Public Release: 

Field Museum to return human remains to New Zealand

Bones, skull in collection since world's Columbian exposition

Field Museum

CHICAGO-A delegation from New Zealand will arrive in Chicago on September 3, 2007, to collect the human remains of at least 14 Maori individuals (native New Zealanders) and repatriate them to New Zealand. The delegation will return to New Zealand with the remains on Sept. 6, accompanied by two Field Museum curators and seven representatives of Chicago's American Indian Center.

"The Field Museum is doing this not because we have to but because it is the right thing to do," said Dr. John Terrell, Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum.

A repatriation ceremony will be held Monday, Sept. 10, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) in Wellington, New Zealand, to transfer responsibly for the remains officially from The Field Museum to Te Papa Tongarewa.

"This repatriation will be very significant as it will be the first time Maori human remains have been returned to the National Museum of New Zealand from the continental United States," said Arapata Hakiwai, Director Matauranga Maori at Te Papa.

The Maori, comprising many tribal groups, or iwi, who make up about 15 per cent of New Zealand's population, are the original settlers of the north and south islands of that country. They are actively seeking the return of Maori human remains from museums around the world.

The remains in question here include bones, such as mandibles and crania, and one preserved head with facial tattoos. Nothing is known about the individual identifies of the remains.

The Field Columbian Museum purchased most of these remains from a scientific supply house in New York State in 1893 at the conclusion of Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition. That museum was formed after the Fair closed to preserve objects and artifacts that had been gathered from around the world and displayed at the Fair. The Field Columbian Museum was later renamed The Field Museum.

An unusual aspect of this repatriation is the fact that Native Americans are participating. They have been involved at cultural and spiritual ceremonies at The Field Museum preparing for the repatriation. In addition, they will accompany the remains back to New Zealand, assist at the repatriation ceremony there, and conduct follow-up events back in Chicago.

"As First People of these lands, the United States and New Zealand, we want to support each other," said Joseph Podlasek, Executive Director of the American Indian Center.

Repatriation of human remains often occurs without the public's being informed, which Podlasek calls unfortunate. "Our participation in this repatriation will help shine a light on this kind of thing. It will also set a positive tone and good pattern for future repatriations, in terms of cultural understanding."

"Not only is The Field Museum willing to do this," he added, "but they are doing it respectfully rather than just sticking the remains in a box and mailing them off."

Today, The Field Museum houses one of the world's largest collections of Pacific artifacts. Ties between Te Papa (then the Dominion Museum) in Wellington and The Field Museum were forged in the early 20th century. These ties were greatly strengthened when the traveling exhibition "Te Maori" came to The Field Museum in 1986.

The most recent witness to the enduring partnership between The Field Museum and the Maori occurred in April 2007 when a delegation of more than 50 New Zealanders visited the Museum to honor the 125th anniversary of the opening of a Maori meeting house that now resides in the Museum.

As part of its extensive Pacific collections, The Field Museum is privileged to care for this complete 19th century Maori meeting house, one of the few such houses outside of New Zealand, and the only one in the Americas. This remarkable building, known as Ruatepupuke II, has a rich heritage. It has become the focus of extensive cultural exchanges between the Museum and the community of Tokomaru Bay, New Zealand, where it was built and first opened in 1881.

While this house, or whare, stands inside a museum in Chicago rather than beside the beach at Tokomaru Bay, it is of enduring and deeply felt significance to the descendants of its 19th century builders. The house serves as a national "flagship" for many throughout New Zealand, both as a striking symbol of their cultural pride and values in this distant and foreign land, and as an innovative urban gathering place, or marae, for communicating those values and sensibilities overseas in an unconventional, multicultural setting.

"I cannot say too strongly how grateful I am that Joe Podlasek, Director of the American Indian Center in Chicago, and six other Native Americans from Chicago, will be traveling with Dr. Robert Martin, Curator of Biological Anthropology at The Field Museum, and me in September to Wellington to stand together on the marae at Te Papa," Terrell said. "Our presence at that time is intended as a demonstration to all the people of New Zealand how fully we all support this repatriation."

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