700-year-old ancestors laid to rest
17 Apr 2009
New Zealand’s Rangitāne tribe has finally laid to rest the remains of 60 ancestors unearthed from their original burial ground then reclaimed from Canterbury Museum in the South Island.
Rangitāne iwi had waited 70 years to bring their ancestors home to three burial sites at Wairau Bar in Marlborough, from where the remains were exhumed for science. The bones are estimated to be more than 700 years old.
It is understood that Rangitāne is the first Māori group to officially reclaim their tupuna (ancestors) from any museum or institution. They say they hope it will set a trend for other iwi to reclaim their ancestors and other taonga (treasures).
Wairau Bar burial site
The group is now hoping to regain ownership of the burial site at Wairau Bar which is on Department of Conservation (DOC) land.
Rangitāne trace their origins to Whātonga, one of three chiefs who commanded the Kurahaupō canoe as it sailed from Hawaiki to New Zealand.
The Wairau Bar is a 10km boulder bank at the mouth of the Wairau River. It is considered one of the most significant archaeological sites in the country, having provided the first conclusive evidence that New Zealand was originally colonised from East Polynesia.
Canterbury Museum apology
Bones and other artefacts have been on display in Canterbury Museum in Christchurch since they were removed from Wairau Bar in the 1930s. At a moving ceremony after the reburial, Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright apologised to Rangitāne for the hurt caused by removing the remains.
"I recognise that things that have happened in the past would not happen today.
"I am very ready to make an apology on behalf of the museum for any hurt that has been caused. We wish for that to be put behind us," he said.
The return of tupuna to Wairau Bar took three days and began with members of the iwi travelling to Christchurch to reclaim the bones. The museum had made special caskets for the remains.
As the iwi carried the tupuna, led by seven men performing the mau rakau ritual, they grieved aloud. Hand-woven flax mats and the iwi's parekawakawa (leaf arrangements on their heads as a sign of mourning) were placed into the graves with the caskets.
The four caskets, and one smaller one containing ‘Aunty’, the oldest-known ancestor from the Bar, were reburied in three sites, as close as possible to their original locations.
Rangitāne iwi believe it could be the fifth time that "Aunty" has been buried, her remains having been removed from the site and reburied many times by various groups over the years.
Rangitāne development manager Richard Bradley told the 300-strong group at the reburial that every person there had a responsibility to ensure that any of the ancestors’ bones were not taken again.
He later said he had never been as proud of his iwi as he had been over the last few days.
"What you are witnessing today is one generation making sure they know where they came from, and that's a cool thing."
Rangitāne chairwoman Judith MacDonald said the day had been significant for Rangitāne, Marlborough and all of New Zealand.
"Today is a celebration for us, no matter what race or creed or colour you are, for us all to live together.
"There is a saying that you don't know where you are going until you know where you have come from. We have always known where we are from, but until now, part of that past has been missing. It has been returned today."
Aunty’s whalebone necklace
MacDonald was wearing a replica of a special whalebone necklace that belonged to "Aunty". The original is on display at Te Papa - the national museum in Wellington - along with other artefacts that iwi hope will one day be returned to Wairau Bar and reburied with the tupuna.
Rangitāne kaumatua Phillip MacDonald, who at age seven witnessed the tupuna's removal, said the day had been a good conclusion. He said that at the time of the removal, his father, Rangitāne head Manny MacDonald, protested what was happening.
MacDonald said his father would have felt "quietly chuffed" about the reburial.
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