Powhiri at Te Papa

Powhiri at Te Papa

Wellington, New Zealand – May 27, 2016

It was an honor to participate in a Maori repatriation ceremony at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand. I was one of about a dozen people from the U. S. Embassy. There were dozens of others participating too.

The marae at Te Papa.
Detail of the marae.

The repatriation was of the remains of 60 individuals, taken from New Zealand in the late 19th Century. The majority of the remains had been at one of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. A few were from museums in the U. K. The other museums involved included:

Falconer Museum, Scotland

Sheffield Museum, England

Metropolitan Grand Chapter, England

Beneski Museum, Massachusetts

I arrived very early, of course. I saw the museum staff receive the crates containing the remains of the Maori ancestors (tūpuna). The vast majority of the boxes were small, about 12” x 10” x 10”, each one wrapped in off-white paper. The wrapping jobs were impeccable. Each also had a handmade Maori symbol drawn on the paper. All of the boxes were on tables while the museum staff waited for the visitors (manuhiri) to arrive.
When everyone gathered, one of the Maori women briefed us on what was going to happen during the ceremony. I could tell she was Maori because of her chin tattoo (moko kauae). When she finished, a Maori man provided the Embassy manuhiri with an earpiece that allowed us to listen to his translation. Virtually the entire ceremony would be in the Maori language.From that point, it was a matter of giving all of us manuhiri a box of remains of the tūpuna. The box I received was a different size. It was about 18” x 30” x 6”. It was dull-gray in color.
They lined us up in pairs. Upon their signal, we processed outside and walked up a few flights of stairs. We stopped at the base of several more flights of stairs. As we waited, two men with traditional Maori wooden horns ascended the stairs. When they got near the top, they each sounded the horns three times simultaneously. The sound was not to announce us, but rather to welcome the tūpuna home.At the front of the procession were some modern-day relatives from the Ngāti Toa iwi (tribe). There was definitive provenance that the remains they carried were from that iwi.
At the top of the stairs were numerous cameras from various New Zealand news organizations. After the horns sounded, we all began our ascent. There were additional horn blasts and some singing, primarily by Maori women. It was a very mournful sound, almost a wailing sound.Arriving at the top, we all queued at the entry to the courtyard (marae). The marae is directly in front of the meetinghouse (wharenui). At this point, we lined up four across. Once we correctly lined up, we approached the wharenui. We stopped just short of entering.
On the left, inside the wharenui, dozens of Maoris were standing, perpendicular to us. Many of the women wore leafy green wreaths on their heads. Some had small albatross feathers in their hair.
Directly in front of us were about a dozen Maori women performing the welcoming dance (haka pōwhiri). As they finished, they stepped to the rear while about a dozen men came to the front. It was the men’s turn to perform the haka pōwhiri. It was quite loud. During the haka, the men use much exaggerated facial expressions. It was very moving to have those shown directly in front of us.

This news item, http://www.maoritelevision.com/news/reg ional/100k-return-koiwi-nz , from Maori Television, provides an idea of what the haka was and how it was performed.

When the haka finished, we processed to the stage (whakaeke). On the whakaeke were some woven, straw-type mats. Four by four, we stepped onto the whakaeke and sat down the boxes of tūpuna. Leaving the whakaeke, we sat in rows of chairs facing the many Maori gathered on the other side of the wharenui. All the while, the Maori women were singing.

When everyone was standing in front of a chair, the hosts invited us to sit. The name of this wharenui in the Te Papa Museum is Te Hono ki Hawaiki. The carvings were spectacular.

Once seated, the speeches (whaikōrero) began. Each whaikōrero lasted seven to 12 minutes. Each time one finished, there was a song (waiata). There were eight different whaikōreros, all done by men. At the end of each, several women stood up to join in the waiata.

Since some of the tūpuna were of the Ngāti Toa iwi, a man of that iwi offered the first whaikōrero. Through all of this, luckily, we had simultaneous translation.

The entire ceremony lasted for about an hour and one-half. In the end, there was a receiving line. The people in the line were the men who had delivered the whaikōreros and several of the Maori women that had participated in the ceremony. It was the time for the hongi or pressing noses in greeting. I am not sure I did it correctly, but from watching others, it seemed one was to shake hands, touch the tip of the other person’s nose with the tip of your nose while simultaneously touching foreheads. That greeting was used for men and women. It was a little odd at first, but I quickly got the hang of it.
Following the hongi, our hosts handed us a box of tūpuna, lining us up three abreast. The horns sounded again. This time, several seashell horns joined the soundings.We all processed back to the loading dock area. There we entered a large freight elevator. We got off on the third floor. In that hallway, we heard more horns and singing. We processed down a couple of corridors, ultimately becoming single-file. In single-file, we entered a room with multiple shelves holding various items not yet on display in the museum. We each very carefully placed the tūpuna onto a shelf one-by-one. As we filed out, we washed our hands at a ceremonial sink.
Back in the hallway, we waited for the others to emerge from the storage area. When everyone was in the hall, there was one more whaikōrero and one more waiata. That was the final portion of the ceremony. From there, we went to a reception room where there was tea, coffee, and various sweet and savory items to enjoy.
The tūpuna are not at the museum for display. Experts at the museum will study the tūpuna to try to determine to which iwi they should be sent.
I truly enjoyed the opportunity to participate. I shall never forget this experience.

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