by Marie Damour
I recently had the privilege of representing the Embassy at a repatriation ceremony at Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. The event was part of the formal repatriation program Te Papa manages on behalf of the New Zealand Government, to bring back Maori ancestral remains to Aotearoa from museums and institutions overseas where they have been housed, sometimes for decades. The ceremony I attended saw the return of Toi moko (preserved Maori heads) and koiwi tangata (skeletal remains) from two American museums – the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts and the Natural History Museum of Rhode Island – where they have rested since the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The tupuna (ancestors) were escorted home by members of the Repatriation Advisory Panel and Te Papa staff. A conch shell sounded and a kuia (female elder) called the remains and their escorts onto the marae (meeting place). There were haka (dance) and waiata (songs). The tupuna were placed on mats made from flax leaves and covered with cloaks made from kiwi feathers. It was one of the most moving things I have experienced in my twenty years as a diplomat.
During the powhiri (formal welcoming ceremony) members of the advisory panel spoke about their journey to the U.S. and bringing the tupuna home. They spoke warmly of the hospitality they received from the Americans they met and of the deep spiritual journey they had just completed. I was pleased – though not surprised – to hear that the New Zealanders were treated with great respect by my countrymen and women, and that they were embraced as friends. Through the warm and colorful words of the speakers, the audience was able to feel personally the cultural importance of the process.
I was especially touched to hear about the connections the repatriation team made with Native American people in Massachusetts. They met with representatives from the Wampanaog and other tribes, sharing the stories and traditions which anchor their modern identities in the bedrock of the past. During the handover ceremony at the Peabody Museum the Wampanaog people performed a smudging ceremony for them before they entered the room where the tupuna were waiting.
Later over a shared meal, the two groups discussed issues facing their respective communities such as preserving traditional customs and language, the impact of colonization on their respective cultures, and the significance of repatriation to their communities. Their time together cemented an extremely powerful bond between two important communities in New Zealand and America.
Local iwi representatives from Wellington and Waikato spoke at the ceremony, welcoming their ancestors home and speaking directly to them about their history. I was honored to speak on behalf of the Ambassador as well – my first time doing so on a marae. Alongside Te Papa’s Chief Executive Michael Houlihan I congratulated the team and the museum on completing the repatriation. I talked about the values our two countries share, including a common commitment to honoring and preserving cultural heritage.
As a country, the United States is strongly committed to returning ancestral remains to their origins. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990 and requires museums and other institutions to return cultural items (including human remains) to their lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Native American or Native Hawaiian tribes. The U.S. is a signatory to The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and UNESCO World Heritage Convention which both call on the global community to protect the rich cultural heritage of the world.
The State Department funds a broad range of programs to support cultural preservation internationally, particularly in developing nations. Our flagship program is the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), which supports the preservation of cultural sites, cultural objects, and forms of traditional expression (including indigenous languages) in more than 100 countries globally. Most recently, Ambassador Huebner announced a grant award under the program to the Tiapapata Art Center in Samoa to document, support, and preserve the ancient Samoan craft of sennit making, commonly known as ‘afa. AFCP, and programs like it, recognize that historic monuments, objects, sites and traditions serve to enrich and inform today societies, and help connect the peoples of the world through the shared celebration of our cultural origins.
New Zealand and the United States share a rich history and hold common values; respect for our heritage is certainly one of them. Being a part of this homecoming ceremony truly reinforced that for me. It was an experience I would describe as personal and global – it was about individuals and families and international bonds. I am heartened to see the tupuna return home. May they rest in peace.
The Embassy would like thank the Repatriation Team at Te Papa for permitting use of the photos in this blog post.