The Field Museum in Chicago is returning some Maori remains to New Zealand on Monday. Here, a 19th-century Maori meetinghouse anchors a Maori exhibit at the museum.
Maori remains returning home to New Zealand
The mummified head had been in the care of a U.S. museum for almost 50 years
CHICAGO » John Terrell considered the severed head of a New Zealand native an inappropriate display piece, so the then-assistant Field Museum curator carefully lifted it from a glass case and placed it in storage away from public view.
More than 35 years after that bid to provide some semblance of dignity to the deceased, the disembodied Maori head -- face tattooed and hair intact -- is being returned to New Zealand along with bones from at least 13 other individuals.
The repatriation makes the Field Museum one of the first major U.S. museums to return Maori remains, many of which Westerners collected when Maori offered mummified heads of deceased loved ones in a grisly exchange for guns and other goods.
Terrell and another official from the museum, which held the human remains for decades, were due to formally hand over their collection at a ceremony Monday in Wellington, the capital of the Pacific island nation.
"This is, in a sense, a very family funeral," Terrell, now the 65-year-old curator of Pacific anthropology at the Field Museum, said before accompanying the remains on a flight to New Zealand. "It's delicate. ... It's very emotional."
A Maori delegation arrived in Chicago this week to privately prepare the more than century-old remains for the journey to New Zealand, reciting traditional prayers over the remains in the language of the Maori -- a Polynesian people who make up 15 percent of New Zealand's 4 million population.
"It was speaking to the ancestors as if they were alive, saying, 'We're here to take care of you, to take you home,'" explained Arapata Hakiwai, one of the Maori who came to Chicago. Hakiwai also is an official at New Zealand's national museum in Wellington, where the remains will be held in a restricted, specially consecrated area out of public view.
Maori activists have urged museums worldwide for years to relinquish such human relics, saying it is a matter of showing respect to the dead and to the Maori. Hakiwai said museums outside New Zealand were under a moral, if not a legal, obligation to return the remains.
"The question is, Is it appropriate for them to hold native remains?" he said. "I don't think it is."
The haunting quality of the well-preserved heads, known as "mokomokai," once made them highly prized by Europeans.
Until the 1800s many Maori mummified the heads of dead loved ones by drying them, then kept them at home; some have their eyes opened and lips drawn back forming a macabre grin, their faces covered in tattoos. As contact with outsiders increased, some Maori offered them in trade.
The Field Museum's head, purchased in 1958 from a private collector, was likely first obtained in this lucrative if chilling manner, Terrell said. The museum bought the bones in 1893 from a scientific supply house in New York, and its researchers once used them to compare the features of different native peoples.
Museums do not give up such artifacts lightly, Terrell said.
"Setting precedents is always an issue ... and anyone knocking on the door and saying, 'Give it all back!' can get the cold shoulder indeed," he said.