangaroa harbour.”

He said one good thing about Reischek — “kind of saving grace or not” — was that he kept meticulous records.

“He kept almost the exact longitude and latitude from where he took the kōiwi.”

Kaio said other ancestral remains were taken from numerous caves around Taratara.

“It’s one of the reasons why the local hapū kept Taratara from being crossed by anyone and anyone. It’s our way of protecting our ancestors.”

Te Papa’s Kaihautū Māori co-leader Dr. Arapata Hakiwai said the story behind the kōiwi theft was “long” and dark.

Arguably, New Zealand first learned of these specific thefts in 1930 when Reischek’s son published his father’s diaries and manuscripts of his time in Aotearoa.

Hakiwai said the reality was that museums and universities around the world, under the guise of research for “enlightenment and social Darwinism”, took kōiwi and that “it was wrong”.

Since 2003, Te Papa’s Karanga Aotearoa repatriation program has been working to bring kōiwi back to New Zealand shores.

In July this year, the program achieved the largest return of ancestors belonging to a single imi (iwi, tribe) in the Chatham Islands.

Te Papa has taken into his home 111 Kōimi T’chakat Moriori (Moriori skeletal remains) and 2 Māori ancestral remains from the Natural History Museum in London.

“Our ancestors were traded, traded, stolen and taken overseas. The program was therefore established with the aim of ensuring that the national museum [Te Papa] and other museums are appropriating our past in an effort to reconcile and right past wrongs,” Hakiwai said.

There was a long way to go in terms of repatriation work to do given the large number of nations and museums around the world still in possession of ancestral remains, he said.

And not all the museums were on board.

“If you take the National History Museum in Vienna, when you consider that the ancestors were robbed, taken and looted…Andreas Reischek knew what he was doing was wrong but he did it anyway.”

In Reischek’s diary entries, he boasts of escaping Maori surveillance, looting sacred places and breaking tapu, according to Professor Sir Pou Temara, chairman of the repatriation advisory group.

In 2015, Te Papa petitioned the National Museum of History for the return of the kōiwi.

“The answer was emphatically no,” Hakiwai said. “This museum was tough on repatriation and this museum is not the only one.”

But the repatriation program perseveres.

“It’s something that needs to be done. There are still museums that cling to the past and still don’t own their past, which is truly tragic because they must surely realize that what their predecessors did was wrong. – morally and culturally.”

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