Native American Ancestors Return Home to USA Pacific Northwest

Monday 11 March 2019

Canterbury Museum will repatriate three ancestral skulls of Native Americans to their homeland in the Pacific Northwest at a mihi whakatau at the Museum on Monday, 11 March 2019.


Mihi whakatau

Lynne Te Aika of Ngāi Tūāhuriri welcomes a member of the Confederated Tribes delegation.

This is the second time the Museum has repatriated ancestral remains to another country and follows the repatriation of a tipuna to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 2018.

The tīpuna (ancestral remains) will be received by a delegation of indigenous nations – the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Oregon), the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation (Oregon) and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation (Washington) – and returned to the Pacific Northwest accompanied by kaitiaki from Ngāi Tūāhuriri.

The tīpuna have been cared for by the Museum since the late nineteenth century. They are from an area near The Dalles, a small city on the border between Oregon and Washington States. They may have been taken from a traditional burial ground on an island in the Columbia River which borders the two states.

Museum Director, Anthony Wright says that the claimant tribes requested the return of the tīpuna in October 2010. “We’re so pleased that this day has arrived and we can return these tīpuna home to be with their people. We really appreciate the patience of the Confederated Tribes over the last eight years as the earthquakes delayed our intent to return the tīpuna home sooner.”

The claimant Confederated Tribes and the Museum believe that the tīpuna were probably sold to the Museum, or exchanged for moa bones, by Professor Henry Ward (1834–1906) of Rochester, New York. Ward was a scientist, explorer and museum builder who founded Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in 1862, a business that continues today.

Ward travelled the globe amassing a huge collection of fossils, trading and purchasing objects for his collection and creating cabinets of fossils and other objects that he sold to museums around the world. His anatomical catalogue of the time lists several Native American skulls. He visited Canterbury Museum in 1882 exchanging ethnology specimens from North America, Mexico and Peru for moa skeletons.

The other possibility is that one or more of the skulls were acquired in 1874 through an exchange for moa bones with Professor Othniel Charles Marsh, Professor of Palaeontology at Yale University and Curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Marsh had undertaken collecting expeditions to fossil sites in the area of the claimant tribes in 1871 and 1873.

The local hapū, Ngāi Tūāhuriri will ceremonially welcome the delegation to the Museum and support them during their stay in Ōtautahi (Christchurch).

The ancestors of the Confederated Tribes were moved to reservations during the Euro-American settlement of the region. Under American law, they are considered sovereign nations within the boundaries of the states of Oregon and Washington; they are three of approximately 570 federally recognised tribes in the United States and possess aspects of sovereignty over their membership and lands, as well as the right to self-determination.


  • In 2003, the New Zealand Government with the support of Māori and Moriori resourced Te Papa to establish the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme which has repatriated over 450 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains back to New Zealand.
  • This is the sixth time that New Zealand has repatriated ancestral remains to another country and the second repatriation to the United States. Te Papa returned a tipuna to the Lummi Nation in Washington State last year. In January 2018, Canterbury Museum, Otago Museum and Te Papa repatriated two tīpuna to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Auckland War Memorial Museum has previously repatriated ancestral remains out of New Zealand to Tasmania (1996), Niue (2007) and the Solomon Islands (2008).
  • The trade of ancestral remains was common around the world from the eighteenth century through to the late nineteenth century. Many tīpuna made their way into museum collections over the years as subjects of study, however, research also indicates many indigenous ancestral remains were taken from their resting places without consent or permission from their respective communities.
  • Over the years, Canterbury Museum has undertaken and published a significant amount of research relating to the kōiwi tangata (human remains) in its care. For example, prior to the repatriation of ancestral remains from Wairau Bar to Rangitane iwi in 2009, a major scientific research project investigated aspects of those tīpuna. This internationally ground-breaking research into the first arrivals of Māori in Aotearoa revealed amazing details about these tīpuna, right down to details that could allow facial reconstruction.
  • In New Zealand, ancestral remains were mainly taken off display in museums from the 1970s.
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