The Whanganui Regional Museum (WRM) opened to the public in 1895 and since then,= hundreds of thousands of taonga (treasures) from all cultures have been presented to be looked after in perpetuity for the whole rohe (region). But for the contents of one small room in our Museum, eternal care is the opposite of what we are wishing to achieve.
Many museums around the world have kōiwi tangata (skeletal human remains). Our Museum is no different. These tūpuna (ancestors) were gathered by various means over the last century or so. They may have eroded from overhangs or dunes, they may have been accidental finds during land developments, from archaeological excavations, from trading and also from being consciously dug out of urupā (graves) by looters looking for taonga to steal.
Our late Museum Kaumātua (elders), Henry Bennett and Matiu Mareikura, resolved that all tūpuna would be returned to their people, or buried here if no identifying information was available. Unfortunately, they both died in 1998 before the Museum had begun repatriation.
In 2006 Ngāti Apa led the Museum’s first repatriation after they were made aware that there were tūpuna from their rohe. Eleven tūpuna were returned for reburial at Parawanui in Manawatū, 49 years after they were deposited in the Museum.
In 2010 the request to bury all kōiwi tangata was again taken to the Museum’s governing bodies by the Museums new Kaitiaki Taonga Māori. She had previously helped her iwi of Ngāti Rangitāne ki Te Wairau repatriate 56 tūpuna from Canterbury Museum back to Te Wairau (by Blenheim), after 70 years of continually petitioning that institute. She wanted to ensure that repatriation of tūpuna held at WRM would not include any of the trauma that Rangitāne had experienced.
Guided by iwi, and funded by Te Puni Kōkiri, a strategy was developed, which included Te Whakaokiokinga, our Human Remains Repatriation Policy. Our policy has major points of differences: actively seeking to repatriate or bury all tūpuna, utilising tikanga (protocols) Whanganui, and repatriating all taonga robbed from graves, back to their respective hapū and iwi.
In January 2016 over 80 individuals were buried at Aramoho Cemetery after a decision was made to reinter kōiwi from Whanganui, and also those with no known background. Most were Māori, but there were also some of European and Indian origin. Te Papa and Cleveland Funeral Home also brought remains from Whanganui for this mass burial. The plots were sponsored by Ngāti Tūpoho and Cleveland Funeral Home.
In March 2018, a female tupuna was repatriated. She and her living entourage of mainly kaumātua were welcomed onto Rānana Marae before taking the final journey back to Tawhitinui (on the opposite bank upstream of Rānana), 68 years after she was taken.
Seven of our longest residing tūpuna returned home to the Bay of Islands in April. They had arrived here in 1898. Five Museum staff and board members were supported by the local Kaumātua Kaunihera and whānau from Ngāti Hinemanu and Ngāti Paki of Otaihape (Taihape) to return these tūpuna home. They were hosted by Ngāti Manu of Kāretu Marae, near Kawakawa, in what all described as a humbling, moving and life-changing experience.
This significant work is only achievable because of support received from some wonderful people. Marty and Marilynn Vreede sponsored hundreds of dollars’ worth of beautiful harakeke paper to help “dress” the burial boxes, kaumātua from near and far have supported this endeavor, and our spiritual protection and guidance has been provided by Te Whakataumatatanga Mareikura, Marie Waretini and our stalwart kaumātua, John Maihi.
No matter how or why kōiwi, or any human remains, arrived at any museum in the world, no matter whether or not we know who they are or where they are from, there is no denying that this is somebody’s son or daughter. No-one ever laid their parent, grandparent, grandchild or friend to rest in the hope that they would one day be disturbed to end up on display somewhere or in a box on a shelf. No matter which culture you belong to, respect for the dead, burial rites and rest is a given.
We may not have played a part in how they arrived here, but we can be part of the resolution to grant them eternal rest.
Āwhina Twomey is Kaitiaki Taonga Māori and Kaiwhakaako at the Whanganui Regional Museum